“Putin surely understands that trying to subdue Ukraine would be like swallowing a porcupine. His response to events there has been defensive, not offensive.” These are the words of the author, John J. Mearshimer, in his insightful article (“Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault”) in the September/October 2014 edition of “Foreign Affairs.”
The author believes, and I agree, that the way President Obama and the European Union are handling the Ukrainian crisis is a major mistake. Their actions are based upon the idealistic belief that the principles of rule of law, democracy and economic interdependence should function in Ukraine rather than Realpolitik and geography.
U.S. and E.U. actions to bring Ukraine into the E.U. and NATO have forced Putin’s hand by making the Russians feel vulnerable. Russia does not want to invade Ukraine, nor does it want to control its population. Doing so would be extremely costly and unpopular. As Putin has said on numerous occasions, he wants Ukraine to be a neutral, free, stable and prosperous nation. Russia needs to have a nonaligned Ukraine to give Russia breathing space from any attacks from the West.
Russia is no longer a superpower; it’s actually a declining power as its population rapidly ages. But Russia’s history and flat geography has meant that Mongols, Poles, Swedes, French, and Germans (twice) have invaded it numerous times in its history. Russia does not want the E.U. and NATO on its border.
President Obama’s speech about Ukraine in March of this year shows his idealistic and incorrect attitude: he was concerned that Western policy ideals “have often been threatened by an older, more traditional view of power.” That is Realpolitik of the Russians protecting their western flank from a potential invasion.
Mearsheimer gave pointed comments about those ideals: While Ukraine has the right to ally with whomever it wants, reality about East/West conflict overwhelms those rights. And while Ukraine has the right to petition to join the E.U. and NATO, the E.U. has the right to deny those petitions, especially since it’s obvious that Ukraine is not vital to its security interests, just as Georgia’s interests were not vital to the U.S. when Russia invaded that country in 2008 and the U.S. stood by and watched.
Russia has as much right to feel secure as the United States did during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. President Kennedy weighed whether the U.S. should invade Cuba because the Soviets had placed medium-range nuclear missiles there. America felt threatened just as Russia is feeling threatened now by Western meddling in Ukraine.
I also found Secretary of State John Kerry’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext” to be both ironic and hypocritical if we remember our invasion of Iraq by the G.W. Bush administration in 2003 because of a trumped-up fear of “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
Additionally, President Obama also owes President Putin some slack in the Ukraine crisis, especially since it was “Putin who pulled Obama’s chestnuts out of the fire by forging the deal under which Syria agreed to relinquish its chemical weapons, thereby avoiding the U.S. military strike that Obama had threatened” (Mearsheimer, P. 89). The U.S. also is going to need Russian support as we remove our war material from Afghanistan through Russia, helping the U.S. contain Iran and a growing threat from China.
The Europeans are facing a cold winter if the Russians decide to retaliate against increased U.S. and E.U. sanctions over Ukraine. Putin could decide to cut off Russian natural gas and oil to western Europe. He has already banned western European food for a year in retaliation against them. Because Russia recently signed a major and long-term oil and natural gas deal with China, Putin is feeling more secure about pressuring both Ukraine and the E.U. The U.S. is already stretched thinly due to unstable conditions in its pullout from Afghanistan and the threat of deeper involvement in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State.
President Obama and his administration have handled the Ukrainian crisis badly because they have favored idealism over reality. The U.S. has pushed the Russian bear into a corner regarding Ukraine and the U.S. and the E.U. are likely to get badly mauled as a result. Now is the time to change direction to a policy that deals in reality, not ideals. If we don’t, we may be the ones swallowing the porcupine rather than Putin.