Whether in Ukraine or Georgia, Vladimir Putin’s actions shouldn’t come as a surprise to an aggressive United States.
Suppose China formed a provocative alliance with Mexico and began building military bases and stationing troops near the U.S. southern border. Now suppose it lured Cuba also into its new hemispheric alliance and imperiled U.S. control over its Guantanamo naval base on that island. What would happen? Almost inevitably, the result would be war because America would never allow such a potentially hostile entrenchment within its sphere of influence.
That’s essentially the question Russia faces as America and NATO continue to flirt with the notion of pulling Ukraine into the Atlantic alliance (and Georgia too when circumstances seem right). And Russia’s answer is essentially the same: It will not allow that to happen. Any nation has a fundamental need to fend off potential threats from within its neighborhood and hence to maintain protective spheres of influence. The University of Chicago’s John J. Mearsheimer calls this “Geopolitics 101.”
Yet America’s foreign policy leaders seem to have skipped that class. Not surprisingly, President Biden has slipped right into lockstep with his predecessors since taking office, declaring what America will and will not accept within Russia’s sphere of influence, where U.S. meddling has been a hallmark policy for years. Speaking on the seventh anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, Biden declared, “The United States does not, and will never, recognize Russia’s purported annexation of the peninsula, and we will stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggressive acts. We will continue to work to hold Russia accountable for its abuses and aggression in Ukraine.”
Biden’s statement demonstrates just how thick-headed our leaders can be when it comes to dealing with Russia, how resistant they often are to stepping back and contemplating the geopolitical realities involved. He is not alone. This tendency toward thick-headedness goes back a lot of years.
Former U.S. ambassador to Russia, William J. Burns (slated to be Biden’s CIA director), recounts in his memoir the George W. Bush administration’s efforts in 2008 to pave the way for Ukraine and Georgia to become NATO members. Burns reveals that he warned his superiors in Washington that such efforts would stir Russian President Vladimir Putin to “veto that effort”—as Harvard professor Graham Allison once described Burns’s cable—“by using Russian troops or other forms of meddling to splinter both countries.” In other words, Geopolitics 101 would apply.
Two months before Bush ignored that guidance and orchestrated a NATO communique vowing eventual alliance membership for both Georgia and Ukraine, Burns reiterated his warning that “today’s Russia will respond. The prospect of subsequent Russian-Georgian armed conflict would be high.” He added it also would “create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”
Burns turned out to be prescient. Within months, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, bent on NATO membership and thinking Bush had his back, took action to reincorporate two breakaway regions with strong Russian ties, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. When fighting broke out between Georgia and South Ossetian separatists, Russian forces took control of both regions. Once again, Geopolitics 101 prevailed. But the obvious lesson for America and the West—that they should cease meddling inside Russia’s traditional sphere of influence—didn’t gain any significant sway within Atlantic Alliance councils.
Five years later, events in Ukraine demonstrated even more starkly the lessons of Geopolitics 101. America sought to use economic inducements to wrest that tragically split country away from Russian influence and into the Western orbit. One U.S. foreign policy official estimated with considerable pride that the United States invested some $5 billion in efforts to sway Ukrainian public opinion and the nation’s foreign policy direction. American “NGOs,” meanwhile, had been funneling money and counsel to opposition leaders for years. Thus it wasn’t surprising that, when Ukraine’s duly elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, spurned the Western offer in favor of a more generous Russian entreaty, anti-government street demonstrations ensued that lasted three months and claimed nearly a hundred lives.
Negotiations between the government and pro-Western dissidents yielded an accommodation that allowed Yanukovych to remain in power until new elections could be held, but it fell apart amidst a surge of violence from the dissidents. The result was a coup. Yanukovych fled for his life, and a new pro-Western government, which included neofascist elements, took control of the country. No one could argue that the United States didn’t play a significant role in unleashing and fostering these events.
All this posed a powerful crisis for Russia. Large parts of eastern Ukraine were populated by ethnic Russians who spoke Russian and favored continued Russian ties over any thrust to the West imposed by Kiev. Then there was Crimea, where ethnic Russians composed some 60 percent of the population and which was home to Russia’s crucial naval base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Based on the fate of the ethnic Russians of eastern Ukraine and on its own strategic interests in its immediate region, Russia had reasons to act.
But its most crucial interest was in preventing Ukrainian entry into NATO. The prospect of hostile Western forces pushing right up to Russia’s southwestern border and posing an immediate sphere-of-interest threat was the kind that no nation could accept. And so, Putin did what was entirely predictable—and predicted. First, he annexed Crimea (desired by a large majority of the people there). Next, he made clear to the new government in Kiev that he would never allow it to become a Western stronghold on Russia’s front porch. Then, he provided extensive aide—military, financial, and diplomatic—to Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine engaged in the Ukrainian civil war that ensued after the coup. And finally, he massed a large army on the Ukrainian border as an ongoing threat of what would happen if the country’s eastern separatists came under any fearsome attack from Kiev.
All this of course has stirred torrents of outraged screams from those in America who insist Putin is the aggressor and that all America wants is world peace under the soft and benign hegemony it has practiced so benevolently over the past 75 years. Biden’s statement on Crimea is consistent with that sensibility. But Josef Joffe, the newspaper editor and academic, took a different view back in 2014 when he wrote a Wall Street Journal piece purporting to be a letter from Niccolo Machiavelli to Putin. “You did everything right,” says the imaginary Machiavelli to the real Putin. “You grabbed an opportunity when you saw it,” and demonstrated a capacity for being “both ruthless and prudent.” As Joffe summed up, Putin calculated what he could get away with, got away with it, and avoided actions that could destabilize the situation beyond the havoc already generated.
One tenet of realism in foreign policy is that nations should always understand and appreciate the fundamental interests of other nations because that will inform efforts to predict the reaction of those other nations to threats and jabs. Sometimes the fundamental interests of nations clash in ways that make hostility, even war, inevitable. But when nations exacerbate tensions with adversarial powers whose stakes are immense in comparison to their own less crucial interests, usually the driving force is ideology or ignorance. Regarding Biden’s declaration on Russia and Crimea, the driving force seems to be a combination of the two.
Robert W. Merry, former Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent and Congressional Quarterly CEO, is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy.