“in the midst of war and crisis nothing is as clear or as certain as it appears in hindsight” Barbara Tuchman The Guns of August
There is nothing more uncertain than how leaders and people will react in crisis. We would like to think that we can be certain in our predilections, but we cannot because the reality is that human nature is always at play, and human beings have a penchant for doing things that are not expected.
It did not take long after the showcase of the Sochi Olympic Games for Vladimir Putin to move against the Ukraine and for all practical purposes annex the Crimea. But now after a few weeks it seems that the West is beginning to galvanize in its opposition to the Russian action. Germany is leading the charge from the side of the European Union, with Chancellor Merkel taking the lead. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been taking a hard diplomatic line while military forces gather.
It appears that targeted economic sanctions are in the offing while the European Union prepares to help supply the Ukraine’s energy needs.
The Russians have blockaded the small Ukrainian Navy in its Crimean ports, it has an estimated 30,000 soldiers in the Crimea and other forces are conducting “exercises” near the Ukrainian border. The Provisional Government of the Ukraine has called up its reserve forces, the United States is deploying naval and air force units to the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean as well as Poland and the Baltic States.
But at the same time this is not the Cold War where two ideological blocks wrestled for domination. Instead the motivations, geopolitical and economic factors that connect the West and Russia make this much more complicated. Money is a big factor and it is of interest to note that a good amount of the resupply of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan is conducted over what is called the Northern Route, which goes through Russia and the Ukraine.
The situation in the Crimea and the Ukraine is potentially volatile. Any situation that costs the lives of Ukrainians of either Ukrainian or Russian background could spiral out of control. Passions on both sides are running high. We in the West also need to remember that many Russians and men like Putin still feel the humiliation of the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and end of the Soviet Union. Many Russians who even now are not fans of the Soviet system long for the days of empire and Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe.
In 1914 France was motivated by the humiliation that she suffered in 1871 at the hands of Prussia and the loss of Alsace Lorraine. The Russians have a similar attachment to areas where sizable ethnic Russian populations live, including the Eastern Ukraine and the Baltic. One has to remember the words of Otto Von Bismarck who said: “A generation that has taken a beating is always followed by a generation that deals one.”
When looking at why this is happening we have to remember history. Likewise we have to also remember the historic Russian paranoia when it comes to the influence of Europe and the West on areas that they believe are still part of Greater Russia. Their memory is long and past wounds are still fresh. Thus the blundering of the EU during the Fall of 2013 in its dealings with Ukraine, dealings which looked to the Russians like an attempt to draw Ukraine further away from them helped cause this situation. Likewise the Eastward expansion of NATO in the 1990s and early 2000s following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact is considered both an insult and threat. The same is true of the presence of the American Anti-Ballistic Missile system in Poland, which is considered by many Russians to be directed at them, not Iran.
The situation is complex and influenced by many factors, and unlike some American politicians and pundits say, it has nothing to do with Benghazi or even what they claim is the “weakness” of President Obama. The roots of this crisis are long standing and diverse and have almost everything to do Russia’s relationship with Europe and very little to do with the United States. Thus for American politicians and pundits to demonstrate their woeful ignorance of history by blaming this all on President Obama is so self serving and transparent that it is embarrassing. But then American politics is almost always a demonstration of ignorance and arrogance.
The problem for the United States is that we have little credibility when it comes criticizing nations like Russia when they do the same as we do. Our actions to invade Iraq in 2003, actions which under the criteria that we laid down at Nuremberg violated international law make it hard for any American leader to criticize another power. This is true even when Putin’s actions, also illegal under international law are no worse and certainly by the historic ties of Crimea to Russia are more justifiable than what we did in Iraq.
Thus the outright hypocrisy of the architects of that invasion like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld shamelessly attack President Obama for his “weak” response to Putin’s actions are in large part to blame for them. They squandered our international standing and credibility, broke the military and bankrupted the country. They then lay the blame on Obama. By the decisions that they made and the subsequent consequences they tied Obama’s hands.
Sometimes these crisis blow over. Sometimes they stabilize but cause problems that continue for some time after the initial crisis. But there are some times that they take on a life of their own and that the people who think they are directing events end up being caught up in them, often with tragic results. While I do not think this will end in war, the possibility of such cannot be dismissed.
Tuchman in her book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam wrote:
“A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”