Eliot A. Cohen teaches at Johns Hopkins University. From 2007 to 2008, he was counselor of the State Department.
In the first days of a crisis like the Russian invasion of Crimea, the questions are operational: How many troops? Where are they? Should we cancel just the planning session for the Group of Eight meeting in Sochi or abandon it altogether? Should the president issue a statement? Leave it to John Kerry and Joe Biden?
Then come the recriminations. It is Khrushchev’s fault for giving Ukraine a peninsula soaked in Russian blood. The overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych by the mobs was a bit too much. Maybe it was a mistake to give gay athletes such a prominent role on the American team at Sochi.
The final stage is excuses. Vladimir Putin is an unpredictable autocrat. There is not a lot we can do about this other than make some gestures that will be forgotten in six months anyway. Besides, the Bush administration didn’t do anything serious about Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, so who are the Republicans to point fingers?
This sequence of events misses the deeper causes of the crisis, its larger frame and, above all, the long-term consequences.
In retrospect, historians will not find it difficult to piece together why and how this happened: Putin is indeed a brutal Great Russian nationalist who understands that Russia without a belt of subservient client states is not merely a very weak power but also vulnerable to the kind of upheaval that toppled Yanukovych’s corrupt and oppressive regime. Ukraine’s chaos and Crimea’s anomalous history gave the opening; Russian adeptness at the dark arts of provocation and covert operations provided the means; President Obama’s history of issuing warnings and, when they are ignored, moving on smartly to the next topic gave a kind of permission.
The largest issue here is whether Russia will remain bent on disrupting the post-Cold War settlement, including through the overt use of force in Europe. Absent a severe penalty — one that inflicts pain where Putin can feel it, to include Russia’s economy and his personal wealth and control of that country — the lesson learned will be, “You can get away with it.”
One larger issue is the future of the Baltic republics, which also have Russian minorities and whose status as independent states can be no less contested than that of Ukraine. But the Baltic republics belong to NATO, and Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty obliges the United States and its allies to fight in their defense. Thus to say that “no one wants a war,” which is true, is to begin introducing the proposition that there is nothing worth fighting for in Europe. In which case NATO does not really exist. And then that pillar of America’s position in the world since 1945 has evaporated before our eyes.
“There will be costs,” President Obama said on Friday, presumably referring to something more than the aviation fuel for the transports and bullets in the guns of the thinly disguised Russian soldiers occupying Crimea. The precedent to be remembered here is not any phony red line previously proclaimed but Putin’s op-ed last fall after the joint deal to (supposedly) remove Syrian chemical weapons. The Russian leader, having gotten what he wanted, kicked a bit of sand in Obama’s face, declaring that the United States really is not all that special — neither ideologically nor as a great power.
Power is a psychological relationship and not just a reflection of material circumstances. At the moment, the Russian president, exquisitely sensitive to the ripples and flow of power, knows that he is a strong man dealing with weakness. That, in turn, means that he would see no reason not to push elsewhere, and hard.
Georgia was a tiny, remote country that had foolishly provoked the Russians and that did not stand a chance when they invaded in 2008. The fighting was over in days. There was no such provocation here, and Ukraine is a big country on the border of the European Union. If Russia can rip off a limb with impunity, why can’t China do the same with the Senkaku Islands?
Putin is not Hitler, and the 2010s are not the 1930s. But the world is a darkening place, and the precedents being set are ones that will haunt us for decades to come unless the U.S. administration can act decisively and persistently against Russia. Otherwise, Churchill’s words after a not-dissimilar episode, in which a powerful state seized borderlands inhabited by its ethnic compatriots, will ring true again: “And do not suppose this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning.”