Putin and the West: To Dance or Not to Dance?
These are the days of garment-rending. At least, this is likely the lament privately voiced by many in the corridors of American and European power. Obama’s recent trip to Europe to shore up greater resolve and commitment for strengthening sanctions and isolating (or is it shaming?) Russia after the Crimea annexation (or is it secession?) was fairly uneventful. The fact of the matter is no one in Europe seems to be all that eager to truly push violent confrontation with Russia as long as Russia doesn’t seem intent on trying to obtain other new pieces of territory. Of course, no one in Western Europe approves of how things went down in Crimea. But despite constant bleatings in the West of greater aspirations to violate sovereignty and so-called desires to reinvigorate old Russian visions of imperial grandeur, the empirical reality in Crimea is that things were, well, rather dull: the Russians came, they saw, they sat down and refused to leave. That pretty much describes the affair in a nutshell. And so far, nothing else has happened.
An uninvolved but curious reader in the West would think that last statement is utterly farcical: on any particular day you can read dozens of articles and opinion pieces attesting to military movements here and troop and materiel organization there that can only possibly mean one thing: preparation for a massive Russian incursion into a whole host of different areas, most notably the Eastern half of Ukraine. There are very few American reporters venturing an alternative viewpoint (the accomplished Jim Maceda of NBC News is one of the few). Think tanks and academic institutes are not doing much better. The powerful and extremely influential Foreign Policy has clearly ‘drank the Russian imperial Kool-Aid,’ putting out no less than a dozen articles in the past month veritably guaranteeing the dictatorial intentions of Vladimir Putin (the most recent one coming just three days ago, offering ten reasons why ‘no one should believe Putin when he says he is not going to invade Eastern Ukraine’). And this is what prompts my rather presumptuous opinion as to what President Vladimir Putin can do: namely, just keep laughing and for goodness sake don’t make Foreign Policy look right.
The issue at hand right now is that too many powerful decision-makers in the West feel a bit bamboozled and outplayed. They feel, rightly or wrongly, as if they have ended up with proverbial diplomatic egg on their faces and they don’t like it. Even worse, they cannot stand the possibility that this game of chicken ended with only one round and no opportunity to regain the upper hand. Thus, it really isn’t about how horrible it was for Russia to ‘annex’ Crimea (with Crimean consent) and do it basically without any violence. What is most horrible to these rather dull thinkers still stuck in and/or pining for the return of a Cold War environment full of purpose and dire circumstances is that they won’t get the chance to beat Russia back or deliver a diplomatic defeat of the same intensity that they feel they just received themselves. Thus, this situation CANNOT be just about Crimea. Russia MUST NOT be satisfied with this as the end game. There simply MUST be another shoe to drop or chess piece to be moved. Because…well…just because: because Russians aren’t supposed to be diplomatically agile and astute. And they most certainly cannot be strategically deft and subtle. At least, not when they are compared to their counterparts in the West, who think Russians are rash; Russians are emotional; Russians are capricious; Russians are sneaky; and quite frankly, Russians are a bit daft. All of these things they can be because all of these things suit the players at the other end of the chess board. And for this very simple and seemingly minor reason alone, Russia is far better off letting Crimea be its one and only move on the board. What victory could be better than checkmate AND confounding your opponents, who had previously thought they had completely understood your psyche, methods, objectives, and purpose? Eastern Ukraine is nothing compared to that value.
And so, if I was President Putin, I would not make a move. I would allow Crimeans to continue to voice their satisfaction with their own political status. I would stoically receive news of sanctions with little fanfare or drumbeating of my own. And, as they say, I would watch everyone else sweat as they desperately sit and hope for a sign of aggression and invasion only to ultimately have their hopes dashed. I say this not because I am secretly rooting for Russia over my own America or applaud anything transpiring in Ukraine. I say this because the world will NOT be a better place if America and Russia renew a rivalry based on old hatreds and stale misperceptions. If there is going to be a rivalry, let it be one not reminiscent of the fear and panic most of the world suffered from for fifty years. Let it be Game of Thrones and not The Walking Dead. Most of all I do not want to see Russia affirm a few critical decision-makers in the West so eagerly and earnestly hoping for a return to stereotypes.
In the world of Intelligence Studies, we are taught to analyze situations amorally, apolitically, and unemotionally. This is not because we do not have a rooting interest or a personal preference, but because only cold and callous perception leads to accurate and astute analysis. And accurate and astute analysis, lacking in emotional drama and macho bravado, has a higher possibility of finding resolution instead of pushing exacerbation. And so, as for Russia, now is the time to do nothing. Do nothing and, quite frankly, you win. Do something to affirm the shrill harpies craving another chance to ‘face the Russian enemy’ and we all lose. Honestly, times will be much more interesting if all sides on the board have to recognize a new side to an old foe. I would prefer to live in interesting times, not violent ones.