I am composing these lines in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, shortly after Russian troops have occupied Crimea in a brazen act of aggression reminiscent of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. To be sure, Putin is not a totalitarian Führer, and Western powers have not blessed the land grab with a Munich agreement touted to ensure “peace in our time,” but the geopolitical parallels with 1938 are nonetheless disturbing. In 1938, Hitler used the legitimate but greatly exaggerated grievances of Czechoslovakia’s German minorities as a pretext for grabbing territory, thereby clearing the way to launch a world war less than a year later. Today, Putin has exaggerated the threat Ukrainian nationalism poses to Russian minorities in order to justify occupying the Crimean peninsula, a maneuver which threatens to alter the post Cold War political order in Europe so as to align more closely with Russia’s imperialist interests. In 1938, Hitler was emboldened to take the Sudetenland, something his own generals thought was crazy, because of Europe’s timid response to the Anschluss, and then emboldened to invade Poland because of Europe’s response to the Sudetenland. Today, Putin has ventured to act aggressively because he believes the American president is weak and he sees the European Union as bogged down in crisis.
Like a shot from the blue, Putin’s Crimean gambit left the statesmen of Europe and America dazed and confused. They simply couldn’t believe Vladimir would do such a thing, since his misbehavior would evoke international condemnation and even possibly, maybe, economic sanctions. After an unproductive conversation with the Russian dictator, an exasperated Angela Merkel reportedly told Obama that Putin has lost touch with reality. Meanwhile, paper columns and opinion pieces accused Putin of being irrational, even a little mad. However, to describe a dictator as crazy may simply mean his actions are unintelligible to us, because we are too unimaginative to discern his purpose. Putin’s actions are immediately intelligible, if we dare to imagine that he has imperialist designs on Eastern Europe. In the mind of this “madman,” the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy. He knows that empire cannot be recovered, but he hopes to restore Russia’s historic position in Europe as a hegemonic power.
Toward that end, Putin recently announced plans to establish in 2015 a so-called Eurasian Union, which will mirror the economic and political structure of the EU. Putin’s planned union therefore aims to compete with, and ultimately undermine, the project of European integration. Initially, the Eurasian Union will consist of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, but the intention is to entice Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine to join as well (perhaps by manipulating the price and availability of Russian-supplied natural gas). Clearly, Ukraine’s membership is key. The largest country in Europe after Russia, roughly the size of Texas, Ukraine has a population of 45 million and is a major producer of grain. A Eurasian Union centered in Russia with a secure Ukrainian satellite would be a European force to reckon with. Such a union would exert inexorable influence on the economic development of the Baltic States, Moldova, and Romania, and potentially affect Poland and Hungary as well. Yet a Eurasian Union without Ukraine is a feeble joke. That makes Ukraine important to Putin.
US foreign policy, however, has stopped attending closely to Russian intentions in Europe. President Obama, after a naïvely conceived and unsuccessful “reset” with Russia, threw up his arms, and left Europe to take care of itself while he “pivoted” to Asia, made liberal use of drone strikes, responded tentatively to the Arab Spring, and drew red lines he never wanted to keep. Even so, the problems with US European policy run deeper. American disengagement with the continent began in the Bush Administration, which focused so exclusively on the “War on Terror” that it adopted an adversarial relationship with Europe before ignoring it completely. That cavalier attitude toward Europe was reinforced at a deeper level by a naïve American confidence in the inevitable advance of democracy. American policy makers, caught up in a kind of triumphalist democratic group think, took Europe for granted. Anyone who opposes democracy, they seemed to think, must be a madman, a figure with no grip on reality, soon to be trammeled under the forward march of history.
Thus Putin’s ambitions for a Eurasian Union have received little to no attention in the West, most probably because no one (other than Putin) takes them seriously. The group think says that democracy is inevitable. If Putin opposes the tide of progress he is bound to fail, no matter how incompetent Western leaders are. In this spirit, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat offered his own Pollyannaish interpretation of events in Ukraine:
[In a world] where liberal democracy has few intellectually-credible challengers, the stakes of geopolitics are considerably lower than they used to be…. and so our policymakers drift into a kind of laziness that empowers figures like Putin on the margins… but only on the margins.... [F]rom the West’s perspective, the stakes in these disputes are relatively low. The struggle for influence is taking place on Russia’s very doorstep, and there’s no real possibility that a Putinist victory in Kiev or the Caucasus would inspire copycat right-wing movements to seize power in, say, Italy or France or Germany, the way Communist movements nearly did in the early 20th century.
This unsophisticated view of the world, among many other things, grossly exaggerates the significance of ideology in history. The bedrock of geopolitics is, and always has been, power and its pursuit of interest. Absolutism was already an outdated and unappealing idea by the time of Catherine the Great and Maria Theresa, but that didn’t prevent the partition of Poland. The notion that conflicts of power only matter when they overlap with an easily grasped ideology is a naïve fallacy committed by Americans who believe people the world over are reading the Declaration of Independence. Even without ideological packaging, the stability and integration of Europe remains a high stakes game.
If the prophets of progress end up being correct, it will be only because democratic forces recognize the challenges they face and respond appropriately. The important question is not what Putin ought to be doing in an age of enlightenment, but what he is actually doing in the realm of power politics. Hegemonic Russian ambitions in Eastern Europe are not historically new. In the past, however, those ambitions were balanced by other European powers (e.g., the French, the Prussians, the Habsburgs, the British). During the Cold War, the surrogate for those powers was the United States, because only an American superpower could counterbalance the enormous Russian empire (i.e., the Soviet Union and its satellite states) which emerged in the wake of World War II. The real novelty, therefore, is not Russia, but Western and Central Europe, bound together as they are in the European Union. That union is not the product of historical necessity, but the achievement of statesmen who recognized that integrating Europe was the best way to end centuries of increasingly destructive wars.
But Europe has been integrated in such a way that it lacks an organizing power able to riposte Russian advances. The United States, meanwhile, has been disengaged from Europe for fourteen years. On top of that, the European Union is suffering from a severe economic crisis related to the premature introduction of its common currency, which is causing member states to doubt the wisdom of Brussels and to chafe at questionable austerity measures. To a man like Putin all of this looks less like what Francis Fukuyama called the “end of history” and more like a power vacuum. Why wouldn’t he take advantage of a historical opportunity to enhance Russia’s position in Europe? Nor should one assume, if Russian troops have not advanced beyond Crimea, that Putin has abandoned his designs on Ukraine proper. Ukraine is on the brink of default. Were Putin to occupy all of Ukraine, he would not only encounter popular resistance in large sections of the country, but also take ownership of the crippled economy. By staying back in Crimea, Putin can let the West assume that economic burden while simultaneously working to undermine the situation in Ukraine by manipulating natural gas prices and generating political unrest in the eastern part of the country. Hanging back in Crimea, he can also size up the reaction and resolve of Europe and the United States.
Unfortunately, Europe’s leaders appear reluctant to draw necessary conclusions, at least at the time of this writing. They have resisted suggestions to impose stiff sanctions on Russia, threatening to do so only if things get even worse. The one clear advantage dictators have over democracies is a higher threshold for pain. Europe and Russia are economically interdependent. Thus any sanctions regime, even while inflicting heavy costs on Russia’s weak economy, would also inflict lesser but real costs on Europe. This consideration should prompt Europe’s leaders to reread Churchill, who warned “the belief that security can be obtained by throwing a small State to the wolves is a fatal delusion.” World War II, Churchill believed, was a tragedy that could have been avoided, if “the malice of the wicked” had not been “reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous” (16).
Whether or not President Obama has the resolve to face down Putin is also an open question. Much of Obama’s foreign policy, in particular his approach to Syria and Iran, has been premised on cooperation with Russia. Now that Putin has displayed his true colors, the prospects of such cooperation seem next to untenable. Thus Putin’s aggression has not only precipitated a European crisis, but also shattered several premises of Obama’s strategy in the Middle East. Responding to Russia effectively will require Obama to tack to a dramatically different course in foreign policy. Time will tell whether the President has the flexibility required to do that. One thing does seem clear: in the absence of US leadership, things in Europe are going to get worse.
H. David Baer is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.
Churchill, Winston S. The Gathering Storm (The Second World War). Mariner Books, 1986, .
Douthat, Ross. “Huntington’s Conflicts, Fukuyama’s World.” New York Times, February 24, 2014.