Ukraine and the Limits of Power

To confront Putin, we need consensus. And when the politics are so different, consensus is mighty hard to achieve, says Steve Saideman.
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November 24, 2014
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Last week, I was invited to give a talk at a meeting of the Ottawa Kiwanis Club to make sense of the international response to Ukraine’s crisis. I am pretty sure the members of the club did not expect me to be so … depressing. I argued that there are limits to power especially when the adversary — and Vladimir Putin is an adversary — is engaged in irredentism. How so? The key are two dynamics at work — irredentism and alliance politics.

Irredentism refers to the effort to take “back” “lost” territory inhabited by ethnic kin — such as in the case of Crimea, which had been Russian far longer than it had been Ukrainian. Such efforts are always costly because the targeted country resists, usually leading to war. In For Kin or Country, Bill Ayres and I argued that these efforts can happen when those making the decisions are not bearing the costs. Indeed, we argued that there are those who benefit from international isolation — globalization is not everyone’s friend — so that the nationalists advocating policies that might lead to their country being alienated have allies in those who are hurt by ties to the international economy or who are helped by having greater isolation.

President Obama did promise/threaten that Russia would incur significant costs for its actions. This was not false bravado but recognition of the reality of the circumstances. Russia has spent much in resources and effort in its war in Ukraine. The sanctions have had a significant bite, leading to the dramatic decline in the ruble and deepening Russia’s recession. Yes, Putin has created his own sanctions, limiting sales from the West, but the reality is that his country is not a very important market for Western goods. The problem is that most of these economic costs are hitting those who have little power to influence Putin. Despite the appearances of Russian democracy, Putin does not rely on democratic institutions, such as a parliament for support. He relies on a network of like-minded individuals who he has helped put at the commanding heights of the Russian economy and political system. They have a stake in his rule AND they are not suffering from the consequences of Western sanctions. Which means there is little we can do for now.

And this leads to the second dynamic: that to confront Putin, we need consensus, which is mighty hard to achieve. NATO only operates by consensus — this does not require everyone to agree to do something but that no members object strenuously. The problem is that members of NATO face very different threats and interests. The U.S. and Canada are distant, so they do not have to fear so much the Russian bear so they can talk a more aggressive game. Germany is much closer and is more concerned about escalation. The U.S. and Canada are distinct in a second way: they have key domestic audiences that care about Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics — those whose origins are in this region. Ukrainian-Canadians are relevant politically, especially in an election year — so Harper talks quite aggressively, as he did when confronting Putin at the G20 meeting.

In Europe, the politics are quite different. Instead of considering the voting intentions of members of the East European diaspora, politicians face a surprising amount of agreement on the left and the right that Putin is a hero. How so? Putin is challenging the hegemonic, the imperialist Americans. Those who celebrate Edward Snowden and the fight against American secrecy and surveillance are also celebrating Snowden’s host — Putin.   So, rather than seeing the Ukrainian crisis as an act of Russian aggression, they blame the west for destabilizing Ukraine with its support of regime change.

Of course, the fundamental problem with that story is that the first response to a questionable regime is to seize hunks of its territory. A genuine concern about what a nationalist Ukraine government might do should have led to other steps, such as confidence building measures, deployment of observers, and the like, rather than annexation and war. Still, these delusions of Europe’s left and right, perhaps built on the justifiable grievance that the austerity measures have done far more harm than good, pose a critical challenge to European leaders, making it far more difficult to confront Putin.

Of course, even consensus at NATO has its limits, as no one has the stomach for fighting Ukraine’s war for the Ukrainians — not after Afghanistan, not while Iraq/Syria are going on, and not if it means a confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia. All we can do is strengthen the commitments to NATO’s most vulnerable members, maintain the sanctions and prepare for the long run. This sounds a lot like the Cold War, as the current crisis requires patience, tenacity and humility. That is, there is not much we can do to roll back Russia’s gains, but we can try to limit the trouble Russia causes beyond this current status quo.

A new cold war which recognizes the limits of what we can and should do? Not a happy message for a lunchtime meeting of a group that aims to make a difference and improve the world. Sorry about that.