PRESIDENT BARACK Obama likes to say that America and the world have progressed beyond the unpleasantness of the nineteenth century and, for that matter, much of the rest of human history. He could not be more wrong. And as a result, he is well on the way to repeating some of history’s most dangerous mistakes.
Few would think to compare Obama to Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II. Nevertheless, Emperor Nicholas II, like President Obama, thought of himself as a man of peace. A dedicated arms controller, he often called for a rules-based international order and insisted that Russia wanted peace to focus on its domestic priorities. Of course, Obama’s philosophy of governance and world outlook differ profoundly from those of this long-dead autocrat. Yet there is one disturbing assumption they appear to share in foreign affairs: the idea that as long as you do not want a war, you can pursue daring policies without risking conflict or even war.
Consider Ukraine. In March, Obama said, “We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine.” Nicholas II also declared that there would be no war between Russia and Japan on multiple occasions on the eve of their 1904–1905 conflict. How could there be a war if he did not want it, the czar said to his advisers, especially because he considered Japan far too small and weak to challenge the Russian Empire.
While Nicholas II genuinely did not want war, he assumed that Russia could get away with almost whatever it wanted to do in the Far East. At first, Japan reluctantly acquiesced to Russian advances—but Tokyo soon began to warn of serious consequences. Overruling his wise advisers, Finance Minister Sergei Witte and Foreign Minister Vladimir Lamsdorf, the czar decided to stay the course. He saw Japan’s concessions as evidence that the “Macacas,” as he derisively called the Japanese, would not dare to challenge a great European power. When they did, the result was humiliation and a devastating blow to Russia’s global standing.
From the outside, the Obama administration appears to be following a similar trajectory in its approach to Russia. Top officials seem to believe that short of using force, the United States can respond as it pleases to Moscow’s conduct in Ukraine without any real risks. At the same time, the administration has gone to great lengths to personalize the dispute by targeting Russian president Vladimir Putin’s associates and graphically describing Putin’s flaws and transgressions, including in State Department fact sheets. And even as it takes these measures, liberal hawks and neoconservatives are denouncing Obama as weak for not going further.
The weakness is there, but the bellicose stances that Obama’s critics espouse are unlikely to deter Moscow and might even do the opposite. So far, the United States has fundamentally miscalculated in dealing with Russia. By indulging in bluff and bombast, it has created the worst of all worlds. It has stoked Russian militant nationalism, convinced Putin that the United States is weak and indecisive, and exposed the divisions within the West. These difficulties will only be compounded if the Obama administration yields fully to the incessant scoldings of those in Washington who are eager to start Cold War II, regardless of whether they are really prepared to fight it.
Especially misleading is the sense that the Kremlin’s apparent steps back from the brink in late May are due to the success of U.S. policy. The easiest invasion to prevent is one that was never really intended; much evidence indicates that Putin well understood the great costs of a large-scale intervention in Ukraine and likely sought leverage rather than control, much less possession. But if U.S. policy makers and politicians decide that Washington and Brussels can return to business as usual by encouraging newly elected Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to bring his country into NATO, dismiss Moscow’s concerns, and crush opposition in eastern and southern Ukraine, Putin’s resolve could grow, as it did in the case of Crimea.
Moreover, efforts to isolate and punish Moscow will push it into seeking closer ties with China. Supplying Ukraine or the Baltics with a blank check would only encourage the kind of behavior that may cost them dearly if Russia disregards NATO’s red lines. The appropriate response to Russia is to consider how we can convince it to choose restraint and, when possible, cooperation. Such an approach must be based on an analytical assessment of how Russia defines its interests and objectives rather than the way American policy makers would define them in Moscow’s shoes. It will also require a combination of credible displays of force that appear distasteful to Obama and credible diplomacy that looks distasteful to his critics.
In the Ukraine crisis, Obama should have kept all options open rather than publicly renouncing a military response or even meaningful military aid. And that possibility would have had to be communicated to Putin quietly but clearly, including through significant troop movements, as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. America’s obligation to protect its allies includes a responsibility to avoid exposing them to unnecessary danger with actions that may tempt Russian leaders to demonstrate their toughness without deterring them in any real sense—a posture that could force the United States and NATO to choose between war and humiliation. An arrangement that can bring lasting results would require tact and diplomacy, vision and strength—all qualities that have been conspicuously lacking in the Obama administration.
Obama’s impulse to personalize the dispute suggests that he has been personally offended by Putin. No doubt Russia’s president has a unique background and macho style that make it easy to portray him as the devil incarnate, particularly in Western media outlets that prize simple narratives over complex storytelling or analysis. What’s more, his political practices inside Russia are increasingly authoritarian and contemptuous of dissent. Though Putin publicly emphasizes the rule of law and campaigns against corruption, those close to him operate with virtual impunity, which encourages lower-level bureaucrats to ignore the Kremlin’s demands to stop corrupt behavior. Perhaps ironically, Putin’s general success in taming the oligarchs’ political ambitions has in practice further empowered the bureaucracy at the expense of civil society; the oligarchic media empires of the 1990s were far from objective, but did serve as a check on officials at all levels. The State Duma is dominated by the ruling United Russia party and all factions defer to the president on key issues.
Internationally, the Russian government frequently pressures its neighbors to play by Moscow’s rules and does not hesitate to use energy exports as a political weapon. In Ukraine, Putin retracted his own misleading initial denials of a major Russian military role in Crimea. The Kremlin’s demands that Kiev’s interim government avoid using force against armed rebels because no country should employ the military against its own people rang hollow after Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s brutal rule in Syria—not to mention Moscow’s own wars in Chechnya. Of course, the Obama administration, too, does not suffer from excessive consistency, first demanding that Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych refrain from using force against protesters and then voicing support as the new Kiev government did exactly that.
But whatever one makes of Putin’s KGB background and his leadership style, it takes two to tango. And thus it is impossible to set aside Obama’s own origins as a civil-rights activist and community organizer whose passion animates an ends-justify-the-means attitude toward bending and exploiting the rules both domestically and internationally, as seen in the recent agreement for the release of Taliban captive Bowe Bergdahl. Unlike Ronald Reagan—another moralist president—Obama does not appear truly occupied with international affairs, which seem like an unwelcome distraction from his transformative domestic agenda. He is thus disengaged and uninterested in understanding the other side. When combined with three other contrasts with the Reagan administration—a weak foreign-policy team, defense cuts and reluctance to use force—this produces a pushy but casual and weak moralism. Obama appears to dismiss Chinese and Russian interests because their undemocratic governments by definition make their interests less legitimate, while he simultaneously looks reluctant to do what is necessary to implement his numerous red lines. As a result, rivals like Russia and China are more offended than deterred. At the same time, allies and friends question Obama’s resolve after decisions like the administration’s announced withdrawal from Afghanistan no matter what happens there.
UNDERSTANDING THE Ukrainian crisis requires going beyond what is happening in that bitterly divided country to assess the complex politics of the post-Soviet region and the conflicting impulses on both sides. What worries the United States, the European Union, and their allies and friends is the question of, as the Economist put it, in its typically eloquent but superficial way, “Where is Globocop?” How will America’s inability to impose its will on a defiant Russia affect the West’s credibility in upholding the world order? During the Cold War, the United States was expected and able to protect NATO members and other key allies such as Japan, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Still, the realities of the rival Soviet bloc created objective constraints on how far Washington policy makers were prepared to go and enforced intellectual discipline in their decision making. During the post–Cold War years, the United States and its allies gradually concluded that they could act as masters of the world without meaningful opposition from another great power. They reached this view by trial and error, starting with the fully justified and remarkably easy Gulf War and continuing with (for America and NATO) bloodless victories in the Balkans and later setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since no other great power sought crises in the latter two countries, neither of these disappointments became an outright defeat like what transpired in Vietnam—though they have fueled a new reluctance to use military power among President Obama and many Americans across the political spectrum.