David Ignatius has penned a stunningly naïve and self-absorbed (in the sense that it is a liberal American-absorbed) article titled “Putin’s error in Ukraine is the kind that leads to catastrophe.” As the title makes clear, Ignatius takes the position that Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine was a mistake that will cost the Russians dearly. It may turn out that Ignatius’ conclusion is correct, however the reasoning he employs to get there reflects a view of the world that fails to comport with reality.
The main problem with Igantius’ argument is that it presupposes that Russia should think, reason and act like the United States when conducting its foreign policy. More specifically, it assumes that Putin should arrive at decisions about strategic interests based upon the same factors that drive American decision making. However, as the last fourteen years have shown, Putin does not march to the same beat as US policymakers. He has different interests (both domestically and internationally), objectives and, most importantly, morals.
Unfortunately, rather than acknowledge that reality and the consequences that follow from it, Ignatius chooses to pretend it doesn’t exist. His main concern is defending the Obama administration. He knows that Russia has arrived at the conclusion that Obama won’t act, a conclusion based on experiences in Iran, Libya and Syria, among others, and thus he must find a way to say that this invasion has nothing to do with past US policy and is simply a reckless move by someone who has completely miscalculated the geopolitical situation. Thus, this paragraph:
Kerry called on Putin to “undo this act of invasion.” The Russian leader would save himself immense grief by following Kerry’s advice, but that seems unlikely. His mistake in Sevastopol may lead to others elsewhere, though hopefully Putin will avoid reckless actions. But the more Putin seeks to assert Russia’s strength, he will actually underline its weakness.
The problem is that there is zero evidence that anything Ignatius says above is true. Russia has marched into Crimea unopposed. The Europeans, without American leadership, seem ready to cut a deal. The United States has talked about de-escalating the situation, rather than taking forceful and decisive action. Indeed, to date, it would appear Putin has judged 100% correctly the geopolitical situation.
Ignatius isn’t conducting a serious analysis of Russia’s actions. If he were, he would not write these lines:
Perhaps inevitably, given Washington’s political monomania, the big subject over the weekend wasn’t Putin’s criminal attack on Crimea but whether Obama had encouraged it by being insufficiently muscular. There are many valid criticisms to be made of Obama’s foreign policy, especially in Syria, but the notion that Putin’s attack is somehow the United States’ fault is perverse.
Ignatius employs a grammatical slight- of-hand to counter a legitimate argument by inserting a straw man. There is an abundance of criticism (including by this author) from many people regarding Obama’s pusillanimity in the face of global strategic threats. He failed to help Iranian dissidents during the Green Revolution, drew a redline in Syria he wouldn’t defend and “led from behind” in Libya, to name a few examples. Criticisms of those actions are most definitely valid. What is not valid, and what few who find fault with Obama on the grounds above would say, is that it is the United States’ fault that Putin attacked. Fault implies a failure to fulfill an obligation, and moral culpability, which does not apply here. Russia invaded, and Russia alone is at fault. However, the Obama administration can be faulted for creating an atmosphere that led Putin to conclude that he could act with impunity. If a man is murdered when there are no police around but there should have been, we do not say that the police are at fault for the murder – that is solely the responsibility of the killer. However, we may say that they are at fault for failing to create a safe environment
That is precisely what happened. Over the last five years, we have shrunk from fights and challenges in the Middle East, Latin American and Asia. Nowhere has this been more true than with respect to our Russian policy. We tried to appease the Russians with the “reset” out the door, to no avail. We caved into their demands to cancel our missile defense alliance with Poland. We let them outmaneuver us in Syria. Is it any wonder they don’t respect us now?
Throughout his article, Ignatius alleges that Putin has failed to grasp X or misunderstands Y and, luckily for the Russian president, Ignatius is here to tell him why he just doesn’t understand his own strategic interests.
What Putin misunderstands most is that the center of gravity for the former Soviet Union has shifted west. Former Soviet satellites such as Poland and the Czech Republic are prosperous members of the E.U. The nations that made up what was once Yugoslavia have survived their bloody breakup, and most have emerged as strong democracies. Ukraine was set to join this movement toward the European Union last November when Yanukovych suddenly suspended trade and financial talks with the E.U. and accepted what amounted to a $15 billion bribe from Putin to stay in Russia’s camp. To the tens of thousands of courageous Ukrainians who braved the cold and police brutality to protest, Yanukovych’s submission to Moscow looked like an attempt to reverse history.
From where does Ignatius draw his analysis? I see declarative statements from the author, but nowhere does he justify these conclusions. The center of gravity has shifted West. Really? I see a new Sino-Soviet alliance emerging. Putin is trying to reverse history. Well, we can agree on that. However, Ignatius seems to think that “history” is, in itself, a winning argument, as in “things have changed, therefore they can’t go back. Ukraine is a democracy, ergo it is foolish to fight to make it a puppet state.” It would be nice if it were true, if the world only progressed in one, more enlightened and free direction. The problem is there is little evidence that such a reality exists. Germany slid back into despotism after World War I. Venezuela slipped back into a dictatorship after a brief period of democracy. And, more to the point, Russia itself went from a highly free society in the late 1990s to a dictatorship today. Ignatius’ arguments are nothing more than wishful thinking and a projection of his own views onto Russia, rather than a careful analysis of geopolitics and history.
Ignatius spends the bulk of the rest of the article further declaring Russia’s invasion to be a mistake and that if only Putin were smarter he would realize where his interests truly are. He concludes with this thought: “But Americans and Europeans should agree that this is a story about Putin’s violation of the international order. I’d be happy if we could interrupt Russia’s mistakes, but so far Putin insists on doing the wrong thing.”
Mr. Ignatius really did yeoman’s work here, carrying water for the Obama administration. His entire article boils down to this sentiment: ‘it’s not Obama’s fault; Putin isn’t acting the way he is supposed to act.’ Unfortunately for the United States, Europe and Ukraine, there is no “supposed to” in international relations, and the idea that we should base our foreign policy around a philosophy that assumes there is a set order to the way events are supposed to unfold is not only absurd, it is dangerous. Obama already ordered his foreign policy along those lines once, assuming that when he declared a redline on chemical weapons it would never be crossed. Now, after years of displaying weakness, we find that another strategic adversary doesn’t respect us. It may not be Mr. Obama’s fault that Putin invaded Ukraine, but he certainly bears responsibility for creating a permissive environment where our enemies feel free to act with complete disregard for United States.