Fighting Words

Chris Murphy, the junior senator from Connecticut, has not given up on diplomacy, but he certainly looks ready for war. “Five years ago it was ridiculous to think Russia would invade Ukraine,” says the first term senator in the echo of the Cannon Rotunda. “Today it may be ridiculous to think that they’ll march on a NATO ally in five or ten years.” Senator Murphy finds himself in good company wishing to protect NATO against the scourge of Russia: Dean Acheson and the Dulles brothers, to name a few. CNN’s Jake Tapper chimes in echoing George F. Kennan, and suggests that the US “contain” Russia.

Murphy, a vivacious, energetic cold warrior at the young age of 40, intends to thwart “Putin’s ambitions to re-establish the old soviet empire.” “Putin,” the Senator triumphantly declared, has “become an international pariah.”

But, at risk of reprising an argument already made in this publication, Senator Murphy’s fears just do not make strategic sense.

Let’s first put aside Murphy’s qualm regarding a Russian attack against a NATO ally. It is not in Russia’s interest—nor will it ever be in Russia’s interest—to invade a NATO member in a way similar to its recent attacks on non-NATO states (Georgia in 2008, and, of course, Ukraine today). As much as the United States might not care to go to war to protect the sovereignty of a NATO member, take Latvia, for example, the Senate-ratified North Atlantic Treaty would compel such action. Clause five of the treaty, first invoked by the United States after 9/11/01, equates an attack on Latvia to an attack on France, the UK, or the United States, and compels a response by all NATO members. Russia conquering Latvia, or any other Baltic state, is essentially declaring war against five of the world’s ten most powerful militaries, at the same time. Because of this, the “ridiculous” notion Murphy mentions will likely still be ridiculous in five or ten years. His slippery slope concern is, therefore, limited when it comes to NATO states (which, due to the West’s Cold War strategies, already effectively boxes in present day Russia).

Completely aside from the strategic conundrum of the NATO tripwire, Senator Murphy’s assumption that Crimea represents the first conquest of the New Russian Empire puts US policy in an extremely difficult position. Acting on the ‘Empire’ assumption, and following the ‘line in the sand’ drawn by Sen. Murphy, commits the United States to expanding its engagement in Europe in order to counteract Russia with the same type of containment that led the United States into Vietnam.

But why not be cautious assume the worst about Russia’s intentions? Because the ‘worst’ that Senator Murphy is worried about in Washington is almost as bad for Moscow. First, a serious, sustained attempt at building an Empire to the west would trigger harsh economic consequences. Though the most commonly told economic story about the current crisis has been Russia’s control of petroleum and natural gas flowing to Europe, Russia’s economy would suffer greatly. Russia’s export economy makes up one-sixth of its GDP, and six of its seven largest customers are in Europe. Russia would not just lose customers if Europe cut economic ties; they would lose important industrial resources and capital goods like heavy machinery, plastics, and finished metal products.

Further, even accounting for the ‘pivot to Asia,’ America’s vital strategic interests still include protecting the European industrial core from a potential hegemon. When Russia challenged this interest in the Cold War, the US proved much stronger. Today, the US is not just much stronger than Russia: it is astronomically stronger. Putin knows this, and knows it is not in his country’s interest to challenge the existing order in Europe.

Russia’s aims in the Ukraine crisis have little to do with expanding its power or dominion. Russia would be satisfied with a return to status quo ante rerum, where Ukraine was not wholly in the EU’s camp or Russia’s. That Putin is seeking to protect own security interests from NATO/EU expansion right on his doorstep is overall a much more plausible explanation than the theory of neo-imperialism. Assuming the worst, as Senator Murphy has clearly done, is not America’s best course of action.

The ‘Murphy/Tapper Cold War Pep Rally’ is not the only misrepresentation of the situation in Ukraine in the US media, but it is uniquely scary, because it stars the Chairman of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Europe, who is also a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Vladimir Putin likely doesn’t watch Jake Tapper, but he certainly pays attention to US Senators because they have the tools—sanction authority, treaty power, and influence over foreign affairs—to turn outdated, jingoistic Cold-War rhetoric into a reality.

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