In Putin’s Shoes

When ski-masked soldiers, wearing no insignia, carrying Russian AK-74 rifles, driving Russian Ural trucks, and, in at least one instance, admitting that they are Russian, appeared in front of government buildings and military installations in Crimea last week, it was at least somewhat hard not to recall the Red Army landing in Kabul on Christmas Day 1979. But the arrival of ground forces, likely from bases in Russia, is neither a Cold War ghost, nor a harbinger of a new imperial Russia with Putin as its Tsar.

Russian troops have moved into Crimea because Russia has legitimate security interests in Ukraine, and those security interests were threatened by the dramatic effects of Euromaidan (the revolution that forced Viktor Yanukovych from power in Kyiv as of 21 February). Ukraine has, since the end of the Cold War, served an important role as a geopolitical buffer between Russia and Europe. NATO expansion (read: the expansion of U.S. influence and strategic interest) since the end of the Cold War, over which Russia has already fought one war in the 21st Century, has pushed the easternmost boundary of Europe-as-political-entity up to the doorstep of sovereign Russian territory.

All that stands between Russia and their Cold War-era foe is Ukraine. Until now, the twin influences of Ukraine’s important neighbors, Russia and the European community, have been relatively balanced because of Ukrainian domestic politics and complicated demographics. By tipping the scale in neither direction, Ukraine has served well as a buffer zone between two more powerful political entities.

The revolution indicates that the balance of Ukrainian foreign relations is tipping in favor of Europe. Russia has responded and entered Crimea to make sure that Ukraine keeps Russian interests in mind, and that the new government reins in its promises before letting the balance tip too far west.

The United States, whether unintentionally or not, has been complicit in the growth of this threat through support for post-2009 NATO expansions, and, of course, the long-contentious European Missile Defense initiative. Whether it was part of American foreign policy or not, and Obama’s foreign policy team has written plenty to suggest not, The United States helped back Russia into a corner, and their stance in Crimea is, more than anything, not a matter of empire, not a play to protect the warm water port at Sebastopol, but rather a forceful reminder to Ukraine and the West that it is in Russia’s strategic and security interest not to be pushed around in their proverbial back yard. The United States, so far, has failed to act as though they understand that strategic interest.

The geopolitical narrative that Americans have written about the United States, ironically described by Joseph Stalin as “American Exceptionalism,” hampers our collective ability to understand our allies’ and adversaries’ strategic interests. American thought has, since our real entry into great power politics in 1917, conflated the magnitude of America’s military, economic, and ideological might with a value judgment: The interests of the United States are more legitimate than others and are normatively indispensible. Without stopping for a debate about the value of such a policy, it is still clear that “exceptionalism” impacts U.S. foreign policy. In this case, the impact appears negative.

The United States certainly does not need to support a Putin Doctrine to match our Monroe Doctrine, but it is crucial that Americans recognize the validity of Russia’s strategic interests. Before U.S. policy makers and thought leaders continue talking “Cold War” and “Chechnya” in the same breath as “Crimea,” practitioners and the public alike should seriously ask “why?” in regards to Russia’s motives and interests. Only once the United States gets serious about the actual situation, rather than a version of events clouded by ignorance of Russia’s interests, can we begin to make a positive impact on the situation.

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