Apologies for Vladimir
Putin's seizure of Crimea gets an assist from foreign policy realists and postmodern liberals.
By BRET STEPHENS
March 24, 2014 7:19 p.m. ET
Russia is a big country. In case you didn't know.
A flight from New York to St. Petersburg will cover the same distance as one from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. There are 22 Russians for every Russian square mile, a population density only slightly exceeded by Mali. Exclude all of Russia east of the Urals, and the European portion of the country is still about the size of India and Turkey put together.
This is not exactly a state needing greater Lebensraum.
The point needs making in the face of an undercurrent of Western apology for Vladimir Putin's seizure of Crimea. It's an argument that goes roughly as follows:
• Yes, Russia's seizure of the peninsula was provocative and illegal. But look at it from Moscow's point of view. "To Russia," writes Henry Kissinger in the Washington Post, "Ukraine can never be just a foreign country." Defining events in Russian history — Mr. Kissinger cites the 1709 battle of Poltava — took place on (current) Ukrainian soil, and Ukraine has been independent for just 23 years. Crimea itself is ethnically Russian and only passed into Ukrainian hands through a Soviet bureaucratic maneuver in the mid-1950s.
• As for provocation, how could any Russian leader be indifferent to a Ukraine that sought to join NATO or the European Union, much less sit still as demonstrators in Kiev paralyzed the country and brought about the downfall of its democratically elected leader?
Russia's president is trigger happy. Getty Images
In this reading, the West's post-Cold War policies toward Russia have been a complex of patronizing lectures about democracy and good governance alongside a string of geopolitical humiliations, above all the expansion of NATO to former Warsaw Pact countries.
• Also, isn't it hypocrisy for Washington to protest Russia's occupation of foreign soil? "As ambassador, I found it difficult to defend our commitment to sovereignty and international law when asked by Russians, 'What about Iraq?' " writes Mike McFaul, until recently the administration's envoy to Moscow, in Monday's New York Times.
• Finally, isn't Mr. Putin merely duplicating the tough-guy tactics conservatives favor when it comes to the pursuit of American interests? "For Putin, an anti-Russian government in Kiev is illegitimate regardless of how it takes power," writes Peter Beinart. "For many American hawks, the same is now true for a pro-Chávez government in Latin America or an Islamist government in the Middle East." Mr. Beinart calls Mr. Putin a "Russian Neocon."
Thus does cold-blooded foreign policy "realism" blend with the embarrassed apologetics of postmodern liberalism to become the enabler of Russian revanchism.
Let's get a few things straight.
(1) NATO is a defensive alliance. As the Kremlin well knows, despite its propaganda and paranoia. The notion that the West provoked Russia by expanding NATO ignores why Poland, the Baltic states and other new members wanted to join NATO in the first place. Russia, threatened only by its internal discontents, does not need Ukraine as a territorial buffer against the Wehrmacht.
(2) A historic claim is not a valid claim. Much of modern-day Ukraine was Polish until September 1939. Yet Poland does treat Ukraine as "just a foreign country." To invoke history as a way of rationalizing Mr. Putin's moves in Crimea allows him to manipulate history. It strengthens his interests at the expense of the interests, and history, of others.
(3) Ethnic claims aren't valid claims, either. Especially when there is no evidence of ethnically motivated harms. Especially, too, when the non-Russian minority amounts to a non-trivial 40% . Especially, three, when the referendum used ex post facto to justify the seizure of Crimea yielded the kind of lopsided vote — a Stalinist 97% — that can only be achieved by fraud and intimidation, further undermining the validity of the ethnic claim. Especially, four, when Russia's ethnic claim to Crimea opens a global Pandora's box.
(4) Russia was not humiliated by the end of the Cold War. Even if Mr. Putin and his colleagues in the KGB were. Humiliation is what Germany imposed on Russia at Brest-Litovsk, and what France imposed on Germany at Versailles. In reality, Russia was saved by the end of the Cold War and a postwar settlement that provided lavish foreign aid and went out of its way to integrate Russia into the global economy, the G-8 and even NATO itself.
(5) Crimea is not Iraq. And Amb. McFaul's suggestion that the two are even remotely comparable is both insipid and outrageous. In Iraq, the U.S. deposed a tyrant who had spent the previous decade defying international law. We then did our imperfect best to stand up a representative government while fighting an insurgency consisting of al Qaeda, Baathist holdouts, and proxies of Iran. Then we got out. How, again, is this like Crimea?
(6) Neocons typically want to promote liberal democracy. And stand up to the enemies of liberal democracy. That's why this column has been calling for Russia to be kicked out of the G-8 since 2006, two years before liberals started clinking glasses to the "reset" and nearly eight years before Mr. Obama finally took my good advice.
Our new Kremlinogists now tell us that Mr. Putin's gambits need to be understood in the context of Russia's historic foreign policy objectives. True up to a point. But Mr. Putin is also pursuing his own interests as ringleader in a corrupt oligarchy sitting on the economic time bomb that is a commodities-based economy. The best U.S. policy will seek to light the shortest fuse on that bomb, strengthen our allies, and contain the fallout.
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