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Forget the Spin, Putin Is Holding a Losing Hand

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According to the Sunday Times, Barack Obama has had it with trying to build a partnership with Vladimir Putin. Like George W. Bush before him, Barack Obama has finally written off Vladimir Putin. There will be no reset of relations. Instead, his administration's focus will be "cutting off [Russia's] economic and political ties to the outside world, limiting its expansionist ambitions in its own neighborhood and effectively making it a pariah state."

In the same story, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, expresses his disgust. "They're playing us. We continue to watch what they're doing and try to respond to that. But it seems that in doing so, we create a policy that's always a day late and a dollar short."

To a degree unmatched since the early days of the Global War on Terror, American pundits and politicians have been marching in lockstep in response to Vladimir Putin's seizure of Crimea and continuing threats to Ukraine. On April 8th, as the Ukraine story continued to unfold, New York Times columnist and foreign affairs maven Tom Friedman summed up the commonly accepted narrative of Russian aggression and American passivity in his op-ed Playing Hockey with Putin:

Putin doesn't strike me as a chess player, in geopolitical terms. He prefers hockey, without a referee, so elbowing, tripping and cross-checking are all permitted. Never go to a hockey game with Putin and expect to play by the rules of touch football. The struggle over Ukraine is a hockey game, with no referee. If we're going to play -- we, the Europeans and the pro-Western Ukrainians need to be serious. If we're not, we need to tell the Ukrainians now: Cut the best deal with Putin that you can.

Friedman's colleague at the Times, David Herszenhorn, mirrored the President's frustration as he punctuated an article this week about a posting by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Facebook with an acrid derision that has become commonplace:

And so began another day of bluster and hyperbole, of the misinformation, exaggerations, conspiracy theories, overheated rhetoric and, occasionally, outright lies about the political crisis in Ukraine that have emanated from the highest echelons of the Kremlin and reverberated on state-controlled Russian television, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.

Fifty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, American foreign policy icon George Kennan described circumstances like these. He suggested how a democracy

"becomes victim of its own propaganda. It then tends to attach to its own cause an absolute value which distorts its own vision ... Its enemy becomes the embodiment of all evil. Its own side is the center of all virtue."

Kennan describes our susceptibility succinctly. Americans cling tightly to our image of ourselves as a beneficent, if flawed, people in a Manichean world of good guys and bad guys. We prefer not to know too much about the complexities and morally ambiguities of the world as it really is.

Lost in the 24-hour coverage of the Ukrainian crisis has been any attention to the historical context of these events. This should be the job of our leading newspapers, but even the headlines of these stories in the newspaper of record, Playing Hockey with Putin and Herzenhorn's Russia Is Quick to Bend Truth About Ukraine illustrate how shallow our reporting has become.

There is a backstory that suggests an alternative narrative. Indeed, it would be interesting to know what President Obama and his staff are really thinking as they assail Vladimir Putin for his barbaric behavior. Are they really appalled by Putin's conduct, as the reporting suggests, or do they understand it to be a predictable -- and predicted -- response to America's continuing strategy to undermine Russian power in the region? And is Bob Corker similarly flummoxed by Putin's strategic superiority, or does he share the sense of satisfaction that Zbigniew Brzezinski must feel as Putin flails away in frustration, as America's decades-long campaign to contain and undermine the Russian state continues to play out?

Zbigniew Brzezinski -- who first appeared in the public eye as President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor -- has in many respects been the inheritor of Henry Kissinger's mantle as the most influential member of the American foreign policy establishment. His life's work has been animated by his enduring hostility to the Russian state, and even as the pundits and politicians frame Ukraine as a failure of western diplomacy and strategy, one can see in it instead the success of the Brzezinski doctrine.

Brzezinski was one of the architects of the expansion of NATO in the wake of the end of the Cold War to include all of the former members of the Warsaw Pact. The expansion of NATO, with the ultimate goal of including Ukraine, was part of a strategy of exerting steadily increasing economic and political pressure on the Russian state. Brzezinski laid out his strategic perspective his 1998 book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, and his ambitions to contain and ultimately break up the Russian state are summed up in his article A Geostrategy for Eurasia.

At the time that the NATO was expanded to bring in the former Warsaw Pact states, George Kennan expressed his belief that the aggressive expansion of NATO and a hostile policy of encirclement would backfire, and ultimately lead us to the point at which we have now arrived.

I think it is the beginning of a new cold war... I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.

But where Kennan saw increasing risks of confrontation, Brzezinski saw opportunity. Brzezinski's policy objective was the neutering of Russian ambitions and assuring American dominion in Eurasia. He did not give deference to Russia's historic paranoia as Kennan counseled, instead his strategy of continued pressure was designed to force Russian leaders to make choices between alternative courses of action, any of which would work to America's advantage.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 provides an example of Brzezinski's strategic approach. Back in 1980, we all knew that the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We knew this because Jimmy Carter told us so on national television, and his explanation went largely unchallenged in the media. And we all came to know that we began our support for the Islamist mujahedeen -- who would ultimately defeat the Red Army -- in response to the Soviet invasion. We know this because we saw Charlie Wilson's War. And that rendering of history has largely gone unchallenged in the media.

Only years later did we learn that Jimmy Carter signed the covert action directive initiating support for the Afghan mujahedeen on July 3, 1979, six months before the Soviet invasion. When the Red Army invaded, the Soviet leadership claimed that they were entering Afghanistan to defend the existing Afghan government against a covert war initiated by the United States. The Carter administration adamantly denied the Soviet claims, and the Soviet complaints were ridiculed in the national media -- like Medvedev's words this week -- as nothing more than self-serving propaganda. Of course we had to respond to Soviet aggression, suggested Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press, "We had no choice."

Except, as it turns out, it would appear that the Soviet claims were true.

On the day that Carter approved the CIA intervention, National Security Advisor Brzezinski wrote to the President, "This is our chance to give Russia its Vietnam." Or, as he explained in a 1998 interview, U.S. action in Afghanistan was designed to lure the Red Army into a war that would bleed the Soviet Union. At worst, if the Soviets didn't take the bait, the strategy still offered the prospect of overthrowing the Afghan Communist regime:

According to the official version of the story, the CIA began to assist mujahedeen in the year 1980, that is, after the invasion of the Soviet army against Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the truth that remained secret until today is quite different: it was on July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed his first order on the secret assistance to Kabul's pro-Soviet regime opponents. That day I wrote a memorandum to the President in which I told him that that assistance would cause the Soviet intervention (...) [W]e did not force the Russian intervention, we just, conscientiously, increase the intervention possibilities."

In subsequent years, Jimmy Carter asserted that it was definitely "not his intention" to provoke the Soviet invasion, and perhaps one can take Jimmy Carter's impassioned outrage at the Soviet invasion at face value. But it is now a matter of historical record that his covert action directive in mid-1979 was undertaken -- at least in the view of his National Security Advisor -- with an eye toward provoking the Soviets to respond as they did.

The fingerprints of the Brzezinski approach are evident in Ukraine today. Since the fall of the Soviet Union -- after that brief moment of white shoe naiveté when George H.W. Bush and James Baker gave Mikhail Gorbachev their word that America would not push NATO "one inch" closer to the Russian border--our policy of encirclement was ratcheted up. Over the course of the decade following the Bush/Baker "commitment" to Gorbachev, all of the Warsaw Pact countries were brought into NATO, and American military facilities were developed in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakstan. By the time the dust settled, America had formed a ring of military facilities around the western and southern perimeter of the Russian landmass--from the Baltic Sea to the Chinese border, with the exception of Iran--abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and installed a forward deployed "missile defense" system.

The post-Cold War strategy of encirclement was more aggressive in design than simple containment. America's goal, in Brzezinski's words, was to "shape a political context that is congenial to Russia's assimilation into a larger framework of European cooperation." That is to say, Russia would be pushed toward the right choice -- democratization and decentralization -- and pay a price if it chose poorly. It mirrored Jimmy Carter's covert action in Afghanistan, in that it anticipated the different ways the Russians might respond. On the one hand, steadily tightening a military noose around Russia -- ultimately to include Ukraine and Georgia -- would constrain its imperial ambitions, the integration of democracies along the Russian periphery into the European community would push Russia toward political and economic reform. On the other hand, should Russia ultimately push back against the West's broken commitments and military encirclement -- as George Kennan predicted -- it would demonstrate to the world that Russia continued to harbor imperial ambitions and remained a threat to the rest of the world, justifying punitive measures to further isolate Russia economically and politically. It was a win-win strategy: Either outcome would serve America's interests in the region.

In 2008, Vladimir Putin finally pushed back. The Russia-Georgia War was the precursor to Putin's actions in Ukraine, as it demonstrated that he was serious about opposing continued encroachment on Russia's "near-abroad." At that moment, even as Georgia's ambitions for closer ties with the West were thwarted, international opinion turned against Russia, just as Brzezinski envisioned. Whatever one might have thought of Putin before the Georgia war, through his actions, in the eyes of the West, he revealed his true colors. He was an unrepentant KGB-bred spook, an emerging despot, a Russian nationalist, and a threat.

Writing in support of Putin's actions in the Russia-Georgia War in 2008, Mikhail Gorbachev expressed his frustration with the manipulation of Russia by the United States and in his anger at American duplicity:

Russia has long been told to simply accept the facts. Here's the independence of Kosovo for you. Here's the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and the American decision to place missile defenses in neighboring countries. Here's the unending expansion of NATO. All of these moves have been set against the backdrop of sweet talk about partnership. Why would anyone put up with such a charade?

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev mirrored Gorbachev frustration in an interview in Der Spiegel the following year.

After the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, we were hoping for a higher degree of integration. But what have we received? None of the things that we were assured, namely that NATO would not expand endlessly eastwards and our interests would be continuously taken into consideration. NATO remains a military bloc whose missiles are pointed towards Russian territory.

This was the backstory to Ukraine today, but little of that history has been explored in the media as events in Ukraine have unfolded. In advancing the commonly accepted narrative, Tom Friedman, David Herzenhorn and their compatriots have ignored not only that history, but more specifically the long term American strategy, that has been at work. Putin might be playing hockey, as Friedman suggests, but Brzezinski owns the team.

To those who embrace Brzezinski's strategic perspective, Putin's aggressive actions will only undermine his and Russia's credibility in the world. The impact on the lives of Ukrainians in Kiev and Kharkov and Odessa is not the point, Brzezinski's strategic formulation is designed to enhance American power in the region in the long term, and whether Putin finds a way to pull back or chooses to invade is immaterial. Either choice Putin makes, in Brzezinski's long view, will ultimately serve America's interests, even if a Ukrainian civil war and an energy crisis in Europe have to be part of the price along the way.

My point here is not to assess America's foreign policies in the world or to embrace Brzezinski's approach. One can believe Jimmy Carter's intervention in Afghanistan was good or bad, that it was effective realism or unwarranted intervention. One can believe promoting Ukrainian democracy and undermining Russia's security is a good policy or an unwarranted and dangerous one. But one cannot as Friedman suggests, and the media has trumpeted from the outset, simply raise one's voice in outrage, and express shock at Russia's "incredible acts of aggression."

Despite the talk of partnership, the fact is that the United States has consistently pursued aggressive and hostile policies designed to contain Russia, and -- if Brzezinski has his way -- ultimately see Russia broken up into a confederation of smaller states. Yet, by and large, the American media has bought into the dominant narrative, and ignored the deeper strategy at play. America's core strategy remains intact, and from the Brzezinski perspective everything is on track. Vladimir Putin has not been the master strategist of the media's imagination, the puppetmaster who has outfoxed American at every turn. Instead, he has long been caught in a trap, his actions manipulated in a game of power and strategy that goes back decades and in which he is playing a role, not writing the script.

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