Eurasia Analyst, Volume III, No 1
September 4, 2014
By Susan J. Cavan
In Bratislava in 2005, during a long discussion with then President George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin rebuffed criticism of his treatment of the press with a counterpoint alleging Bush himself had fired CBS news anchor Dan Rather. Bush denied the allegation and tried to explain to Putin that if he repeated that line in public, “The American people will think you don’t understand our system.” (1)
At a press conference after the meeting, a Kremlin-friendly reporter raised the issue of Dan Rather and the American press, giving Putin a chance to expostulate publicly on Bush and his control of American media. Putin did not care what Americans might think of him; he was not speaking to Americans. His comments played well to his domestic audience and built upon a framework designed to deflect criticism by rhetorical point scoring that suggests what President Bush later referred to as a debate with an “eighth grader with his facts wrong.” (2)
This story retains its relevance both in the current dialogue regarding Ukraine, in which Putin’s mendacity and his willingness to turn western actions into carnival mirror images of his own behavior have been employed to blunt censure. It serves also as a reminder of the length of time that Putin has been deploying this tactic of willful deceit. It should also dissuade us from the misconception that Putin will be persuaded to reform his errant ways. Events in Ukraine are not the result of a temporary Soviet flashback. Crimea was not shirred off Ukraine accidently. The Russian Ministry of Defense did not cobble together a poorly thought out propaganda presentation to shift blame to the Ukrainian Air Force for the downing of Malaysia Air Flight MH17 on a whim of the Chief of the General Staff. The satellite images of Russian tanks repeatedly violating Ukrainian sovereignty are not figments of the imaginations of western leaders. These are elements of a plan to annex territory Russia wants for its own purposes and to prevent Ukraine from conducting independent economic and foreign relations with countries of its own choosing.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine represent a test for NATO and the entire international community. Putin’s deception and evasion on Ukraine are like a bully’s shove, an aggressive move to challenge, to see if there will be pushback or retreat. In this case, having already accomplished the annexation of Crimea, Putin sets himself up for a win, no matter what response he gets. Increasingly punitive western sanctions are an effective tool, but how long will they remain in place if fighting ceases in Ukraine? If Putin does choose to traverse an “off ramp” from the current aggressive course in Ukraine would business simply resume as usual?
This is a moment for leadership that recognizes the challenge posed by an aggressive Russian regime. Will NATO’s member states forgo the impulse to optimism sparked by news of a possible ceasefire in Ukraine with the realization that it would be a ceasefire in situ…not with the status quo ante? A sovereign state was deprived of its territory by armed servicemen sans insignia because its neighbor did not appreciate its economic policy choices and could not tolerate popular protests to change its leaders. These developments could only be considered Russia’s business if we somehow have agreed to entertain nineteenth century sphere of influence arguments. Russia does raise concerns about the treatment of Russian speakers on Ukrainian territory, but there are appropriate international arenas, such as the United Nation Security Council, where such issues can be discussed, any evidence presented, and, if necessary, corresponding resolutions passed.
Despite concerns over Russia’s actions, some analysts that have claimed that the sovereign states of Ukraine and Georgia do not have a right to choose their own paths of economic development, or their preferred foreign partners. These same voices have condemned the “aggressive expansion” of NATO to Eastern Europe and, heaven forfend, the Baltic states. Putin is justified in his suspicions, according to these scenarios, because the western allies are encroaching on Russia, despite “promises” made to Gorbachev. These voices forget the statements of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who announced on a visit to Poland in 1993 through a joint press release with then Polish President Lech Walesa: “The Presidents touched on the matter of Poland’s intention to join NATO. […] In the long-term, such a decision taken by a sovereign Poland in the interests of overall European integration does not go against the interests of other states, including the interests of Russia.” (3)
Yeltsin underscored this statement by claiming that there was no room in the Russian-Polish relationship for “hegemony and diktat,” and the psychology of a “big brother” and “little brother.”” (4) While Yeltsin did reverse himself and oppose NATO expansion after consultation with more conservative forces at home, it nonetheless demonstrates his recognition that presuming to have a voice in another sovereign state’s foreign alliance choices carries the patronizing air of arrogance and control.
Of course, the issue of NATO expansion would be moot, if Putin’s Russia had open, vital, and competitive political and economic spheres with which to entice its neighbor’s involvement and cooperation. Kremlin, Inc., however, appears as anything but inviting, and absent any intrinsic lure, Putin resorts to the tactics and swagger of a thug. Indeed, his bravado may have him convinced that divisions among western leaders will prevent any meaningful response from NATO and permit him free rein across the territory of the former Soviet Union. Andrei Piontkovsky (Russian political commentator and former Executive Director of the Moscow-based Strategic Studies Center) suggests that Putin may even be considering the possibility of threatening a limited nuclear war. Putin’s goals, according to Piontkovsky, are “the maximum extension of the Russian World, the destruction of NATO, and the discrediting and humiliation of the US as the guarantor of the security of the West.” (5)
With these threats and the events in Ukraine in mind, NATO’s member states assemble for their summit in Wales. It has been reported that NATO will adopt a “readiness action plan,” including the creation of rapid (or, perhaps more accurately, “more rapid”) reaction forces, able to respond to crises by deploying within two days (the current forces take five days). (6) It is hoped that the summit meeting in Wales also will present an opportunity for the allies to acknowledge the present moment as the test it is and respond in a manner that maximizes the alliance’s strengths and capabilities rather than showcasing a weakness of common will, which Putin so hopes to encourage and exploit.
1) Baker, Peter. “The Seduction of George W. Bush,” Foreign Policy, November 2013, via http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/11/05/the_seduction_of_george_w_bush_by_vladimir_putin.
3) Arora, Chaya. Germany’s Civilian Power Diplomacy: NATO Expansion and the Art of Communicative Action. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan. 2006. 135.
5) Goble, Paul. “Putin Believes He Can Win a War with NATO,” Piontkovsky Says.” August 10, 2014, Window on Eurasia blog, via http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2014/08/window-on-eurasia-putin-believes-he-can.html.
6) Croft, Adrian. “NATO to create new ‘spearhead’ force to respond to crises,” September 1, 2014, Reuters, via http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/01/us-ukraine-crisis-nato-military-idUSKBN0GW2SP20140901.
Susan J. Cavan