Vladimir Putin's speech about Russia's annexation of Crimea was a rhetorical tour de force and an apt accompaniment to his regime's tactical skill in pulling off the annexation, however many strategic regrets there may later be. There was, to be sure, much that was identifiably phony or facetious in what he said, such as the assertion that Crimean Tatars “lean towards Russia.” The attempted separation from Soviet history, by a leader who has deemed the dissolution of the USSR to be history's greatest calamity, was also rather rich. This involved not only blaming Khrushchev for his transfer of Crimea but also invoking divinity while blaming old Bolsheviks—“may God judge them”—for messily drawing the other boundaries between Ukraine and Russia. But the speech contained other observations that it behooves us to contemplate.
The rhetoric, like all good rhetoric, had punch because of a correspondence with reality. While attention in the weeks ahead will inevitably be focused on what kind of punishment can be inflicted in response to Putin's fait accompli, and more appropriately on how to keep this crisis from damaging other initiatives in which Russia necessarily has a role, there are longer-term lessons to be learned in two respects.
One concerns how Ukraine came to be a point of confrontation between Russia and Western powers in the first place. We heard from the Russian president a good expression of Russian perceptions and sentiment, rooted in nationalism and a sense of national security, in response to what appeared to be a Western attempt to extend a presence and power into Russia's immediate neighborhood with insufficient thought given to what the responses would be. However rightly prime blame for the immediate crisis might be attributed to Putin himself, what he said about this background is a valid part of the story.
The West and especially the United States, observed Putin, “must have really lacked political instinct and common sense not to foresee all the consequences of their actions.” Sounds like the kind of criticism Barack Obama's domestic opponents have been directing against him, except that the principal chapter in the story to which Putin was referring involved a previous administration's support for bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Putin was very believable when he said, “NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.”
A larger set of long-term lessons goes beyond the crisis over Ukraine. It involves patterns of behavior by the West and specifically the United States that have cropped up repeatedly in other confrontations and crises. One of those patterns is apparent unawareness of how our own actions rile the nationalism of other people. Russians are by no means the only ones to get their nationalist dander up, and Putin is certainly not the only leader to exploit the phenomenon.
A second pattern, which Putin's speech milked for all it was worth, is inconsistency in the application of principles such as self-determination and democracy. However much one might argue over how a case such as Kosovo might be different from Crimea—and the differences do not necessarily support any attempt to make the West's actions in the first seem more justifiable than Russia's in the second—the inconsistency in Western policy has been glaring. Brushing aside principles for the sake of expediency in pursuing an immediate objective can be foolish if we disregard the longer-term damage to our credibility when we try to invoke such principles somewhere else. Those who like to invoke the concept of credibility and how it can act at long range ought to take notice.
The third pattern, related to the second, applies particularly to the United States, and it is largely a matter of acting as if we did not have to follow rules that apply to everyone else. The passage in Putin's speech that may have been most instructive, though most painful, for Americans to hear was this:
Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organizations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.
This is the ugly, outward-facing side of American exceptionalism. Americans should not need Vladimir Putin to tell us how it looks, but now that he has, we may as well try to learn something about what he is addressing.