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Russia, Ukraine and American Myopia

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The Russian invasion of Crimea and continuing tension between Russia and Ukraine have not only created difficult challenges for U.S. policymakers, but have forced many to rethink broader questions of the U.S. position, role and influence in the world. In addition, the U.S. response to the events in Ukraine has revealed much about both U.S. domestic politics and how domestic politics influences the foreign policy of the U.S.

The debate in the U.S. about how to respond to the Russian invasion has shows the complete self absorption of much of the American political establishment. Russia invaded Crimea primarily because of Russia's interest in Ukraine, domestic political issues in Russia, and as a reaction to recent political events in Ukraine. However, the response in Washington, particularly from the right, has suggested that Russia acted because of America's, and specifically President Obama's, weakness. This assertion was, of course, more about politics in the U.S., than anything happening in Ukraine, but it nonetheless demonstrated that for many what happened in Crimea had to be attributable to something that the U.S., and the Obama administration, did or did not do.

For some Americans, both on the left and the right, the notion that the U.S. was not a prime mover behind an event of this kind is simply not plausible. This myopia reflects an American punditry and political class that is completely caught up in our partisan and ideological fights, and that understands American hegemony, for better and for worse, to be an absolute given. Accordingly, we seem unable to seriously consider the actions and motivations of powerful, and dangerous, leaders like Russia's Vladimir Putin, outside of the context of U.S. actions. This approach to the world leads to a poor understanding of events and too frequently to bad policies as well.

Russia did not invade Crimea because Obama signaled weakness, as many on the right believe, nor is Putin a counterbalance to American imperialism as some, albeit fewer, on the left have maintained. Instead, Russia is a country with a vision of its foreign policy goals and interests that, for a range of reasons, is in conflict of those with the U.S. and most of our allies. Understanding those interests, and how they are different than U.S. interests is essential for crafting a policy towards Russia that is reasonable and cohesive, but this is not possible if we continue to understand Russia's actions largely as reactions to American actions, words or signals.

The corollary to this U.S.-centric approach to understanding conflicts like the one in Crimea, is that it implies that the U.S. can solve these problems if it crafts the right, and implicitly, strongest, response. This is the circular logic that underlies the elite consensus around an internationalist and interventionist foreign policy. In a more quotidian way, it also frequently leads to policies that are ineffective or even harmful. If the possibility that there is little the U.S. can do to change the behavior of another country, is not even entertained, the U.S. in most cases has little choice but to pursue aggressive, but often unrealistic, policies, while promising too much to allies and observers.

In recent years, Russia has demonstrated itself not only to have its own set of goals and preferences, but also to have little interest in the rules that the west has established, and that too frequently primarily benefit the west. One of the unfortunate lessons from Crimea this year, similarly to one from Georgia in 2008, is that Russia will stop its military action when it wants. This is not an easy lesson for the U.S. to learn, not least because it signals the presence of a powerful and belligerent actor on the international stage over which the U.S. has relatively little influence.

The U.S. response to the Crimea invasion has also highlighted the ease with which U.S. policy makers have forgotten our country's inconsistent relationship with international law and our own recent adventurism abroad. For policy makers in Washington forgetting small things like the war in Iraq is important because it makes it possible to continue to view the U.S. as the most significant arbiter of international law as well as of moral wrongs and rights, but outside the U.S. ignoring Iraq and numerous other American interventions is not so easy, or so convenient. The fact of the U.S. invasion of Iraq does not provide a justification for Russia's actions in Crimea, but it is clearly part of the context in which this invasion occurred

The U.S. should not simply let Russia do what it wants, but it must ground its response in a more clear eyed vision of the limits of U.S. influence. Recognizing that the U.S. is not all powerful, and has a much weaker hold of the moral high ground is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it is the first step towards crafting effective and appropriate polices.