Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, March 16, 2014

This Is Not a New Cold War

“To make my future bright, I reach for the fire of the past” say the Tatars. Indeed, the fire of the past is in many ways the only thing we can use to make sense of what’s happening in Ukraine today. Yet it seems that the immediate past, and not the more distant past, is what we are using for our guiding light, which I believe it incredibly wrong and counter-productive. Having undergone a major shift in academic, personal and professional interests from history to political science around five years ago, of late I find myself getting back to my early education in Russian history. My past few posts, especially the one co-authored with my colleagues and my Primer on Ukraine are a prime example of this- have been written with the aim of providing a sense of guidance in these confusing times.

As the heat continues to ratchet up in the Ukraine crisis, in the West the war drum is beating to the sound of the Cold War mentality. People have been saying things in the media like “How can we say there isn’t a new Cold War with Russia? Just look at what’s going on!”. This attitude, however, shows a grave and fundamental flaw in general thinking on Eurasian geopolitics, and more specifically, a tendency to view Russia in a very myopic way.

I have often bemoaned what I perceive as a continued “Cold War mindset” in the US toward Russia. Some have attributed this to the fact that so many of our policymakers were people who made their bones during the Reagan years or before. This, I believe, was more common, and perhaps more justifiable, during the George W. Bush administration, when indeed several key members of the government had been in service since the 1970’s. While there may be some truth to this, I think the bigger issue is a grave public misunderstanding of Winston Churchill’s “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” (In this case, Russia). It’s important to make this distinction between a “Cold War” in which ideology is the driving factor and a revived, expansionist quasi-imperialist Russia because while political ideology can be bought or corrupted by money, a revived nationalism is much more potent and will drive the Russians to do bigger and bolder things.

The “Cold War,” in the strictest sense of the term, was an ideological battle between the democratic, capitalist West and the authoritarian, centralized and command-economy East. In many ways, however, the Cold War was a continuation of the historic battle between Russia and the West that has continued in one form or another for centuries. The biggest differences between the Great Game and the Cold War, however, were the emphasis on ideology over imperial glory in the latter, and the fact that Russia was already in control of the so-called “Eurasian heartland.” It is the control of this Eurasian space that constitutes the biggest factor in the current Ukrainian crisis.

“Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.” Among Eurasia analysts, this is one of the most oft-quoted maxims in the field, which comes from Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Halford Mackinder stated in his “Heartland Theory” that whoever controlled the Eurasian heartland controlled the world. During the Cold War, Eurasia--including Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia--were all under the command of the Russia-dominated Soviet Union. When the USSR collapsed, a large portion of Eurasia re-opened. Now that Russia is more vulnerable and has lost a considerable amount of its strategic depth, it is seeking to re-expand its empire, and Ukraine is the keystone in the “European” facet of Russia’s Eurasian empire.

Secretary of State John Kerry told CBS’s Face the Nation a few weeks ago "You just don't in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext." That comment reveals a lot about Russia’s current actions. As Russia re-emerged from the ashes of the collapse of the USSR, it needed to find a new identity, and naturally it went back to what it could connect with before the Soviet Union; it revived many of the symbols and ideas of the Tsarist era. Indeed today many believe that Russia’s greatness on the world stage can only be had through imperialist expansion, which is arguably what is happening in Crimea, even if Crimeans themselves vote to join Russia. After all, how many imperial possessions have countries obtained from groups seeking protectorate status from a larger power (a case-in-point is Russia’s takeover of Georgia in the early 1800’s, which began as a Georgian request for Russian protection against the Ottoman Muslims).

Some parallels can actually be drawn, I feel, with the current military standoff in Crimea and the Crimean War of 1853-1856. In theory the Crimean War was about who had the rights to protect Christian shrines in the Ottoman Empire’s Palestine. In reality, however, it was an attempt by Russia to stave off the great Western powers, particularly France and the United Kingdom, from taking strategic control of the Black Sea region in light of the declining Ottoman Empire, known by then as the “sick man of Europe.” Now, with the potential that Russia has “lost” Ukraine to Europe, it has taken the opportunity in Ukraine’s uncertain domestic situation to assert control militarily. While it is taking a gamble by sending troops into part of a country that directly borders several NATO allies, Russia has calculated that the West will not respond militarily- no doubt informed, in part, by the West’s relative lack of action in Georgia.

It would be unfair to place blame squarely on the shoulders of Americans for seeing things in this light, however. Russian ideologue Aleskandr Prokhanov has openly stated that he has worked “day and night” for a new Cold War between Russia and the West. The idea is that this will allow Russia to make a substantial re-orientation toward China. Nevertheless, the point is that by continually referring to our relations with Russia in the context of the Cold War risks creating a broad view in the American public of Russia as it’s portrayed in The Hunt for Red October. On the level of the policy makers in Washington and, to a lesser extent, Brussels, if they too continue to see the crisis through this prism, it can only serve to worsen things and cause the West to err and blunder. If we are going to deal with this new crisis in Russia-West relations, we need to give it the proper historic depth and perspective it deserves.

The current conflict in Ukraine is not part of a new, repackaged or revived “Cold War,” and to say that it is shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Cold war was all about. The conflict is rather part of the broader contention for Eurasia, of which Ukraine is a relatively small but pivotally important part. We need to stop referring to the current standoff between Russia and the West as a “new Cold War” in order to break out of that outmoded mentality. I argue that instead of looking to our immediate past, one which we can much better understand given that it is still very much within living memory, we need to look even further into the past to understand what is truly going on. If we are going to deal this this crisis, we may as well try to start off with a proper view of it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

China's Lessons Learned from Ukraine

I've read a number of critical takes on Team Obama's response to the events in Ukraine, and many fear that the administration is acting far too "weakly" in the face of Russia's provocations. These critics, of course, want Obama to respond with strong punitive measures. Why? The gist is that the U.S. has to act and look strong to avoid emboldening states from learning the lesson that conquest and aggression pays. They might be right. As a global leader, perhaps it is up to the U.S., along with its Western allies, to uphold this norm in international relations.

That said, there is one specific argument put forward by Obama's detractors that I find profoundly dubious. The argument is that China is rapidly learning that the U.S. is weak when it comes to confronting foreign countries aggressively asserting their sovereignty over contested territories. The critics worry that China will learn these lessons and apply them to its own regional claims in the South and East China Seas, emboldening Beijing to further up its aggressiveness in these areas. If this were to happen, the critics claim, East Asia and surrounding areas could turn into a tinderbox.

Could this happen? Sure, it's possible; lots of things are possible, for that matter. But to buy that argument we would have to assume China's leaders are simpletons who make wild comparisons between cases, no matter what these cases look like. I don't see China's leaders in those terms.

Put simply, Chinese leaders know that Russia's intervention in Ukraine is not neatly analogous to China's own hypothetical moves in the South and East China Seas. China knows that U.S. has much stronger interests on the line in East Asia, and Asia more generally, than in Ukraine, which really isn't a big strategic factor in U.S. foreign policy. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, to name but a few countries, have territorial disputes with China, but they are also strong allies of the U.S. Any Chinese move that harms the sovereignty of any of these allies--and that includes their territorial claims--would trigger vigorous and likely immediate economic, political, diplomatic, and military countermeasures by Team Obama. I'm not saying that the U.S. would necessarily be ready to wage war against China should it formally annex disputed islands; but it would most assuredly, in my view, be willing and prepared to contribute the kind of assistance that's designed to get China to back down.

Furthermore, Russia nowadays isn't a serious competitor to the U.S. for influence and leadership in the world. Oh certainly, Russia, especially under Putin, is a irritant and a troublemaker on a host of issues, from Iran and Syria to Georgia and now Ukraine. But Russia isn't the Soviet Union. It lacks the economic, political, military, and soft power to rival America's standing in the world. In fact, Russia is so weakened that the EU and NATO, with U.S. support and encouragement, have expanded right to its doorstep, something that was unthinkable just a few decades ago.

Should Russia permanently capture Crimea, or even Eastern Ukraine as well, those additions don't reverse the decline in Russian power and they don't tip the balance of power in Europe. Those moves would put the West on edge, to be sure, and ratchet up Russian-Western tensions and hostilities. But in the big picture, they don't mean terribly much strategically.

China, meantime, is an ascendant Red Panda, expanding its material bases of power year by year. It now possesses the second largest economy and military. Additionally, over the last decade, it has expanded and upgraded its ties to states across the world; garnered significantly more clout and respect in regional and international institutions; and is treated as a great power by a substantial number of countries. China is seen as indispensable on a number of consequential issues, like stability and nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, the world economy, climate change. But along with China's rise is the growing fear--within both the policy and academic communities--that China, in the coming years, will look to kick the presence of the U.S. out of East Asia. In the parlance of John Mearsheimer, China wants to establish regional hegemony in Asia.

It is in this vein that Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, among others, are important to the U.S. They are a part of the American-led bulwark that's essential to contain and inhibit China's actions throughout Asia. They are important for the U.S. to keep a strong foothold in the region. China is aware of this. Chinese leaders realize that aggressive military plans and actions, especially those involving these four countries, will ineluctably draw a significant response by the U.S. Arguably, this is one of the reasons that China has embarked on a "salami slicing" approach to its territorial claims. Better to move slow and carefully, nibbling a little at a time, so as to not provoke a coalition that jeopardizes China's rise.

In the end, it is very possible that China is distilling lessons from the ongoing hostilities in Ukraine. And one day China might use deadly force to satisfy its ambitions in its own region. However, if that does happen, it will be unrelated to America's reaction to Russia's aggression in Ukraine.

The Limits of Putin's Ambitions

Is Ukraine the new Sudetenland?

In light of Russia's invasion of Crimea, which belonged to Ukraine, Zbigniew Brzezinski apparently thought so:
[Putin] initial success may tempt him to repeat that performance more directly in the far eastern provinces of Ukraine proper. If successful, the conclusive third phase could then be directed, through a combination of political unrest and increasingly overt use of Russian forces, to overthrow the government in Kiev. The result would thus be similar to the two phases of Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland after Munich in 1938 and the final occupation of Prague and Czechoslovakia in early 1939.
That quote, however, completely overestimates Russia's power and Putin's willingness to launch wars to regain the lost Soviet Empire.

For starters, Russia's power and ability to project isn't nearly comparable to Germany's capabilities in 1938. Germany had the ability to expand not only because Hitler was convinced that France, Italy and Great Britain would do nothing to prevent him (in France and Britain's case, it was more due to the lack of public appetite for another war), but more importantly, because at that time, the distribution of power was relatively equal.

In addition, keep in mind Putin's Russia is not an isolated hermit kingdom. It is deeply linked to international economy. Already the fallout from Russia's invasion led the Ruble to fall to a record low. Still, this does not mean that Putin is what Merkel termed as "in another world." In fact, Putin is a very rational leader who knows the limits of what he can and cannot do.

He knows that he needs Crimea because it houses the Black Sea Fleet -- not to mention its historical importance to Russians. Taking over entire Ukraine, however, is not something that he can do, and he knows this. Instead, Putin is pushing for the Georgia scenario, wherein he takes over parts of the country, setting up a de-facto local government under Russian protection. He knows that as long as he doesn't swallow all of Ukraine, the international community will puff and huff, but nothing will come out from it.

Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it? Can you imagine how I feel about it, Vladimir? Why do you think I'm calling you? Just to say hello? Of course I like to speak to you! Of course I like to say hello! Not now, but any time, Vladimir. It's a friendly call. Of course, it's a friendly call. Listen, if it wasn't friendly, you probably wouldn't have even got it. 

Meantime, Putin has looked into Obama's eyes and saw that Obama lacks guts. He looks at how Obama bungled Syria and had no appetite for any foreign adventures. Since Obama is so powerless against a small fry like Assad, why would Putin believe that Obama is willing to face the big bear that backs Assad?  [Khrushschev might have made this error when he forced the Cuban Missile Crisis on Kennedy, underestimating Kennedy's willingness to fight. But Crimea is not Cuba.]

Besides, Putin holds some precious cards, notably Russia's ability to make life miserable for people in Ukraine and European Union by cutting off the supply of natural gas. Of course Putin won't do that -- at least for now. It is more effective to force the European Union to waffle and do nothing by simply putting that on the table. Moreover, by taking over Crimea without significant international repercussions, it's likely that the Ukrainian new government will toe the Russian line very carefully.

Thus, there will be so much hot air puffed in the next few weeks, but at the end of the day, Russia will stay in Crimea. Ukraine will seethe but they know that they can do nothing; the European Union, as usual, will keep debating until the cows come home; and Obama will remain a lame duck in international affairs until 2016.