Back in 2008 I did a post claiming that Russia was still a threat and that our obsession with the war on terror would distract us from our more significant foe, namely the Russians. Now that Russian troops have entered Crimea and are poised to roll through Ukraine, it seems that by chance or understanding got things right. As a followup to that old post, I’ll say a bit about the current situation.
First, there is the fact that the invasion of Ukraine was easily foreseeable. Everyone knows the old tale about the scorpion and the fox: a fox and a scorpion are at the bank of a river and the scorpion asks the fox to carry him across. The fox is reluctant to do this since he is worried the scorpion will sting him midstream. The scorpion assures the fox he will do no such thing-after all, he would drown if the fox dies. Swayed by this reasoning, the fox swims out with the scorpion on his back. The scorpion stings him and they both die-the scorpion’s dying words being that it is his nature to do this. While nations are not ruled by instinct, nations do have definite general characters forged by their history. In the case of the Russians, it has become their nature to want a buffer between themselves and the West (thanks to folks like Napoleon and Hitler). As such, predicting that the Russians will try to control the countries around them is like predicting that the French will drink wine or that Americans will eat junk food. For the Russians, control seems best achieved by the use of military force-hence the invasion of Ukraine was eminently predictable. It is, as the scorpion would say, a matter of nature.
Second, there is the obvious fact that the West will not do anything militarily in the Ukraine. While the United States could probably push the Russians out of Ukraine if it came down to a conventional war, the Russians are still well-armed with nuclear weapons. While we would risk nuclear war to defend key allies like Britain and Germany, we almost certainly will not do so to defend Ukraine. As such, the Russians really only need to worry about two main things. The first is that Ukraine will fight them. While Russia can take Ukraine, Russia would probably not enjoy a protracted struggle in the region-especially with the possibility of an ongoing insurgency. The second is that the rest of the world will take economic action against Russia and do enough damage to her economy to make the invasion turn out to be a bad idea.
Third, Russia obviously wants to get back into the “grand game” of being a major power-perhaps Putin has dreams of restoring the Russian Empire and being a super-power once more. While some folks are claiming that Putin has already lost in Ukraine, it is unwise to make such a prediction. As noted above, a primary Russian goal is to have a stable buffer between Moscow and the West. Russia has never deviated from the strategy and almost certainly will not for the foreseeable future.
Fourth, critics of Obama and the United States have been taking the stock line that it was Obama’s weakness that allowed Putin to roll forces into the Ukraine and that if only Obama had been more bad-ass, Putin would have just stayed put in Russia. While this story has some appeal, the United States has historically avoided doing anything bad-ass towards Russia. Back in the Soviet days, we mostly just fenced via proxies and got bogged down in Vietnam. When the Soviets rolled tanks in to crush internal dissent in the Soviet Union, we did nothing. As such, Obama has been following a business as usual policy. Given that the Russians have nuclear weapons, this is not a bad idea.
Fifth, while Putin knows he can push hard under his nuclear umbrella, he surely knows that he cannot push too far. After all, just as we could push Putin to a nuclear strike, he could push us to the same thing. If Putin meets with success in Ukraine, he will most likely continue to expand. The main question is not whether the West will stop him or not but whether or not the Russians can afford this level of military operations and occupations. After all, we broke them by forcing them to slag their economy in a cold war against us. We then stupidly melted our economy a bit with two wars and, but we can take the heat better than the Russians. Russia only now feels confident enough to push hard against the West. But, it remains to be seen if they can take the heat and if so, for how long. It is a new world and it is worth noting that the old ways might not work as they did.
Sixth, thanks to our fixation on the war on terror and with the political manipulations that resulted in billions of public dollars being dumped into the coffers of the well connected, we are not well-equipped to face up to the Russians while also dealing with the rest of the world. Our massive domestic and ally spying machine will be rather useless against them (which is not surprising, since it is also mostly useless against terrorists). Fortunately, our defense contractors have seen to it (for their own reasons) that we do still have a strong conventional force. But, we are not as well prepared as we could be. More importantly, we have been piddling away with the war on terror and making sure that billionaires become more wealthy when we should have been doing some real politics of the sort that Putin has been trying to do. Only better. I do, of course, approve of his view of shirts. Like him, I know that we must fight the cruel tyranny of the shirt.
Seventh, we should not forget about China while we are now fixating on the Russians.
Eighth, welcome back old foe. We’ve kind of missed you.