Putin`s Lawyerly Furtiveness Is Actually A Good Thing

The “realist” foreign policy professor John Mearsheimer writes in the New York Times:

Getting Ukraine Wrong 

By JOHN J. MEARSHEIMER      MARCH 13, 2014

President Obama has decided to get tough with Russia by imposing sanctions and increasing support for Ukraine’s new government. This is a big mistake. This response is based on the same faulty logic that helped precipitate the crisis. 

Instead of resolving the dispute, it will lead to more trouble. 

The White House view, widely shared by Beltway insiders, is that the United States bears no responsibility for causing the current crisis. In their eyes, it’s all President Vladimir V. Putin’s fault — and his motives are illegitimate. This is wrong. Washington played a key role in precipitating this dangerous situation, and Mr. Putin’s behavior is motivated by the same geopolitical considerations that influence all great powers, including the United States. 

The taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West. The Russians have intensely disliked but tolerated substantial NATO expansion, including the accession of Poland and the Baltic countries. But when NATO announced in 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO,” Russia drew a line in the sand. Georgia and Ukraine are not just states in Russia’s neighborhood; they are on its doorstep. Indeed, Russia’s forceful response in its August 2008 war with Georgia was driven in large part by Moscow’s desire to prevent Georgia from joining NATO and integrating into the West. …

The Obama administration then made a fatal mistake by backing the protesters, which helped escalate the crisis and eventually led to the toppling of Mr. Yanukovych. A pro-Western government then took over in Kiev. The United States ambassador to Ukraine, who had been encouraging the protesters, proclaimed it “a day for the history books.” 

Mr. Putin, of course, didn’t see things that way. He viewed these developments as a direct threat to Russia’s core strategic interests. 

Who can blame him? After all, the United States, which has been unable to leave the Cold War behind, has treated Russia as a potential threat since the early 1990s and ignored its protests about NATO’s expansion and its objections to America’s plan to build missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. 

One might expect American policymakers to understand Russia’s concerns about Ukraine joining a hostile alliance. After all, the United States is deeply committed to the Monroe Doctrine, which warns other great powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere. 

But few American policymakers are capable of putting themselves in Mr. Putin’s shoes. This is why they were so surprised when he moved additional troops into Crimea, threatened to invade eastern Ukraine, and made it clear Moscow would use its considerable economic leverage to undermine any regime in Kiev that was hostile to Russia.

When Mr. Putin explained why he was playing hardball, Mr. Obama responded that the Russian leader “seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations.” But the Russian leader is obviously not talking with lawyers; he sees this conflict in geopolitical, not legal terms. 

 

Not wholly. You`ll notice that Russian troops started throwing their weight around in Crimea in unmarked uniforms, not in Russian uniforms. Moreover, Putin has insisted upon lying about them not being Russian troops, claiming they are some kind of indigenous Crimean militia that has sprung up spontaneously. In other words, Putin was talking with lawyers about the implications of his actions. That doesn`t mean he`s not going to go ahead and do what he wants to do, but it does mean he`s concerned about the precedent he`s setting.

Mr. Putin’s view is understandable. Because there is no world government to protect states from one another, major powers are acutely sensitive to threats — especially near their borders — and they sometimes act ruthlessly to address potential dangers. International law and human rights concerns take a back seat when vital security issues are at stake.

Mr. Obama would be advised to stop talking to lawyers and start thinking like a strategist.

Personally, I am heartened by Putin`s hypocrisy. His lawyerly furtiveness is a good thing. It shows he feels guilty about stepping over the line here and understands that the world is, on the whole, better off with lines intact.

I don`t want to live in a Mearsheimer World in which the powers talk like the Athenians do in Thucydides` “Melian Dialogue.” I want politicians to feel a little shame and foreboding.

The Melian Dialogue is stylized account by Thucydides, the exiled Athenian general turned historian, of an incident halfway through the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta.

The Melian Dialogue has a kind of science fiction aspect to it, of pushing a certain logic to its extreme. The Athenian fleet descends upon the small island of Melos, a colony founded by Sparta that has so far sat out the war. The Athenians demand that the Melians surrender and pay them tribute, or have their city destroyed, their men killed, and their women and children enslaved. In a conference, the Athenians explain to the Melian leaders:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences – either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede [Persians], or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us – and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians [Spartans], although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

The Melians respond that it would be dishonorable, after hundreds of years of liberty, to surrender. So, the Athenians sack the city, kill the men, and enslave the women.

You can`t argue with Logic.

In the long run, however, this logic doesn`t work out so hot for the Athenians. From Wikipedia:

Yet the Melians are also correct in trusting their kindred, the Spartans, to ultimately come to their aid. After the fall of their city, the Spartans resettled the surviving Melians on the mainland. Within a few years the Peloponnesian War resumed between Sparta and Athens, and the Melian community in exile raised funds to contribute to the Spartan war effort, which successfully destroyed the Athenian empire. The Spartan general Lysander then retook Melos and restored the Melians to their homeland.