Obama isn’t doing enough to keep people in [Country X] from doing whatever they want to do in their country!
Every bad leader in the world is doing whatever he wants because Obama’s feckless!
If we’re not tough with [Foreign Leader], it will be just like Munich in 1938!
If you can learn to quickly fill in the blanks with current events, those comments will be much of what you’ll need to be a typical foreign policy pundit. And as Michael Cohen laid out a few days ago, you’d be showing you don’t understand the limits of US power, and that you approach foreign policy like it’s a board game. Cohen mentions several ways such rhetoric demonstrates fundamental misunderstandings of foreign policy, but he couldn’t mention them all. He did not, for instance, mention that pundits often fail to imagine multiple and possibly conflicting pressures or goals that could be motivating an actor. And if a pundit cannot imagine multiple causal factors, she probably also cannot understand that various states may prefer the same results, but because costs and benefits are proportional, they typically do not share the same willingness required to bring about the results they prefer. These pundit failures are on full display in this New York Times piece published the same day as Cohen’s.
One could probably spend days discussing what’s wrong with Ben Judah’s op-ed. But almost everything wrong in the piece follows from what’s wrong with the first three sentences:
Russia and Ukraine are now at war. At least 2,200 people have died in the conflict; thousands more may die yet. The Western powers — America, Europe, NATO — now have no good options, but they cannot do nothing. President Vladimir V. Putin has left us with two dire choices, both fraught with risk: Either we arm Ukraine, or we force Kiev to surrender and let Mr. Putin carve whatever territories he wants into a Russian-occupied zone of “frozen conflict.”
The Western powers cannot do nothing? Of course they can do nothing. In fact, doing nothing militarily–neither giving material to Ukraine nor pressuring it to surrender–may be our best option.
Before arguing in favor of a strategy to respond to Putin’s actions in Ukraine, we should first try to figure out what he’s doing, and why. The crisis of legitimacy in Ukraine began in 2004, when Putin ham-handedly tried to install his puppet Viktor Yanokovych as President. Despite being bankrolled by Putin, Yanokovych’s team had to rig the election to give him a winning margin, leading to the Orange Revolution. Economic problems, poor governance, corruption and dysfunctional factional politics eventually undid the political coalition from the Orange Revolution, and Yanokovych finally did become President. But he so screwed things up that earlier this year he was overthrown, the second time Putin’s proxy failed to achieve Putin’s goals. Putin responded by seizing Crimea, and supporting rebellion in the ethnically Russian southeast part of Ukraine. But his separatist rebels, like Yanokovych before them, were failing: they were in danger of being defeated the Ukrainian military. Yet again, Putin’s Ukrainian proxies were incapable of achieving his objectives.
So Putin has been helping the rebels. But it is not, contrary to some pundits’ fevered blatherings, a 1939-style massive invasion, nor even a brutal suppression like Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968. There are probably only a few thousand Russian soldiers in non-Crimean Ukraine, and Putin even denies any of his forces are in Ukraine. Putin wants something, but there are few indications he wants to do it through a massive military action, which would be required to subdue a huge country of 45 million.
Putin tried to use Yanukovych to keep Ukraine out of NATO and the EU. He’s since tried to force the Ukrainian government to accept a kind of veto by the mostly ethnic Russian areas of the southeast. These aren’t expansionist moves. They’re more akin to imperial actions like the United States’ repeated military interventions in the Caribbean and Latin America. What Putin’s doing is not benign; it’s undoubtedly a bad development. But you can’t identify and assess options if you do not have good theories about what an antagonist is doing, why, and why it requires your response.
Judah’s piece reminded me of the Robert Benchley quip, that there are two classes of people in the world: Those who divide everybody into two classes of people, and those who don’t. Judah’s is a coarse binary approach, with Putin vs a monolithic Western powers, with their options being force the Ukrainians to surrender (which we would impose on the Ukrainians how? And to whom are they surrendering?), or we commit to a military confrontation (with the possibility of NATO troops in Kiev, Which. Is. A. Crazy. Idea.).
This gets us to the problem of costs, benefits and proportionality. The US, Europe and NATO share many of the same interests, but not not every interest is shared by all of us, and the effects of Russian actions or a war in Ukraine are different. Unlike many European countries, the US does not rely on Russian oil, and our banking system is not stuffed with Russian petrodollars. Exports to Russia are a very small part of our economy. We don’t share a border with Russia. Our government and political system isn’t endangered by democracy, transparency and the growth of civil society on our borders. We do not have to worry that Putin will aggressively assert that Russian forces must protect the Russians of Brighton Beach.
The US does share many interests and priorities with the EU and NATO countries. But the costs and tradeoffs are not the same. Choking off Russian oil sales would have a different effect in the US, where we don’t purchase much Russian oil, than in European countries that rely on Russian oil. On the other hand, tensions with Russia didn’t complicate Romania’s efforts to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, since unlike the US, Romania wasn’t the main player in that operation. The costs to the western nations of putting economic and diplomatic pressure on Russia are not proportionally the same. And of course, flouting international standards like Putin has in Ukraine warrants a response, but that response should be proportional to the offense, and to the threat of further violations and dangers. Overreacting would be a grave mistake.
Thinking Putin has “left us” with only two choices is silly. Such thinking is amenable Churchillian bombast, but it’s usually just unimaginatively dumb. The world is complicated and contingent. There are many combinations of responses we can have to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. Distilling everything down to binaries and wiping out ambiguity may be a great way for an ambitious young writer to pose as a Very Serious Person, which in turn can get you a moment on the New York Times opinion pages. But the declarations that follow are awful advice for the conduct of foreign policy.
[Update 4:00 CDT]
Whaddya know, as this piece was being finished, Putin announced terms for a cease fire in Eastern Ukraine. It may be a dubious offer–after all, what power does he have, if we take him at his word that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, right?–but it’s strong evidence that while he’s not a force for good right now, he’s also probably doesn’t have any intentions of marching to Warsaw by way of Tallinn. [Note, btw, that in that article a rebel dismisses the cease fire talk, which is consistent with the idea that Putin has unreliable proxies. He's probably has only loose control over the rebels, who are likely a melange of nationalists, miscreants and criminal mobsters.]