In this world, U.S. officials and diplomats would face simultaneous simmering crises. The effect would be nothing less than vertiginous as they pivoted from Asia to Europe to the Middle East and back again. For an Obama administration that often can’t handle individual challenges in isolation, it would almost certainly amount to a massive system overload. Meanwhile, during this global meltdown, leaders in Beijing could relax—waiting and watching for the right moments to act on their own ambitions.
In the end, China’s rise is much more significant than Crimea’s fate, and the United States should avoid reacting to the Ukraine crisis in ways that could severely undermine its ability to manage this paramount priority. China and Russia are not allies today and Beijing will not publicly support Crimea’s self-determination, something that Chinese leaders clearly see as contrary to their view of their own country’s territorial integrity. Nevertheless, there is little doubt about Beijing’s views of who is to blame for the crisis in Ukraine—the West—or about China’s sympathy for Moscow. Leaving Moscow no alternative to a far stronger relationship with Beijing, possibly including new high-tech arms sales and even diplomatic support of China’s territorial claims, would be a Pyrrhic victory. Perversely, efforts to displace Russia’s gas exports to Europe, which current events are likely to accelerate, may make Russian-Chinese deals more likely by putting new pressure on Gazprom to accept the lower prices China is offering. As Henry Kissinger recently wrote, the administration should remember that “the test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.”
The administration should also consider how long it can maintain domestic and allied support. Having been a major political beneficiary of domestic anger over Iraq, President Obama should recognize that a new Cold War with Moscow could produce similar dynamics at home and abroad—including bigger defense budgets. After U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention in the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, the administration should be thinking not only about its policy options but also about its exit strategy from a confrontation with Moscow. This might encourage U.S. officials to stop making threats that they can’t and won’t deliver on before they further embarrass themselves and the country.
If Russia annexes Crimea, this action will bring an end to the cycles of U.S.-Russia relations since 1992 and begin a qualitatively different era. The United States will have no practical alternative to refusing to recognize the legality of Crimea’s annexation. Washington will also have to discuss new NATO basing and deployments that balance credible deterrence of further Russian action and credible reassurance of U.S. allies and partners with the need to avoid escalation. This may include some military support to Ukraine, but will also require brutal honesty with Kiev. If Ukraine’s new leaders choose to act recklessly—as Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili did in 2008—they will do so at their own risk. The United States should also work with the European Union to accelerate U.S. natural-gas exports to Europe, though this will be a long-term effort and is unlikely to produce immediate dividends. Finally, Washington should think long and hard about America’s complex relations with China. If necessary, the United States can confront either Moscow or Beijing, but the U.S. should avoid a simultaneous break with both—something much more difficult to manage. We cannot afford further missteps.
Finally, we must keep a sense of perspective about Russia. Vladimir Putin may have seized Crimea, but he is not Adolf Hitler. History rarely repeats itself. Still, 2014 looks less like 1939 than 1914. In the decade preceding World War I, Russia was weakened by the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war and its 1905 revolution, and consequently accepted several humiliating setbacks in the Balkans at the hands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Imperial Germany. In response, Tsar Nicholas II decided to consolidate his alliance with Britain and France and to modernize the Russian army. Moscow finally took a stand in August 1914, surprising Kaiser Wilhelm and Emperor Franz Joseph, who thought that Russia would not dare to call their bluff. Indeed, the resulting war was suicidal for Russia and its Tsar, but Nicholas took Germany and Austria-Hungary down the drain with him. In an era before nuclear weapons, millions of Europeans died. And the war’s apparent winners—Britain and France—soon faced terrible new challenges.
It’s hardly a pattern that the Obama administration—or any other power—would want to emulate. If Obama wants to restore America domestically and internationally, he will need a different approach to Ukraine—and soon. Otherwise, he will flunk the Kissinger test by clinging to a policy that has begun badly and could well end even worse.
Dimitri K. Simes is publisher & CEO of The National Interest. Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.