On Aug. 22, a convoy of more than 200 white-painted trucks carrying, according to the Russian government, humanitarian aid trundled into war-ravaged eastern Ukraine, suddenly and without permission from Ukrainian authorities, through a border post under the control of pro-Russian rebels. There were suspicions that the vehicles were really transporting Russian troops and materiel, but humanitarian aid (mostly food and water) was, in fact, reported the BBC, the cargo. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko nevertheless quickly denounced Russia’s dispatch of the trucks as a “direct invasion,” the United States demanded Russia withdraw the convoy, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel decried the affair as “a dangerous escalation.”
But a day later the trucks turned around and trundled back out of Ukraine. Once again, Russian President Vladimir Putin had managed to wrong-foot observers and heads of state both, and show his population that Russia would act independently to defend its national interests (which, in this case, meant helping mostly ethnic Russians survive the separatist war Russia itself has fomented). In fact, on Aug. 26 the Russian government announced it planned to send yet another such convoy into Ukraine – an event that may be overshadowed by today’s reports of a real Russian invasion purportedly happening now.
Perhaps Western leaders should have expected Russia to act alone in defiantly dispatching its convoy or in pursuing a full-scale invasion of eastern Ukraine. Putin is, after all, defending what his government considers a strategic priority: keeping NATO, a foreign military bloc inherently adversarial to Russia, out of Ukraine, the birthplace of Kievan Rus and historically a buffer zone against Western incursions. He has said as much on numerous occasions, and NATO itself, fearful of antagonizing Moscow, back in 2008 refused to offer Ukraine (and Georgia) Membership Action Plans, all the while declaring that both countries will one day become alliance members. Still wary of Russia, NATO is not planning on inducting Ukraine any time soon, but Ukraine has already signed what might reasonably be viewed as the document – the Association Agreement with the European Union – that could precede joining. The membership lists for both entities are almost identical.
Putin recently laid out how his government will deal with the world, and surprise, unquestioning respect for the post-Cold-War status quo has lost its place in his foreign policy agenda. On Aug. 14, in the Crimean seaside town of Yalta, the Russian president convened members of his government and the various fractions of the State Duma at an event largely ignored by the international media and, puzzlingly, given little play on the country’s Kremlin-controlled airwaves. (Live coverage was promised but then canceled inexplicably at the last minute.) During the course of a speech (mostly dedicated to plans for integrating Crimea into the Russian Federation) and a much more wide-ranging session of questions and answers, Putin talked in relaxed, at times even conciliatory, tones about Russia and the West, his governance (“we have made mistakes and will make more mistakes”), and his desire to create an environment attractive to investors. But he also issued veiled threats with serious, long-term strategic implications that should prompt the Obama administration, NATO and the European Union to reconsider the policies that have so far proved strikingly ineffectual at breaking Russia’s grip on Crimea or quenching the fires of war in the provinces of eastern Ukraine.
It’s worth noting that the Q&A followed a wildly bellicose address by the extreme nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the grossly misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Zhirinovsky has frequently played the role of dastardly court jester floating outlandishly jingoistic ideas that nonetheless seem calculated to please Putin and appeal to Russians angry over their country’s loss of superpower status. (Zhirinovsky made headlines earlier in August when he announced on the television station Rossiya 24 that the decision to start World War III had “already been made” and warned the “leaders of the little dwarf-states” of Eastern Europe and the Baltics that they would be “carpet-bombed” for hosting NATO bases.) In Yalta he did not disappoint. He spouted more belligerent invective, denouncing elections as a sham concocted in the West, finding fault with Stalin for not attacking the Germans first in 1941, and mooted the possibility of sending Russian tanks against Brussels. Ever a suck-up to the Kremlin, he also suggested restoring the Russian empire and crowning Putin as the “supreme leader.”
After Zhirinovsky quit the podium, Putin complimented him on his oratorical skills and, laughingly, announced that what the LDPR chief said was “his own opinion, which doesn’t always coincide with the official position of the Russian Federation.” He added that “the principles of our foreign policy must be peaceful.” But then came the remark of import: “All our partners” – such is the term disingenuously used by Russian officials to describe the U.S. and Europe – ”in the world have to understand that Russia, like any other large, powerful sovereign state, has at its disposal a number of methods and means of protecting its national interests including . . . the armed forces.” He hardly needed to point that out, but that he chose to do so, and not, for example, to directly criticize Zhirinovsky’s rant, seemed to validate it, if in an understated way.
But in Zhirinovsky’s tirade there was little to laugh about. Having tripled its defense budget since Putin became president in 2000, Russia has been engaging in an unprecedented military buildup, and has conducted large-scale military exercises, including one in its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad (bordering Lithuania and Poland, both NATO members) and another simulating a nuclear attack on Poland – one of the places Zhirinovsky earlier threatened to bomb. Russia retains a formidable nuclear arsenal – the only one capable of incinerating the United States (as one Russian TV commentator provocatively pointed out during the early months of the Ukraine crisis). Yes, Russia is, in other respects, a less than impressive adversary -- its GDP accounts for only 3 percent of the world economy, for instance. But its potential as a nuclear troublemaker is what counts here. Among officials of a nuclear-armed power, there should be zero room for gratuitous talk of attacking neighbors.
The assembled State Duma deputies began putting questions to Putin that offered no cause for levity either. Yelena Mizulina, author of the law banning “gay propaganda” to minors (and much other retrograde legislation), denounced the European Court of Human Rights as a “primitive tool for putting political pressure on Russia” and a “channel for interfering in Russia’s internal affairs.” She also declared that “norms of international law” operate “only when they benefit the U.S. and leading countries of the West” – observations with which few Russians (and many non-Russians) would disagree. Her conclusion, which she put to Putin: Russia must rewrite its constitution and ponder the annulment of Article 15, which designates “norms of international law and the international agreements of the Russian Federation” as an “essential component” of the country’s legal system.
Putin rejected the idea of changing the constitution, but agreed with Mizulina that the European Court’s verdicts were “politicized,” and not concerned with upholding the law. He suggested that should such rulings continue to come down, Russia would withdraw from the court’s jurisdiction. He added, to a burst of applause, that “The U.S.,” to protect its national security, “unilaterally abrogated the treaty limiting offensive nuclear weapons . . . . We will do exactly the same thing, if we decide it’s necessary and in our interests.” Specifically, he appears to have had in mind the Bush administration’s 2001 decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty the Nixon administration concluded with the Soviet Union in 1972; the New START Treaty the Obama administration signed with Russia in 2010 remains in force. (This was a rare lapse on Putin’s part – he is usually in command of the relevant facts and figures for any given issue.) But the gist of his words is nevertheless ominous: Russia may begin tearing up the documents on which peace and stability in the post-Cold War world has depended.
Putin also announced that Russia may ditch another key atomic weapons control agreement – the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (which bans the sort of missiles the Soviet Union once aimed at Europe, and led to the U.S. withdrawing its own similar missiles from the continent), signed with the United States in 1987. Putin had already, as far back as 2007, declared the treaty as against Russia’s interests, and he reaffirmed this position in Yalta.
The United States on multiple occasions has already accused Russia of violating the INF treaty, prompting the Foreign Ministry in Moscow to issue strongly worded denials. But worries about the INF agreement seem almost beside the point. In Yalta Putin also spoke of soon “surprising the West with our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons about which we do not talk yet” – and this, after Russian strategic nuclear bombers, say U.S. defense officials, violated American airspace 16 times in the past week and a half.
What are we to take away from the Yalta conference, with Putin’s veiled threats to cease observing landmark treaties and international law? And most important, what are we to do about it?
Based on what Russia under Putin has done both before and during the Ukraine crisis, we can expect Russia to continue turning away from the West, away from agreements with Western countries signed when the Soviet Union, or post-Soviet Russia, was at its weakest. We should expect Putin to keep destabilizing Ukraine as long as that country may lurch westward, toward NATO, even if prospects for alliance membership are distant. We should count on Putin never ceding Crimea to Kiev (in Yalta he explicitly called the peninsula’s return to the Russian fold “absolutely legal”). We should not be surprised if Russia, citing as precedents the many questionable, even criminal, American interventions abroad in recent decades, acts unilaterally to defend its interests, which may mean disrupting the post-Cold War status quo. We should, in other words, prepare ourselves for further, and far greater, turmoil on the international arena.
There is a way out. However distasteful the Obama administration finds Putin, it must learn to talk to him and cut deals. Peace across the globe is threatened if the nuclear standoff between the United States and Russia resumes. (If, for whatever reason, a conflict with NATO broke out and Russian conventional forces began to lose, is it reasonable to expect Russia to forgo deploying its stronger assets against alliance countries?) If we have not paid attention to Russia before – the Obama administration is singularly guilty in this regard – we should start doing so now. The world is not going to be as it was before the Euromaidan protests deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russia annexed Crimea.
In sum, we face a newly dangerous future, with the threat of a shooting war erupting between Russia and the West -- unless we act, and act fast, to reestablish a working relationship with the Kremlin that recognizes legitimate Russian interests. To do so, for starters, we should stop listening to our own declarations about NATO posing no threat to Russia. NATO’s troops, missiles, bases and where they are will be what counts for Russia, not mere verbiage. To Americans, Putin’s position vis-à-vis NATO should be comprehensible; the United States would not tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, and no doubt, following the Monroe Doctrine, it would permit no similar meddling around its borders today.
Peace across the globe is threatened if the nuclear standoff between the United States and Russia resumes in full force. Even if it does not, we need to talk to the Russians. The evacuation for NATO troops soon to be withdrawn from Afghanistan runs through Russia. Russia wields considerable influence with Iran, with which the U.S. is trying to cut a nuclear deal, and Syria, the odious ruling regime of which could be a de facto ally in defeating the barbarous Islamic State.
Russia never bought into the liberal, “values-based” world order that American and European leaders believed (wishfully and quite erroneously) had prevailed over balance-of-power relations starting with the fall of the Soviet Union.
No informed, far-sighted statesman could have expected Putin to acquiesce to Ukraine joining an alliance created to counter his country militarily. The architect of the United States’ successful, Soviet-era containment policy (and thus no dove) George Kennan famously opposed the alliance’s move east, calling it a “tragic mistake” that would likely end in a “hot” war. And so it has turned out to be. The United States and NATO need to publicly disavow any intention to induct Ukraine (and Georgia), which would remain non-bloc and neutral, just as Finland has. Russia in return would have to withdraw its troops from the country and forswear all attempts at destabilizing it. If they do intend to invite Ukraine, they need to explain what good the new members will bring the alliance, and ready themselves and their peoples for a potential nuclear confrontation with Russia.
(In one respect, it may be too late. In addition to tripling air patrols over the Baltics and scheduling military exercises in Poland this fall, NATO has just announced preliminary plans to set up new bases in Eastern Europe. A final decision will take place at the NATO summit next month in Wales.)
The former head of U.S. Strategic Command, Gen. Lee Butler, famously remarked two decades ago that the United States and the Soviet Union managed to avoid a nuclear war "by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion." To avert catastrophe, we will need considerably more “divine intervention” this time around, as history prepares to repeat itself not as farce, but as tragedy. One (occasionally) rogue nuclear power was bad enough. The world cannot abide two – and survive.