THE BLOG
09/17/2014 11:44 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Putin's Latest Iron Curtain Call -- Ukraine

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We need to hold the line against Vladimir Putin's drive to reassert Russian hegemony in Ukraine, but it is necessary to understand the political and historical context behind his actions to provide the perspective needed as U.S. foreign policy alternatives are crafted. As many scholars suggest, Russian foreign policy has been characterized by a complex mix of national security and expansionist interests. At the same time, that condition makes it possible to leverage those defensive concerns in our response to efforts by Russian leaders to reassert Russian power in states that were formerly under the control or influence of the Soviet Union.

Putin's continued support for rebels in eastern Ukraine and his recent "invasion" there is the end result of years of miscalculation as the European Union (EU) has made efforts to expand almost frenetically to 28 states, and NATO has sought to redefine its mission in the post Cold War World. The Soviet Union and Russia, both before and after the Cold War, have had an almost singular focus on defensive security and not unjustifiably so, as Napoleon and Hitler invaded through Poland, and the Allies landed troops in places like Murmansk and Vladivostok in the First World War to free up Russian men to fight for the White Army against Lenin.

In a similar vein, the Crimean War (1853-56) revolved around a coalition of Western countries seeking to curb Russian efforts to influence the Ottomans, actions that also derived from a mix of both defensive security and expansionist concerns. Likewise, as Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac suggest in their book Kingmakers, Russia's fierce competition with Britain over Persia in "The Great Game" that happened from the late 18th century to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, reflected long-standing Russian national interests in Persia that was at least partially motivated by the acute fear of encirclement by Western imperialist powers. In the case of Britain, the Qajar dynasty in Persia was seen as a bulwark for the defense of India but in the broader sense, leaders of Britain, France, and Germany after 1871, jockeyed for influence and control in the Middle East as the Ottoman Empire passed into eclipse.

It should come as no surprise that U.S. leaders have also operated with defensive interests and a "spheres of influence" framework in mind with the Monroe Doctrine (1823) that helped to define relationships between East and West within the context of the Cold War, and between the United States and Western Europe before the end of the Second World War. Indeed, it was the "Zimmermann telegram" with its purported threat of an alliance between Mexico and Germany that finally compelled President Woodrow Wilson to enter into the First World War. We were even willing to risk nuclear war over a perceived Soviet threat in Cuba 51 years ago when President Kennedy assessed the chance of "going nuclear" with the Soviets as between one-third to 50 percent.

Still, we need to stand firm on Ukraine. It was a mistake for the Obama administration not to send U.S. military forces to Ukraine within the context of a humanitarian intervention mission to secure the crash site of the Malaysian Airlines jetliner (MH17) that was shot down by ethnic Russian rebels. Such action would have sent a clear message to Putin and our Western allies that we mean business when it comes to human rights and countries whose leaders are oriented to the West. President Obama's tepid response that called only for more stringent sanctions sounded shrill and was probably perceived by Putin as indecisive, weak, and disorganized, all the more so as bodies continued to rot in the fields under the hot sun for days. Equally important, President Obama's inaction made it impossible for experts to collect forensic evidence to prosecute the perpetrators of this crime at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Prosecution at the ICC would have been the ideal venue for trial as the perpetrators are non-state actors and prosecution at that the ICC would have undoubtedly strengthened the legitimacy of that institution. Furthermore, it would be inconceivable in political terms to prosecute at the primary venue in Ukraine as efforts to do so would infuriate the Russians and exacerbate the overall situation.

At the same time, the problem is that we have a strategic need for Russian cooperation on an array of issues: for Middle East peace talks, stability in Afghanistan, resolution of conflict in Syria, nuclear weapons control, Iran's containment and nuclear development program, and energy supplies. Overly harsh economic sanctions risks driving Russia into the arms of the Chinese for economic reasons and the political reasons that almost always follow, thereby disrupting our capacity to play off these countries against each other as President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger first envisioned.

Nonetheless, the time for action is now because it is not clear if Finland or the Baltic States or a country from the "near abroad" such as Uzbekistan are next on Putin's plate. First, President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, Chancellor Merkel, and President Hollande have to develop a clear chain of command with other NATO partners and designate specific responsibilities for NATO intervention. At the heart of the matter, in-depth scenarios that envision possible Russian actions, that could range from cyber warfare to kinetic actions or both, must be carefully reasoned out in addition to their probabilities. Integrated actions to respond to each such scenario must be developed in coordinated efforts with clear templates for action that frame which scenarios to invoke under specific conditions.

By the same token, we need to make political and diplomatic efforts to convince Russian leaders that reliance of "soft power" with its emphasis on positive inducements, persuasion and emulation, "win-win" solutions, and in the Russian case the provision of energy and technology is more effective in the long-haul for Russian national interest than is the threat or use of "hard power." To be sure, venues for such contacts can be found at state and intergovernmental organization levels, as well as at grassroots levels by means of academic conferences for example. What is also significant is that in the process of dialogue, such contacts can in many cases, modify initial positions or points of view that can lead to consensus or overall agreement. We can work with the Russians to articulate their fears and needs and to establish benchmarks for an acceptable reemergence onto a stage of world wide proportions, while on our own, the United States with our NATO partners can develop templates for more effective action based on scenarios that would confront Russian aggression.