Paul Pillar

Ukraine and the Zero-Sum Impulse

It is perhaps unsurprising, but nevertheless unhelpful, for so much of the discussion in the United States about policy toward Ukraine to be fueled by Cold War-type juices that the crisis has gotten flowing. Current-day Russia gets equated with the earlier USSR, within a frame of mind that equates any Russian advance with a setback for U.S. interests. Even the Cold War itself was never that zero-sum, and a failure to realize that fact got the United States into some significant mistakes, the Vietnam War being the costliest one. But at least in the Cold War there was a global competition of ideologies, in which the United States and the Soviet Union were the two lodestars. No such competition is involved in the standoff in Crimea. The balance of forces in the northern Black Sea region is of major importance to Russia; it is not of such importance to the United States.

Some of the most outspoken and unadulterated expressions of the frame of mind involved come from Senator John McCain. He declares that for Vladimir Putin, “all rivalries are zero-sum.” The senator warns us that even if President Obama says we are not in competition with Russia, “Mr. Putin believes Russia is in competition with us, and pretending otherwise is an unrealistic basis for a great nation's foreign policy.” Of course Russia is in competition with the United States in various respects, just as every other nation in the world, including ones generally termed “allies,” are in competition with the United States on something or other. But clearly McCain is making a much more extensive assertion than that, one that sees an all-encompassing zero-sum competition. Even if Putin did think in such terms, why should the United States let itself get sucked into a similar brand of mistaken thinking? That sounds like letting our competitor set the rules of the game.

This situation most resembles accepting a playground dare: buying into some win-or-lose proposition just because a tough kid we don't especially like challenges us to do so. And don't worry, Senator McCain assures us, about possibly losing, because—check your lexicon of foreign policy clichés—the “tide of history” is on the side of Ukraine and “the political values of the West.”

In fact, Putin surely is smart enough to realize that not all rivalries are zero-sum. Moreover, he probably realizes what he would be losing if he swallows Crimea. The losses would include not only economic countermeasures by the West but also a major blow to any hope of moving the rest of Ukraine, shorn of one of its more pro-Russian pieces, closer into the Russian orbit. A tough-thinking Vladimir Putin has good reasons to be thinking about possible ways out of this crisis that are not all unilateral, not all military, and certainly not all zero-sum.

While he is doing such thinking, he also sees how domestic Russian politics have been working to his benefit in a traditional rally-round-the-flag way in response to this crisis and to how the Russian regime and media have been spinning it. The tough Putin we see is surely responding more to this political dynamic than acting out delusions about zero-sum competition with the West. The West does have an interest in this dynamic, but it is not the one Senator McCain is talking about. We have an interest in not encouraging and empowering the sort of elements within Russia that would welcome a new Cold War. Unfortunately a zero-sum, Cold War-like reaction from our side may already be tending to do that. The Center for the National Interest's Dimitri Simes observes about what is going on in Russia, “Hard-line people, more nationalist people, they are being energized, they think this may be their moment,” and besides the hardliners from whom we are already hearing “there is a lot behind them that is potentially more serious and more ominous.”

There is much sound policy advice about the Ukraine crisis available on the U.S. side that is not at all stuck in Cold War thinking, such as from John Mearsheimer or Graham Allison. Mearsheimer stresses the importance of thinking in geopolitical terms, understanding the concept of spheres of interest, and realizing that Russia has much more at stake in and around Ukraine than the United States does. Such thinking is what leads two of America's foremost elder strategists steeped in the continental realist tradition, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger, both to invoke explicitly Finland as a model for how Ukraine could exist peacefully and prosperously with both Russia and the European Union. That concept is in sharp contrast to how “Finlandization” was used as a dirty word at times during the Cold War and again has been invoked as a pejorative in the current crisis.

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