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Caution

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AP Photo / AP

As it happens, this popular memory on the beginning of World War I is almost certainly wrong. It was the historical consensus in the early decades after the war and it was crystallized and fashioned into a cliche for English-speaking audiences in Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. But a group of revisionist historians writing in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly in Germany, have shown this was certainly not the case. In brief, Germany, feeling its strength was high but in relative decline and worried about the fragility of its key ally Austria-Hungary, intentionally steered the crisis to war. A splendid short book detailing this version of the story is Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?

The difference in emphasis is striking: less on the impact of Putin's move - undermining norms about how states do and don't deal with each other - and more on the risk of escalation leading to needless conflict.

Fred Kaplan adds some additional perspective which is consistent with this view. He focuses on a key point that is lost in virtually all the hyperventilation coming out of the Beltway, a point I tried to make a couple weeks ago. Russia is simply not some global power on the march which has to be stopped now because the costs will be higher or unacceptable later. He makes the point succinctly here ...

Just as Putin is not as much in command as many Western hawks suppose, Russia is not as great a power as Putin himself likes to project. It’s at best a regional power, with no global reach. Even his incursion into Crimea is hardly an imperial gesture. Leonid Brezhnev sent five tank divisions into Czechoslovakia. (Now that was aggression!) U.S. military advisers estimate that the Russian army could invade eastern Ukraine if Putin so ordered, but they say it’s much less clear how long they could sustain an occupation, especially with even sporadic insurgent resistance.

That's the key: Russia really is principally a regional power, making reckless but basically reactive moves right on its doorstep. Very few countries with great power pretensions are comfortable with the idea that their sphere of influence does not extend beyond their sovereign territory (a fact we'll have to grapple with in the coming decades with China.) Kaplan's suggestion on Putin can be summarized as reassure and ignore. David Ignatius has a similar take: this isn't some show of brilliance or strength on Putin's part. It's more like a big miscalculation that could have catastrophic consequences for him. He paraphrases Napoleon: Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

I'm not sure I quite agree with Ignatius on this. I can see a perfectly reasonable argument that the threat of losing its Black Sea Naval Base has hung over Russia for two decades, both as a wound to national pride and as a threat to its ability to project military force. The previous government was looking to boot the Russians in 2017. And with the prospect of another Western-tilting government and an opportune power vacuum in Ukraine, Putin takes the opportunity to settle the matter once and for all. Already I'm seeing many across the political spectrum (hawks and doves, if we can use that metaphor) conceding that Crimea may already be lost to Ukraine.

None of this is to say that this isn't highly dangerous. The US, through NATO, has given ironclad security guarantees to the Baltic States that are half-Russified in a similar manner to Ukraine. Poland, another country carrying a NATO guarantee, is right across the border from Ukraine. Once you get into the game of shifting borders by force, if that's what we're doing here, things can degenerate really, really fast. A lot of Eastern Europe, even after the pre- and post-World War II population transfers, is still something like the former Yugoslavia with various ethnic minorities outside the borders of the countries their language and/or ethnicities notionally identify them with.
But again, caution. A lot of people have psychological, ideological and political reasons for exaggerating Russian power. Which means exaggerating the danger and pushing for a more extreme response. We shouldn't fall into that trap.
The last point is the most delicate. Russian media has been plastered with horror stories of harassed and threatened ethnic Russians and Nazis and anti-Semites running the government in Kiev. Every observer on the ground says that's nonsense. The pictures we see are actually remarkably tranquil. The rabble-rousing, to the extent there is any, is coming from what look to be Russophile rent-a-mobs threatening city halls and those sorts of places in the east.
But even the paranoid can have real enemies. Even those who combine paranoia and bad faith.
I've spent the last day speaking to people who've got extensive and recent experience on the ground in Ukraine. What I've heard from them is that the Svoboda party (the folks the Russians are mainly talking about when they talk about fascists and anti-Semites) isn't just a nationalist or rightist party. It's a pretty scary far-right party with strong anti-Semitic elements. It's also significantly represented in the post-overthrow government.

They weren't the main or only people in the protests but their willingness to use violence did give them a disproportionate role in how things unfolded. By time time Yanukovych fled Ukraine he'd genuinely turned virtually everyone against him, even his kept oligarchs and much of his own party. Still these guys are there. And from what I've been told, if you're an ethnic Russian living in the east it wouldn't be strange at all for you to be distinctly on edge that these guys have moved toward the center of power.

That doesn't mean those people on edge want Russia to invade. It doesn't mean Russia has any right to invade - especially in the Crimea where they seem to be driven by their own strategic interests rather than any clear desire to protect anyone. Still, this line of argument is not totally crazy. It's exaggerated and whipped up into agitprop in the Russian press. But there are realities here that are largely beyond our view. We need to understand that to understand the various motivations involved, how different parties perceive what's happening on the ground and how, if we can, we can walk this back to some manageable outcome.