Friday, April 04, 2014

FPRI's Jakub Grygiel on Putin's Aims . . .

Jakub Grygiel

For some thoughts on Russia and Ukraine that stress "reality," see Jakub Grygiel, "Ukraine and Three Forgotten Realities: What Would Robert Strausz-Hupé Say?" (FPRI)
Russia's invasion of Ukraine is an unwelcome reminder of time-tested realities that we have been tempted to forget over the past two decades. These realities, namely [1] that history is written by men, [2] that force must be met with force, and [3] that wars are rarely local affairs, appear throughout history and are undoubtedly unpleasant because they do not lead to sunny optimism. It is not surprising therefore that we prefer to ignore them. But we ignore them also because of an arresting naïveté about the world and a perennial wish to see an irresistible march toward freedom in history. The now notorious statement by Secretary of State John Kerry that Russia is behaving "in a 19th century fashion" -- suggesting that Moscow has failed to adapt to modern, or post-modern, times -- is indicative of this worldview.
Drawing on the view of FPRI's founder, Robert Strausz-Hupé, Grygiel elaborates on these three realities, countering current-day postmodern assumptions (with my emphases):
[1] The first reality that we tend to forget is that history is made by men, not by impersonal forces. What this means is that there is no clear and irresistible progressive direction in it. Men can change history's course for the better, but often for the worse . . . . Strausz-Hupé observed, "World history is not a succession of happy endings." We do have strong and willful enemies who will use every opportunity to undermine and weaken us and our friends, and who want to defeat us and our world view . . . . Russian troops in Crimea, and the armored columns along Ukraine's eastern border, are a reminder that there is nothing -- not democracy, not wealth, not globalization -- inevitable in history.

[2] The second forgotten reality is related to the first one. We tend to believe that we can win simply because of passing time, as history moves inexorably toward the desired objective. There is therefore little need to oppose an enemy with force: rumbling tanks will be defeated by the allure of democracy and the spread of globalization. Moreover, once a victory has been achieved, our belief is that the outcome is settled, firmly written in history . . . . This, of course, is not true. It never was, but the war in Ukraine made it abundantly clear. Europe from London to Kiev is not secure. Again, to quote Robert Strausz-Hupé . . . "Europe is debated ground . . . . As in the past, the menace of [Russia as an] Asia[n power] presses now upon a Europe that is plunged into a general malaise compounded of lassitude of power and the alienation of society." The fragility of the European peace, threatened by the westward push of Putin's Russia, is again made evident.

[3] Finally, third, we have been lulled into believing that a local war is simply that, local. The post-modern faith in the gradual disappearance of violent conflict leads us to see wars as little localized bursts among peoples and nations who have been lagging in the march of history. Russia's war in Ukraine is, in this view, a small local vestige of ancient thinking, destined to remain limited to that area. It's a small island of 19th century behavior amidst a sea of 21st century thinking . . . . In reality, all wars are local, and all local wars have global connotations. World wars did not start globally, but in very precise places, often with the widespread belief that they would be limited to that locale . . . . Strausz-Hupé put it thus: "Historical analogies are like the wings of butterflies: firmly grasped they crumble into particles which may be of interest to a biochemist but no longer evoke the marvelous whole of functional and aesthetical perfection" . . . . Nonetheless, they do convey the idea that a local skirmish often is part of a much wider contest and may lead to geographically more expansive violence.
How, then, are we to understand Putin's Ukraine policy:
Putin did not invade Crimea simply because he wanted direct control over that peninsula, or even because he wants to exercise influence over Ukraine writ large. He acts locally but thinks globally. He wants to alter the post-1991 order by proving that the Western order is predicated on an empty promise of security. Hence, while President Obama defines Russian as a mere "regional" power whose reach is limited to small, globally insignificant places, Russian leaders define the region as "Eurasia," a big piece of [the] world's real estate. Ukraine is thus a local war fought with a much larger geopolitical game in mind . . . . The principal theatre of operations is now, as it has been for nearly three centuries, eastern and southeastern Europe, and Russian policy in the Middle and Far East has been largely derivative. Only when Russia was blocked in Europe, on the Baltic and Moldavian Plains, only then did she turn to Asia. Russia exercised pressure on the Asiatic rim-lands, especially on Britain's positions in southwestern Asia, in order to obtain concessions in Europe. Russian expansionism, although it harvested rich territorial gains in central and eastern Asia, did not let itself be deflected from its primary goals, to wit, Russia's strategic frontiers in the West.
To this view, I would add my opinion that Russia is an essentially expansionist power, given that its borders are unstable, for which reason, it looks both east and west, coveting and conquering ever greater territory, seeking that stability that requires firm borders, but such are never available, for the more Russia presses for them, the less firm they become.

What does Grygiel suggest we do? He concludes: "history is not a string of successes, force needs to be met with force, and the larger geopolitical context is present even in small local wars." But how are we to act on this? How do we face up to this reality? Isn't the reality here that Putin now has the Crimean Peninsula? What can be done about that? Force has to be met with force? I don't think this means open war. Rather, Europe needs to become a potent military power through the EU's shedding of its postmodern assumptions about security through economic integration, and the US needs to retain its potent military force and not fall for the postmodern illusions about history's inevitably 'progressive' direction. Russia takes a long view. So should the West.

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