As the right fires up its mantra machine and chooses “Putin is exploiting Obama’s weakness to invade the Ukraine” as its collective response to the situation there, Zack Beauchamp argues, correctly I think, that the one who is showing weakness here is Putin.
While it might have been nice to hear the Secretary of State say on Meet The Press Sunday that “you just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text,” that characterization of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine is not the kind of aggressive military response that’s going to reassure those who see this as an issue of strong Putin versus feckless Obama. To people inclined to condemn American “weakness” in the face of Russian aggression, John Kerry’s condemnation of Russia’s military incursion into Crimea might sound like more empty words.
But that entire frame is mistaken, and not because Kerry also said “all options are on the table.” The fact is that Russia’s Ukraine move is an act of weakness, not strength — an act, as Kerry aptly characterized it, anachronistic in both moral and strategic terms. The fact Russia is trying something like this exposes the country’s global strategy as fundamentally mismatched to 21st century realities. There isn’t a new Cold War…
The military and ideological reasons are tied together by Putin’s core project of rebuilding Russia as a regional and global power. Sevastopol “is of critical importance as Russia seeks to regain some of the global clout that has been dwindling since the disintegration of the Soviet empire,” Hille concludes. If Ukraine slides out of Russia’s orbit, Putin loses both a critical military asset and an example of Russia’s renewed geopolitical ascendance. It makes sense that he’d go to dramatic lengths to ensure Ukrainians don’t endanger his plans.
But Putin’s project is a pipe dream. Russia will not come close to its Cold War power peak during Putin’s lifetime — especially if it relies on ham-fisted military interventions to keep its closest neighbors in line…
An occupation of Crimea would be expensive and politically isolating. It also risks a damaging war with Ukraine’s relatively strong military, an unforced error given how restrained Kyiv has been to date. The very fact that Russia might need to annex parts of Ukraine to maintain political control betrays Moscow’s weakness: An invasion is a tool of the desperate, to be used only when safer, more cost-effective tools are no longer available.
Indeed, Putin has previously used more tempered strategies — cutting off gas exports, its U.N. Security Council veto, and arms sales — to modestly advance Russian interests. The military action in Ukraine is a tacit acknowledgement that the Ukrainian revolution has threatened Russia’s “national greatness” project too fundamentally for these risky options to be worth trying. Again, that’s an indication of Putin’s fundamental fragility, not Cold War cunning.
Russia’s turn to blunt military force in Ukraine is emblematic of the basic flaws behind its push to regain its global and regional standing. The reality is that Russia is a middling power with nuclear weapons; it can frustrate America in Syria, but it can’t make progress towards bending the world to its will using the sort of strategies it has tried to date.
Military power alone can’t do the trick. In a world of free trade and highly globalized markets, territorial conquest simply isn’t a good way to make your country stronger. In fact, it’s harmful. “War has lost its evident appeal,” political scientist John Mueller correctly notes, “because substantial agreement has risen around the twin propositions that that prosperity and economic growth should be central national goals and that war is a particularly counterproductive device for achieving these goals.” War won’t bring Ukraine into Russia’s fold, let alone a broader swath of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The irony here is that the right views the world very much like Putin does. They, like him, think that pseudo-macho bluster and waving around your metaphorical military penis is how you show how strong and powerful you are.