Before the U.S. gets too worked up about the Russian "invasion" of Ukraine, it should recall its own invasion in 1983 of the idyllic island of Grenada some 100 miles from the United States. America invaded Grenada to install a U.S.-friendly government after a Communist coup had led to the breakdown of law and order on the island. The pretext for the invasion was the danger the situation posed for the lives of a few hundred U.S. medical students on Grenada. I was in favor of that invasion. After all, the Cold War was in full bloom, and like President Reagan, I did not want a Communist foothold in America's backyard.
Well, Ukraine and Georgia are Russia's backyard. Russian President Vladimir Putin made that clear in 2008 by making the Bush administration back down in its attempt to pull Georgia into NATO. When Mikheil Saakashvili, the tempestuous leader of Georgia, then lobbed artillery shells on ethnic Russians in their Georgian enclaves, it gave Russia the pretext to invade Georgia, rout its armed forces and demonstrate its intent to not let NATO and Western influence creep up to Russia's borders. President Bush huffed and puffed but could do nothing to reverse Russia's actions.
Flash forward to December 2013. When Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-leaning president of Ukraine, vetoed an association agreement between his country and the European Union that would have established a free-trade zone and bolstered political ties between the former Soviet republic and the EU, Ukrainians who favored closer EU ties turned out to protest in the streets. A highly charged political drama began to unfold in Kiev. It was a drama driven at its core by Russia's belief that, for its vital national interests, Ukraine could not be allowed to tilt towards the EU, for many reasons, chief among them Russia's alarm at being surrounded by NATO, the Western military alliance led by the United States and including the Central and Eastern European countries of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, Albania, and Croatia. (It did not help that the State Department sent an American diplomat to publicly demonstrate solidarity with the protesters by handing out cookies and openly supporting their cause.)
Notwithstanding the establishment of a NATO-Russia Council and other hand-holding gestures loudly trumpeted by Mr. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary general, Russia still believes NATO to be an existential threat to its security. I discovered this first-hand during the Brussels release of my book on NATO three years ago, when I asked Dmitri Rogozin, then Russia's ambassador to NATO, whether he thought Russia would cozy up to the new, kinder, gentler NATO. The big, burly ambassador, who is now in charge of Russia's defense industry, leaned over to me and said, "Kashmeri, if your grandmother grows whiskers, does she become your grandfather?"
Unless the U.S. and the EU want to start another cold war in the heart of Europe, they need to recognize Russia's interests as they are, and not as the West would like them to be. With that in mind, here are my two cents' worth of advice for the Obama administration:
- Stop making threats to financially strangle Russia through sanctions. They will not work. Yes, the world is an interconnected, seamless global enterprise now. But that means the U.S. and the EU are also plugged into the same global network and cannot escape being hurt by such steps. No wonder Britain is already drawing up plans to ensure that any EU action against Russia over Ukraine will exempt the City of London.
- Let the EU take the lead to work out a diplomatic route forward in this debacle. The Obama administration would do well to remember that the Georgian war ended with EU mediation, with EU monitors on the ground to track the ceasefire agreement. The Russians agreed to this arrangement because they did not trust Americans. They still don't.
- Stop the talk about NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine. And for heaven's sake stop NATO's secretary general from making bellicose statements against Russia. He is the head of a military alliance that is part of the problem.
- Finally, the Obama administration should also recall that Vladimir Putin has won every KGB award there is. He is surely not for turning.
So let's cool the temperature and "jaw, jaw" instead of "war, war," as Winston Churchill was fond of saying.