Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking at the World Economic Forum
“He was at it again” is the opening line of a recent Times article about Vladimir Putin’s (distinctly arrogant) diplomatic style. A number of articles published since the onset of the Ukrainian crisis have opened to the same effect, imparting the image of a defiant, irrational, and cavalier leader. American foreign policy analysts have used this caricature to vilify and blame Putin entirely for the situation now unfolding in Ukraine. Putin may indeed be all of these things, but this caricature obscures the fact that at least some of the responsibility for today’s hostilities in Eastern Europe stem from the West’s tactless handling of Russian security fears.
Moving forward, it is important that the United States and its NATO allies not only acknowledge their role in precipitating the crisis, but also understand why they failed to anticipate Russia’s reaction to Western involvement in Ukraine.
False Promises and Provocations
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left Russia badly bruised — both economically and psychologically. The last thing it wanted was for the West to exploit its weakness by encroaching upon its traditional sphere of influence, particularly through the eastward expansion of NATO.
The story of NATO’s enlargement is a controversial one. Russians believe that then President Bush struck a “gentleman’s agreement” with Mikhail Gorbachev on the limits of enlargement; the U.S. government, of course, believes otherwise. According to new documents, however, U.S. officials seem to have implied at the time that such a deal was on the table as part of a deal to get Gorbachev to come around to German reunification. If so, talk since has proven quite cheap.
In 1999, despite the appeals of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, NATO commenced its first round of enlargement by adding the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary. The second round followed in 2004, with the induction of seven new countries, three of which were former soviet republics. Then, in 2008, NATO made the bold and fateful assertion that both Ukraine and Georgia would soon become members as well.
If there was ever a forewarning of the events in Ukraine, this was it.
Up until then, Russia had begrudgingly allowed states that were once part of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact to leave its sphere of influence and join NATO. By the time Russia invaded Georgia, however, Putin had seen enough. By taking control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia managed to keep Georgia divided and weak — and out of NATO. If there was ever a forewarning of the events in Ukraine, this was it.
After the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, why wasn’t the U.S. able to foresee Russia’s tactics in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine? Why did the U.S. fail to recognize the provocative potential of NATO’s eastward expansion?
The answers have to do with “American exceptionalism,” a term that, in a geopolitical sense, refers to “the detachment and physical security provided by two oceans and weak neighbors.” Intuitively, geography plays an important role in defining a nation’s “security sphere,” which more or less determines that nation’s vital interests (i.e. protecting that sphere). A cursory look at a world map will tell you which country has the most at stake in Ukraine’s future — and which country could afford to care less.
Anybody can look at a map, but not every country can see itself as a potential aggressor. U.S. efforts to reassure Russia during NATO’s expansion were destined to be inadequate in so far as the U.S. continued to dismiss the reasonableness of Russia’s security concerns vis-à-vis NATO. America’s exceptional geography has allowed it to avoid the threat of great power conflict in its immediate security sphere (the Western hemisphere), which has made it hard for the U.S. to be properly sensitive to what other nations perceive as intrusions on their security spheres.
There is a famous Cherokee proverb: “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” Unfortunately, the U.S. has grown so accustomed to being exceptional that it cannot fathom the world as it looks from Russia’s doorstep. The U.S. neighbors two docile countries in Canada and Mexico, while Russia borders the eastern wall of NATO. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has formed a network of free-trade agreements comprising all of North and Central America, much of South America, parts of the Middle East, and South Korea. During the same time, Russia has formed only a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. In terms of collective security, the U.S. presides over both NATO and the Organization of American States. Russia, on the other hand, lost its only comparable institution with the dissolution of the Warsaw Treaty Organization in 1991.
Power and Interests
Because of its exceptional geography, the U.S. can enter all kinds of global disputes and leave with its vital interests untouched and intact. Ukraine was one of these conflicts. It is a country of little worth to the United States, economically or strategically (last year, U.S. trade with Ukraine amounted to .00018% of GDP). America’s security, moreover, doesn’t depend on Ukraine in the slightest. Perhaps things would be different if Russia were a rising power, but its decline has been palpable for some time.
Anybody can look at a map, but not every country can see itself as a potential aggressor.
The view from Russia, however, is quite different. A bloc of countries inherently inimical to its existence is threatening to cover its entire western border — and NATO isn’t extending an invitation to Russia. Just think what the United States would do — or has done — in a similar situation. During the Cold War, Cuba certainly had a right to form a military alliance with the Soviet Union, in the same way that Ukraine presently has a right to self-determination. However, that didn’t stop the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 or the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Similarly, what would the U.S. do today if China formed a close military alliance with Canada or Mexico? Its response probably wouldn’t be too different than Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Regardless of international norms, a country will use military force to protect what it perceives to be its vital interests. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has wanted a buffer between itself and western Europe. It could accept the loss of the Baltic states, but not more. Not only does Ukraine accommodate a significant number of ethnic Russians, but it is also home to Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol, among other military installations. With a healthy dose of realpolitik, it should have been clear that Putin would use force to retain influence over Ukraine, whereas the United States was never willing to do the same, given that Ukraine was simply not a vital interest.
Having failed to consider its own behavior from Russia’s perspective, the U.S. has placed an undue and self-exonerating amount of blame on Putin for the crisis in Ukraine. This is not to say that Putin’s actions were warranted in any way. The point here is that, had the U.S. been more sensitive to Russian’s security concerns, it could have foreseen Putin’s response to events in Ukraine and to NATO’s expansion writ large. If the U.S. had been forced to live in a security environment akin to Russia’s, perhaps it would have.
Demetri Papageorgiou is studying Government and Economics in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University.
Image Attribution: “Vladimir Putin at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2009” by World Economic Forum, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0