If someone had told you last fall that Russia would soon invade a neighboring country, annex part of it and occupy another chunk, you might have been skeptical.
You certainly would not have believed that, in the face of this shattering of the accepted world order, the Obama administration would generally consider its Russia policy to be a success.
But that is where we are.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea is a fait accompli. He is solidifying his hold on additional territory in eastern Ukraine and likely preparing to take more.
His aggression has borne fruit. Ukraine postponed a trade treaty with the European Union to which Putin objected. Its economy is in trouble. Other countries once part of or controlled by the Soviet Union, from Hungary to Tajikistan, nervously seek to appease Russia’s dictator.
A number of people with a close-up view of this, including the U.S. general who commands NATO forces, are sounding an alarm.
“We have a situation now where the former international border, the current international border, of Ukraine and Russia is completely porous,” Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove said last week in Bulgaria. “Forces, money, support, supplies, weapons are flowing back and forth across this border completely at will.”
“Russia’s actions represent a clear decision by Moscow to reject the fundamental principles that have shaped international security over the past 25 years,” the general said, adding, “These actions are simply unacceptable.”
Administration officials would not disagree, but they also believe their policy is working. Here’s how they might explain that belief:
It could be worse. Putin boasted that he could easily take Kiev. At one point he seemed to be eyeing all of southern Ukraine, through Odessa to a Russian-controlled province of Moldova. He has not, thus far, acted on those ambitions.
The Western alliance is holding. Putin’s goal is not only to subvert Ukraine but also to sow division among the United States and its European allies. The alliance has stayed together as it imposed sanctions on Russia. Therefore, Putin is failing in one of his two core goals.
Ukraine matters more to Putin than to us. After meeting with Russia’s foreign minister last month in Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged “that the United States and Russia have had our differences over Ukraine.” But he stressed that “our goal today together was to try to deepen our ability to be able to work together, to work with Russia where we can . . . .”
Putin is telegraphing in almost every possible way that he does not want to be a partner — from his rhetoric (“the bear will not even bother to ask permission”) to the submarine he dispatches to Sweden’s waters to the Estonian intelligence agent his forces kidnap to the war planes buzzing NATO coastlines. But the administration continues to beseech his help in Syria and North Korea, against the Islamic State and, most of all, with Iran. Ukraine is less of a priority.
He is losing. Putin has alienated Ukrainians and isolated himself, as seen in the cold shoulder other leaders gave him at the Group of 20 meeting in Australia this past weekend. Sanctions are hurting Russia’s economy, and the ruble is sliding. Collapsing oil prices will further pressure his regime.
If he’s not losing now, he will lose eventually because history favors openness, democracy and respect for international law. In some ways this is the oddest argument, because it is made by those who do not give much priority to promoting democracy. Those who believe democracy should be at the heart of U.S. foreign policy are less sanguine. The Soviets were swimming against the tide of history when they invaded Hungary in 1956 — but Hungary would endure more than three decades of oppression before the tide swept them out again. The tide of history often needs help. Pretending otherwise offers an excuse for inaction — for refusing to help Ukraine obtain arms in its own defense, for example.
Each successive Putin outrage takes Western leaders aback: the seizure of Crimea, the brazen insouciance when a jetliner is shot down, the breaking of his word not to recognize the separatists’ “election,” now the soldiers and weaponry pouring across the border in defiance of his promised cease-fire. These actions are not rational, from a Western point of view; they isolate Russia further; they will hurt the Russian economy.
But Putin does not share America’s view of what is rational. Breedlove believes the Russian leader is sending forces into Ukraine to mold his enclave into “a more contiguous, more whole and capable pocket of land in order to then hold on to it long-term.”
And then? Putin presumably does not want war, but he understands as well as the general that, as Breedlove also said last week, “NATO’s current readiness does not necessarily translate into quick responsiveness.”