Oh, Please Be Careful!

March 15, 2014

Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961 have we been this close to war.  This is, further, not an accidental confrontation or one that might be avoided by making a mistake clear, as in some false alert because a flock of geese looks like a nuclear attack on a radar screen. This confrontation is not a mistake.  Putin has been upset about the loss of Ukraine since he came to power. He has sometimes spoken as if he will measure the success or failure of his presidency by whether he has been able to restore the Russian empire.  That dream depends upon Ukraine as the empire's western bulwark.  Further, the Russian president's modus operandi is strictly KGB.  He attacks.  He doesn't reason; he punishes. Violence is therefore as natural to the Russian leader as the search for democratic resolution is to the Americans.  Putin's bravado is no doubt further strengthened by his estimate of the quiet speaking, rational American president as weak.  American history, by contrast to Russian, characteristically promotes diplomacy which depends upon reason. It is hard to find any Russian history that does the same.  As this is written we therefore have a situation of a former KGB officer with nuclear weapons daring the West to take him on.

David Brooks in a recent column in the New York Times warned us that Putin has been sending three books to his governors in various western provinces.  Each book in a different way extols the future of Russia as an imperial power bridging Asia and the West.  This will be a power that defies Western materialism and combines Orthodox spirituality with Russia's messianic mission. That mission is to move beyond the crass materialist democracies of Europe to assert again the natural  order of history which is a combination of hierarchy and privilege for those who are strong and who, incidentally, are blessed by God.  When Obama tells Putin that he is on the wrong side of history, Putin thinks that the opposite is true: the natural order of Russia has always been conquest and greatness lies in the hands of those who seize opportunity.

Now, ironically, on the other hand, the European Union and the United States suddenly find western Ukraine about to fall into their laps like an apple from a tree. The unexpected toppling of president Yanukovich has provided a great opportunity for the West to expand commerce and possibly even some form of democracy.  But democracy in Ukraine is a dagger to the ambitions of Russia's nationalist, messianic leader.  Putin is therefore faced with the realization that If he is to be the messiah of the new empire he must respond with the only power he has against the surprising strength of the people's uprising in Kiev.  He must respond with force.

In 1932, Japan started a war by provoking a border crisis involving Japanese citizens in Manchuria.  The Japanese manufactured the crisis as a pretext and then invaded China.  In 1938 Hitler manufactured a need to protect Germans in the Sudetenland and then seized that territory and thus began the sequence of events that led to World War II. In 2003, George W. Bush manufactured a pretext to invade Iraq, supposedly to protect that country's people from a brutal dictator.  Pretext as an excuse for war is unfortunately a well trod path.  In 2014, Putin has stirred up a crisis in Crimea and appears to be churning up multiple crises further within Ukraine's eastern provinces in Donetsk and Kharkiv.  Unmarked thugs are now marching through those cities and they are being accused of being operatives of "Blackwater," the notorious American mercenaries who were accused of murderous rampages in Iraq.  Crowds appear magically out of nowhere hurling epithets at "Blackwater."  All this seems eerily like 1932 and 1938 and even 2003.  It cannot be long before Putin moves in "to protect" his people. His move on Saturday to seize a power plant inside Ukraine seems calculated to cause a military response from Kiev, thus to give excuse to a full scale Russian invasion.  For the moment the Ukranians are not taking the bait, but clearly Putin will keep trying to manufacture some excuse.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry have reacted as strongly as words will allow but they have no practical way to resist this prospective invasion except with the threat of war.  Economic sanctions will cut almost as hard against the West, and particularly against Great Britain and Germany who will suffer sanctions in return.  Putin knows this.  He knows that his resolve is stronger than either Angela Merkel's or David Cameron's and he estimates that it is stronger than Obama's and Kerry's.  Ukraine is, after all, the foundation of his personally cherished plans for the future and Western resistance is only based in abstract legal principle.  We believe in self determination and the sanctity of national boundaries. But legal principles, unlike personal dreams, do not build the emotional commitment that offsets Putin's messianic intention to recreate the Soviet empire.

That is why this is so dangerous.  Putin does not think that we will engage him in a real war over principles.  For Obama and Kerry it is beginning to look as if they are going to have to either back down or shoot.  Republicans in the Congress do not make it any easier by saying that if we back down we are giving away the world, being outsmarted and outmaneuvered. With that challenge to their backs the Americans are compelled to keep bluffing, puffing, and moving troops into Poland and ships into the Black Sea.

Now this begins to mirror the escalating steps that led to the First World War. The multiple interwoven threats in 1914, just 100 years ago, had to be made good. The bluffs had to be called. A war that no one wanted had to be begun and once begun could not be halted until millions had died and a generation of young men had been wiped out. Those consequences, however, awful as they were, would be chicken feed compared to the consequences of a nuclear exchange should the struggle for Ukraine come to that.

In 1962 Nikita Krushchev backed down and pulled his missiles out of Cuba.  They were in our sphere of influence and too close for us to tolerate. We agreed to pull our missiles out of Turkey which was a face saver for Krushchev.  The point, however, that applies to the current crisis, is that when Krushchev meddled in our back yard, we cried foul and he agreed to leave without destroying the world.  Now we are in Russia's backyard and we will have to find some way to de-escalate without destroying the world.