America’s professional military force—and NATO allies’ willingness to stand tall behind a U.S. shield without spending much on their own capabilities—facilitated this new conventional wisdom. Washington and Brussels forged themselves into a new “international community” that felt entitled and able to act on behalf of all humanity without special effort to assess humanity’s preferences in advance or reactions afterward. The expansion of NATO and the European Union to include especially pro-American and anti-Russian new members from the former Soviet bloc contributed to a spirit of transatlantic solidarity and missionary zeal unprecedented since the immediate post–World War II period. But unlike the transatlanticism of the 1940s and 1950s, this version came with a sense of entitlement and impunity founded on the unexpectedly easy victory by forfeit in the Cold War and the apparent absence of a serious geopolitical rival.
In reality, of course, precisely as this mind-set took firm hold among American and European elites, the world was changing. For much of this period, Beijing was generally willing to acquiesce to U.S. and European international conduct. Over time, however, China began to establish itself as an emerging great power and to act accordingly. Chinese leaders share many of their Russian counterparts’ reservations about assertive Western global hegemony and democracy promotion, and they have become increasingly comfortable acting on them—including in concert with Moscow, as was most clear in the UN Security Council deliberations over Syria.
At the same time, Russia recovered from its post-Soviet collapse and the disastrous, radical economic reforms of the 1990s to become a resurgent power. While Russia is still primarily a regional power, its size and geography make that region a very substantial one. Moreover, the asymmetries between Russia and most of its neighbors make it a power they ignore at their peril. Finally, Russia’s modernized strategic nuclear forces gave Putin and his colleagues the sense that no one would dare to treat Russia like Yugoslavia or Iraq.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its threat to the rest of Ukraine thus challenged two decades of experience. Moscow’s new assertiveness triggered memories of the Cold War and prompted righteous indignation in the United States and Europe, where many reacted angrily to the idea that a former KGB officer and his lieutenants could threaten their self-evidently virtuous liberal world order. Moscow had a different perspective, of course, born of escalating resentment of the way in which the West defined and enforced the rules, perhaps most notably in NATO’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo and the West’s support for Kosovo’s independence. Notwithstanding Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski’s statement that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was the first time since World War II that someone “has taken a province by force from another European country,” the first occasion was actually NATO’s removal of Kosovo from then-democratic Serbia, despite a UN Security Council resolution and eight years as a NATO protectorate that removed any humanitarian threat to the Kosovars. Because of events like this, Kremlin officials increasingly saw U.S. and European proclamations about international law through the lens of the enduring Russian proverb that rules are for servants, not masters. At the same time, they were angered that after assurances that NATO enlargement would make Russia more secure, the alliance’s new members seemed to make NATO only more hostile toward Russia. After several years of rapid economic growth and increases in military spending, Moscow saw itself as a master capable of enforcing its will—at least along its own frontiers.
Meanwhile, focused on domestic politics and entranced by post–Cold War triumphalism, America’s political elites worked assertively to short-circuit debate and to marginalize anyone who questioned their international assumptions. The end result was a foreign policy in which, as George F. Kennan described it, “a given statement or action will be rated as a triumph in Washington if it is applauded at home in those particular domestic circles at which it is aimed, even if it is quite ineffective or even self-defeating in its external effects.” Publics in America—and Europe—were also proud of their international successes and were thus prepared to accept their governments’ activism so long as it worked and so long as continued prosperity made it cheap. Now, however, they are much less willing to support interventionist policies, meaning that out-of-touch elites will likely lack the political support to finish what they might succeed in starting.
WHAT THE triumphalists failed, and continue to fail, to recognize is how little is truly new in world politics. This is not the first time that a dominant alliance has claimed exceptional virtue and exceptional prerogatives. Quite the contrary. During the early nineteenth century, for example, the Holy Alliance made some of the same arguments in outlining its obligations to protect the kings and princes of Europe. Claiming divine virtue and superior political systems, its proponents acted with no less moral conviction or entitlement than today’s Western democracy promoters.
Of course, the combination of human nature and democratic politics virtually assures that while promoting universal values, powerful nations and alliances also take care of their interests—and see their opponents’ interests and perspectives as inherently inferior. In fact, in proclaiming a unipolar world and making himself a global democracy enforcer, former president George W. Bush briefly went even further than Russia’s Czar Nicholas I, who won fame as the “gendarme of Europe” for making the Continent safe for autocracy.
Statesmen like Otto von Bismarck and Benjamin Disraeli ruthlessly advanced what they saw as their nations’ true interests while coldly appraising their rivals’ aims and views. As the German author Emil Ludwig wrote, what most repelled the Iron Chancellor in dealing with Russia was “that country’s bold claim to equality of right—a claim he has never been able to endure, whether in politics, family life, or ministerial councils.” Despite this, Bismarck understood that Russia was a major factor in European politics and one that Prussia’s kings had to live with—and could even find useful to advance their core interests, including in unifying Germany. Today’s Western leaders, however, are more preoccupied with short-term political fortunes than strategic national interests.
Nowhere is this clearer than in America’s relations with Russia. The swing from euphoria over the fall of the Berlin Wall to noisy calls for a new cold war provides a sobering reminder of the superficiality of American analysis of Russia’s motives and goals. Instead of responding emotionally to Russian actions, the United States should adopt a more calculating approach toward Moscow. One fundamental mistake that those thirsting for a cold war are making is to assume that Putin has a grand master plan for re-creating the Soviet empire. Putin’s long-term desire to enhance Russia’s power and influence is clear—and he has not hesitated to act on it in the current crisis over Ukraine. Yet, he has also sought partnership with the West at times and clearly hopes—correctly or incorrectly— that Russia’s annexation of Crimea does not foreclose future engagement.
Indeed, looked at from a historical perspective, Moscow’s conduct does not suggest a crusade to rebuild the Soviet Union. Yes, Putin has said that he considers the collapse of the USSR to be a terrible tragedy, and he clearly seeks a greater political, security and economic role for his country in the post-Soviet region. But consider this: until the crisis in Ukraine, Moscow used force against a neighboring state only one time, in 2008, after Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili first ordered attacks on Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia. Before that, Abkhazia and South Ossetia had been largely under de facto Russian control for years. Despite the fact that both are contiguous to Russia’s territory and reliant on Russian subsidies to survive economically, the Kremlin did not choose to integrate them into Russia.
Then there is Ukraine. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was not predetermined and resulted from a complex and multidimensional process. There is no evidence that Putin would have tried to take over Crimea without the combination of humiliating defeat and political opportunity that Obama and his EU associates presented to him after their Ukrainian political protégés drove former president Viktor Yanukovych from office without quite following the parliamentary procedures required to impeach him under the country’s constitution. The result was regime change, which is not a rules-based policy, especially when it assertively extends the West’s—let’s be honest about it—sphere of influence to the single most strategically, economically, historically and emotionally significant area on Russia’s borders. After contributing to the Crimean fiasco, it is little wonder the president sounds so defensive.
IF THE United States and the European Union want to prevent Putin from taking further action, they must be clear-eyed about the policies that can produce results at an acceptable cost. Targeted sanctions against Putin’s inner circle and other Russian officials and politicians—some of whom appear to have been sanctioned for reasons unrelated to Ukraine—will not change Russian policy. Their impact is too limited, and, unlike their counterparts in Ukraine, Russian tycoons do not have political influence or control members of the legislature. Moreover, Putin can compensate them for any losses even as his security apparatus watches them for signs of weakness under foreign pressure.