Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Bottoming Out in Europe

By Andrew A. Michta

Europe is mired in deep denial about the historical currents driving Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Europe’s policy towards Ukraine is in disarray, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the growing divergence of priorities among key European players, and of late the deepening polarization within Germany’s coalition government over how to deal with Russia. The deadlock is fundamentally this: a political solution to the Russian-Ukrainian war, short of just conceding Russia a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, has been exhausted. Few among Europe’s leadership elite are inclined to draw the obvious conclusions from the events following the failed Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in 2013. Instead, Europe clings to the notion that somehow there is a fix out there; the reality that it confronts in Russia a revanchist state bent on a revisionist project is too difficult to accept. And thus Europe continues to believe that—notwithstanding the stern denunciations leveled at Putin, most recently in Brisbane—the only path forward is to try harder.

Germany, one country with the ability to take the lead, is deadlocked over intra-governmental differences on policy and continues to cycle through old mantras, as when Chancellor Merkel condemned “spheres of influence” thinking at the last G20 summit. With persistence worthy of a better cause, Europe continues to drift into collective Micawberism, hoping that somehow a political solution that doesn’t amount to all-out surrender on Ukraine will just turn up. The harsh truth is that it won’t; it’s time either to develop a real comprehensive strategy to contain Russia, or to stop pretending there is already such a strategy in place.

With Russian military equipment continuing to flow into eastern Ukraine, it should have registered by now with Europe’s leaders that Russia has fomented and escalated the conflict over Ukraine in a push for power and influence in excess of reasonable security requirements. And yet more and more ink has been spilled of late on how the West has only itself to blame for the mess, because of its post-Cold War encroachment into Russia’s traditional sphere of interest in the East. Some have gone so far as to argue that NATO enlargement is the cause of it all. (Increasingly these critics use the term “NATO expansion,” echoing a charge Russia has been leveling for years.) Likewise, there’s a rising chorus among the commentariat that the EU triggered the Russian move into Ukraine by negotiating an association agreement with Kiev. (Lest we forget, Vladimir Putin has gone on the record stating that, in contrast to NATO, EU connections in Eastern Europe are acceptable.)

Notwithstanding all of the warnings about a new Cold War in the making, only a handful of analysts seem to have considered the systemic/ideological dimension of Russia’s confrontation with the West. Indeed, revisionist Cold War history from the 1960s and 1970s has made it all but impossible to suggest that the driver could be the very nature of the Russian state, and that Western liberal democracies could yet again be confronted by a Russian dictatorship bent on expansion. And this is precisely what needs to happen if we are to understand the current conflict. Russia’s policy needs to be placed against the deeper tropes of Russian history. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the current crisis may in fact be yet another cycle of the imperial push after the “smutnoye vremya” (time of troubles) of the Yeltsin era, with Vladimir Putin now riding to the rescue. A lasting, equitable deal between Russia and the West cannot be struck because of what Russia has become (yet again): a dictatorial state run by a kleptocratic elite bent on turning back the clock. But there is more to the current Russian state than manipulation by experienced post-Soviet operatives. Putin’s team has tapped into the deep currents of Russian history and politics. If one fails to understand that the Russian imperial identity and the Russian national identity are inextricably intertwined, one will grasp little of what gives Putin his staying power and, by extension, makes him so dangerous to the West.

The political leadership in Europe has been oscillating between tough rhetoric and a seemingly ironclad determination not to provoke Russia. Increasingly, the path of appeasement seems to be winning, and we may be fast approaching the moment when Europe will convey to Moscow that it is prepared to accept terms (in the harsh language of Realpolitik, “Tell me what you need to make this go away”); the unpalatable alternative would be to begin drawing the requisite geostrategic conclusions from the facts on the ground—namely, that we have entered a period of enduring confrontation in our dealings with Russia that will of necessity carry considerable risks, including the possibility of military escalation. An effective response would require a real increase in military spending and political will to build consensus and coordinate strategy within NATO. The chances of that happening are pretty slim. My money is that we will eventually get to the first outcome, and Putin will pocket a sphere of influence in the East, which will gradually be closed off to Western influence.

Adam Ulam, one of the deans of American Cold War history, argued in his seminal book The Rivals that diplomacy could not have averted the Cold War, that Stalin outmaneuvered the West into making a series of unnecessary concessions, and hence that a tougher Western response early on might have held the Russians back after World War II. These insights ring true today, as Western leaders struggle yet again to reconcile the inescapably changed geostrategic realities on the ground with the normative priorities of yore. The crux of the matter seems to be an unwillingness to call Russian plans to partition and dominate Ukraine fundamentally unacceptable. This reluctance is not for want of principle; there has been no shortage of high-minded statements on the sanctity of the now-blown normative order in Europe (though much of it was a fantasy anyway). Rather, it’s because of a deep seated fear of what would come next. “What does Putin want?” seems to be the perpetual question asked at various and sundry policy and academic gatherings, as though empirical evidence were no longer sufficient to answer that question.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the collective Western response to Putin’s war in Ukraine is the extent to which it has consisted of little more than a negotiation with ourselves; repeatedly we have refused to take the necessary action to substantially buttress Ukraine’s military so as to raise the price of the next Russia-sponsored offensive in Ukraine. Instead we’ve done little more than graft various normative assumptions and power politics predictions onto Putin’s Russia. This does little to illuminate its trajectory. Even those who challenge the notion that Russia’s actions are driven by much strategic forethought—I am one of those who have argued that they are, though Putin’s strategy has yielded only partial successes at best—should be able to frame the debate in a way that offers analysis beyond facile condemnations of Russia’s tactical shifts.

Our debate over Russia today seems to be stuck where the so-called Sovietology was in the late 1940s and early 1950s. We are second-guessing Putin’s expectations and objectives based on our own reference points, in the process failing to craft a strategy capable of targeting Putin’s chief priority: Russia’s geostrategic restoration on the cheap. The West is in a reactive mode, with sanctions or appeasement being the only two options on the table. Pretending that we cannot hold Russia responsible for its own behavior is disingenuous at best. It is telling that the discomfort and growing concern of the former Soviet colonies, now NATO members, along the alliance’s northeastern flank stem from their acute realization that the West can “pull another fast one” just as easily today as it has in the past.

If we are not quite yet prepared for such crass transactionalism with Putin, then now is the time to move beyond the tough rhetoric and economic sanctions toward a comprehensive strategy. So to those who keep forecasting a new Cold War: If you really believe it, act accordingly.


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