“A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” is how Winston Churchill famously described Russia in 1939. Churchill less famously added: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
Determinedly modernist Western leaders have tried hard to convince Vladimir Putin that Russia’s national interest — and his personal interest, as well — is to be a member in good standing with the so-called “international community,” someone praised by President Obama and not admonished by John F. Kerry who, following Russia’s seizure of Crimea, exclaimed: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.”
Being regarded as unfashionable by the American secretary of state is a punishment the Russian president is apparently willing to endure in order to redraw the borders of Eurasia. Under both czars and commissars, the occupant of the Kremlin commanded an empire. I’d wager that Mr. Putin sees it as his mission — perhaps his destiny — to re-establish the status quo ante. If the polls are to be believed, most Russians are solidly behind him.
How far will Mr. Putin go? He’s no communist, but I do think he learned from Lenin, who famously said that when you probe with your bayonet and hit steel, you back off, but when you hit mush, you continue moving forward. Raise your hand if you think Mr. Putin has so far hit anything other than mush from the United States, the European Union and NATO (and the United Nations, but that goes without saying).
Some questions to which I don’t think we yet have answers: Does Mr. Putin want all of Ukraine or just the most productive slices, leaving the remainder an impoverished ward of the West? Will he settle for an expanded sphere of influence, with the countries on Russia’s borders, the “near abroad,” retaining de jure independence — as long as they don’t forget to whom they must kowtow? Or does he, perhaps, harbor grander ambitions?
It is not inconceivable that Mr. Putin thinks he can — and therefore should — precipitate NATO’s collapse. He could accomplish this by following his invasion, on a trumped-up pretext, of Ukraine with an invasion on a trumped-up pretext of one or more of NATO’s smaller members — nations that once were Soviet republics and still have sizable Russian populations. If NATO should prove unwilling or unable to defend Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, that would be the death of the venerable but increasingly feeble alliance.
Even if Mr. Putin goes no further — and few bookmakers would give odds on that — he has demonstrated that Russia in the Age of Putin is a power that must again be reckoned with. He also has cast further doubt on America’s determination and reliability, thereby making a mockery of what was supposed to be the Age of Obama.
A yawning gap separates Mr. Obama’s worldview from reality. That was vividly illustrated last month when he addressed “European Youth” at the ornate Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. He had crossed the Atlantic, he told the young men and women of the Continent, “to insist that we must never take for granted the progress that has been won here in Europe and advanced around the world, because the contest of ideas continues for your generation.”
He immediately added: “And that’s what’s at stake in Ukraine today. Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident — that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future.”
You see the contradiction? Taking progress for granted is exactly what Mr. Obama did when he assumed that the advent of a new century brought with it new and improved rules — that with the flip of a calendar page, borders somehow became inviolable, international law suddenly “mattered” (whatever that means), and tyrants could no longer determine the fate of nations.
The president went on to reassure his audience that “this is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.”
All three of those assertions strike me as dubious. First, we may indeed be entering into something akin to the Cold War — if the definition of that term is a period of prolonged tension, low-intensity and proxy conflicts, and the possibility of a spark setting off a larger conflagration.
Second, though Mr. Putin may not be leading a bloc of nations, he is aligning with regimes based on anti-Western and anti-democratic ideologies, such as Iran, Syria and North Korea. Islamism — which, in its Iranian expression, Mr. Putin is enabling — is as much a global ideology as was communism.
Third, if the president is implying that the Cold War came about because the United States and NATO sought conflict with the Soviet Union, he’s dead wrong: The root cause was Soviet empire-building and the dropping of an Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe.
Finally, Mr. Putin does not need to be reminded that America and NATO are not seeking conflict with him. He is confident that both fear conflict much more than he does, more than Iran’s rulers do, more even than the young dynastic dictator of North Korea. That’s a good reason for all of them to drive hard bargains, demand significant concessions and impose serious humiliations on America.
Does Mr. Obama grasp any of this, and is he even attempting to develop a strategy to deal with it? That’s the real puzzle, isn’t it?
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.