How to respond to Russia (safely)

Arsenal Essay: This isn’t Neville Chamberlain in 1938. It’s the world NOT taking the bait of Serbian gunmen in 1914.
nato-logo-200The Crimea annexation has raised a crucial question: What is the world to do when a country with a large military and nuclear weapons decides to end a (voluntary, it turns out) period of non-aggression toward its neighbors?

For a while, the Soviet Union and Russia was so bogged down by the 1980s Afghanistan debacle and economic problems of the 1990s that it wasn’t in a strong position to intervene militarily in its European neighbors’ political affairs as it had once regularly done.

But by the mid-2000s, Russia’s military was back up and ready. The United States and the wider Western world appears to have mistakenly convinced itself that Russian non-intervention in Eastern Europe was due to universalizing of norms against such interference and some sort of implicit global check against it.

Putin doesn’t appear to feel bound by any of those norms, after all (though the United States has had an extremely iffy track record on that as well since 1999). For some time now I’ve been firmly in the camp that this has more to do with restoring the pre-1914 Russian Empire and little to do with restoring the USSR. I think Putin’s vision of Russia is a lot like the Russia that was a European power with an inferiority complex and a Peter the Great-inspired desperation for Europe’s respect but not its approval.

It also calls to mind the arrogant Russia that saw itself as the older brother (and divinely chosen leader) of all Slavs everywhere, whether they liked it or not — and the White Man’s Burden Leader of the near abroad (especially Central Asia, as we’ve seen flashes of again recently). We’ve seen the revived patronizing attitude of Russians who simply can’t comprehend why Ukraine wouldn’t want to be part of Russia again.

Of course — as I’ll return to later in this essay — that was the same “Older Brother Russia” with the largest land army in the world that invaded the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in response to an Austrian police action in Serbia following the Serbian assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 (and Serbia’s alleged refusal to hand over the terrorists).

Rather than the Slavic World-Tsar liberating the Yugo-Slavs (the Slavs of the South), it brought the world into a devastating war that collapsed four empires, including Russia’s.

But let us return to Putin’s neo-imperial Russia of today. The lack of Russian invasions in Eastern Europe in the past nine years — apart from the disputed circumstances of Georgia in 2008 — seems now to have been more out of the “goodness” of Putin’s heart than out of any real commitment to respecting the independence of the Federation’s neighbors.

Putin’s revelation is that the 1956 rules still apply no less than they did in 1956, when the Soviet Union violently invaded Hungary (an anti-NATO Warsaw Pact member) to preserve communist rule there, and NATO was forced to watch passively because it could not risk a nuclear war over the matter.

Does the current Russian leadership, like the Soviet leadership of 1956, have enough sense to realize that it can only get away with interventions in its “sphere of influence” or will he press his luck? At the end of the day, it’s at least partly a matter of voluntary forbearance, as to how far Russia pushes. But partly as the hawks are telling us, it’s also about whether NATO and the United States are a credible umbrella for NATO members in Eastern Europe. As in: Is NATO really prepared to honor its defense obligations to the Baltic Republics if Russia intervenes there too?

I don’t know for sure if we’d actually launch a war if Russia invaded Estonia, say, but I do know that the United States isn’t twiddling its thumbs either — and is working to make sure that doesn’t happen in the first place, so that we never have to find out. Contrary to Republican belief, President Obama has been taking strong measures to shore up NATO allies in Eastern Europe against Russian aggression. Here’s the New York Times on the moves:

Since President Vladimir V. Putin ordered troops to seize Crimea, Mr. Obama has become increasingly engaged, blitzing foreign leaders with telephone calls, imposing sanctions and speaking out more frequently.

To reassure nervous allies, he sent six extra F-15C Eagles to Lithuania and 12 F-16 fighter jets to Poland. Mr. Obama, who met here with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, will further bolster defenses in Eastern Europe by rotating more ground and naval forces for exercises and training in Poland and the Baltic countries; update contingency planning; and increase the capacity of a NATO quick-response force.

“Putin just declared war on the European order and it’s demanding that the United States focus on Europe again as a security issue,” said Damon Wilson, a former national security aide to Mr. Bush and now executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. While some Republicans have pushed the president to be tougher, Mr. Wilson praised Mr. Obama’s response. “I don’t think I’ve seen the president more personally engaged on any foreign policy crisis in a concerted way as he has been on Ukraine.”

 
This might not do much to help or re-assure non-NATO members such as Ukraine, Moldova, or Sweden, but we haven’t ever legally bound ourselves to defend them in the event of a foreign attack. The administration is striking a balance by re-affirming our existing commitments and alliances without drawing us into fresh entanglements that risk a World War I-style avoidable meltdown into war between major powers.

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Repeating Collective Failure, Long After the Great War

wwi-italian-frontAlmost a century after the start of World War I, Italy is still recovering bodies of those killed in action high in the Alps. Starting in the 1990s, the Earth’s mounting temperatures melted enough ice to free some of those long-frozen souls.

In recent weeks, Britons got to read in their newspapers a war of words between Education Secretary Michael Gove and actor Sir Tony Robinson, over the latter’s TV representation of the first world war as a colossal, tragic mistake.

Sadly, that was indeed a fairly accurate summary of a war that began almost accidentally and rapidly involved every European country that had nothing to do with it.

A local assassination, excessive hubris, illogical military plans and a general unwillingness to stop a war’s wheels from grinding into action let things get out of control faster than any diplomats could rein in it – even if they wanted to.

Soon, officers were ordering wave after wave of young men into barbed-wire-tangled moonscapes, as machine guns raked across their ranks and shells exploded around them. The metric for victory became a few feet of meaningless dirt.

It is a cliché to note that the “War to End All Wars” was certainly far from the last conflict, but it seems to have become accepted wisdom that no countries could be so foolish a century later as to initiate a cascade of mistakes on that scale.

The irony, of course, is that the recently recovered Austrian and Italian bodies from the mountain front were likely only disgorged due to the melting of glaciers and once-permanent snow packs as a result of man-made global warming. Will unrestrained climate change be 2014’s tragic answer to the epic, collective failure of 1914?

The phenomenon has until recently been, in effect, a slow-motion collision of the different economic plans of nations everywhere. Our diplomats had more warning this time – but again had no support from their home governments to negotiate a solution that might head off the impact.

Every vanishing glacier that once served millions with drinking water now serves only as a catalyst for more squabbling over limited resources. Every new factory in one nation must be answered with a factory in its competitor. There is no partial mobilization of resources when economic primacy is at stake.

The world’s marginal places – the societies literally living on the margin between existence and extinction from one harvest to the next – are finding themselves drier and more prone to catastrophe than ever. They are an ecological and human powder keg that rivals last century’s Balkans.

The rapidity of South Sudan’s recent collapse – or that of nearby Central African Republic – or northern Mali in 2012 – even the wheat-driven Arab Spring – should be seen as a bigger warning of what is yet to come than any anarchist bomb or gunshot.

This warming is upon us and we are its primary cause. We can ignore the signs until an avoidable global tragedy is fully unleashed once more or we can commit our diplomats, strategists and resources to a collaborative counter-effort that will benefit all mankind.

This summer, as Europe swelters through commemorations of the Great War, we should heed the heavy cost of 1914’s chain of errors or past will again be present.

 
This essay originally appeared in The Globalist.