A few months after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, in 2014, Foreign Affairs conducted an illuminating exchange of views. It is as good a place as any to begin to retrace the steps that brought us to the present day “Russia crisis.” It is always a good idea to go back to the beginning when you are lost.
John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, wrote “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions that Provoked Putin. Michael McFaul, advisor to President Barack Obama, back at Stanford after a two-year stint as ambassador to Moscow, argued that the takeover had been “Moscow’s Choice: Who Started the Ukraine Crisis.” Alexander Lukin, vice president of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, described “What the Kremlin Is Thinking: Putin’s Vision for Eurasia.” (Foreign Affairs allows non-subscribers only one free article a month, so choose your link carefully.)
Mearsheimer, 69, the leading expositor (after Henry Kissinger, 94) of what is commonly called the realist view in international affairs, described a triple package of encroachment: NATO enlargement, European Union expansion, and aggressive democracy promotion. Of these, NATO was the “taproot” of the trouble. Putin’s actions should be easy to comprehend, he wrote, especially for those who remembered Russian experiences with Napoleonic France (in 1812), imperial Germany (in World War I) and Nazi Germany (in World War II). He continued,
No Russian leader would tolerate [NATO], a military alliance that was Moscow’s mortal enemy until recently, moving into Ukraine. Nor would any Russian leader stand idly by while the West helped install a government there that was determined to integrate Ukraine into the West…. After all, the United States does not tolerate distant great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western hemisphere, much less on its borders. Imagine the outrage in Washington if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico in it.''
McFaul, 53, an expositor of the liberal view of foreign affairs, responded in the next issue. If Russia was really opposed to NATO expansion, why didn’t it raise a stink after 1999, when NATO expansion began? Hadn’t Russian president Dimitri Mededev permitted the U.S. to continue to operate its airbase in Kyrgyzstan? Hadn’t he tacitly acquiesced to NATO intervention in Libya?
"In the five years that I served in the Obama administration, I attended almost every meeting Obama held with Putin and Medvedev, and, for three of those years, while working at the While House, I listened in on every phone conversation, and I cannot remember NATO expansion ever coming up.''
The real reason for the annexation, McFaul wrote, had to do with internal Russian politics. Putin needed to cast the US as an enemy in order to discredit those who opposed his election to a third presidential term. He feared a “color revolution,” like the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004, might force him from power.
Mearsheimer wasn’t impressed: And to argue that Russian opposition was based on “resentment,” as had former Bill Clinton adviser Stephen Sestanovich, 67, in a companion piece, “How the West Has Won,” was to miss the point. Russia was worried about its border.
"Great powers always worry about the balance of power in their neighborhoods and push back when other great powers march up to their doorstep. This is why the United States adopted the Monroe Doctrine in the early nineteenth century and why it has repeatedly used military force and covert action to shape political events in the Western Hemisphere.''
Meanwhile, Lukin, the Kremlin insider, had already reminded readers of the gauzy view of Russia that had taken hold in America after 1993. Gradually Russia would embrace Western-style democracy at home and cease to pose a threat to the security of its former satellites. It would accept Western leadership in economic affairs. And it would recognize that various tough treatment of its one-time allies – Serbia, Libya, Iraq, and Iran – was the legitimate exercise of Western leadership in global affairs. Lukin wrote:
"The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has finally put an end to this fantasy. In annexing Crimea, Moscow decisively rejected the West’s rules and in the process shattered many flawed Western assumptions about its motivations. US and European officials need a new paradigm for how to think about Russian foreign policy – and if they want to resolve the Ukraine crisis and prevent similar ones from occurring in the future, they need to get better at putting themselves in Moscow’s shoes.''
What Putin had in mind, Lukin wrote, was the formation of a Eurasian Union, similar to the European Union but not particularly a rival to it, linking the economies of Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Ukraine.
"The concept of a Eurasian space or identity first arose among Russian philosophers and historians who emigrated from communist Russia to Western Europe in the 1920s. Like Russian Slavophiles before them, advocates of Eurasianism spoke of the special nature of Russian civilization and its differences from European society; but they gazed in a different direction. Whereas earlier Slavophiles emphasized Slavic unity and contrasted European individualism with the collectivism of Russian peasant communities, the Eurasians linked the Russian people to the Turkic-speaking people, or 'Turanians,' of the Central Asian Steppe.''
The differences of opinion had been clearly set out.
That was three years ago. You know the rest. Escalating sanctions on Russia from the West, especially the US. From Russia, increasing bellicosity.
Since he was elected, Donald Trump has been hoist on a petard largely of the Democratic Party’s making, going back to Bill Clinton’s decision to press for NATO expansion in 1994. Enlargement was forcefully opposed by other Democrats in 1996, but to no avail. Clinton went ahead. George W. Bush and Obama continued in the same groove.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to say a kind word about Trump. He first came by his views of Russia from well-heeled Russian customers for his real estate developments. And I am only mildly sympathetic to Putin’s problems. We have enough of our own.
The good news is that Trump has appointed two sensible realists who know a thing or two about Russia: Rex Tillerson Secretary of State and, the other week, Jon Huntsman as ambassador to Russia. It is the beginning of a long journey back to common sense.
David Warsh is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this first ran. He is a long-time columnist and economic historian.