In one classic episode of the British comedy Yes Minister, a senior civil servant detailed the four phases of Foreign Office advice during an international crisis:
- Nothing is happening.
- Something is happening, but we don’t know what it is.
- We know what it is, but there’s nothing we can do about it.
- Maybe there was something we could have done—but it’s too late now.
This analysis produced the recommended response: all aid short of help.
In Ukraine, Western governments are now shifting from Phase 2 to Phase 3. We certainly know what is happening: the boldest Russian attempt in a quarter-century to reverse the outcome of the Cold War. Russia has already defied norms of behavior in place since 1945—and threatens to do worse if it doesn’t get more of its own way.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea does not compare to the murderous violence that occurred in recent decades in places like Chechnya or the former Yugoslavia. Nor is it the first time Russia has used force to redraw a boundary in its favor: that occurred in Georgia in 2008.
Yet the attack on Ukraine is different from those previous events in deeply ominous ways. Moscow’s military intervention was triggered by an act of self-determination: peaceful protest against Russia’s attempt to dictate Ukraine’s economic future. Those protests were met with deadly violence at the hands of what almost has to be called a Russian colonial government. Escalating protests drove that colonial government out of power. The seizure of Crimea—now followed by military maneuvers on the eastern borders of mainland Ukraine—is punishment for Ukraine’s exercise of independence.
Russia is sending a message intended not only for Ukrainian ears. It’s a threat to all former Soviet nations. As such, it’s a challenge to the United States—and we need to be very clear about what that challenge is, and what it means.
Tell me if you’ve recently heard a pundit or strategist say something like the following:
Russia is a great power. It is entitled to a sphere of influence on its borders. NATO and the European Union pushed Russia too hard while Russia was weak. Russia is stronger now, and so naturally it’s pushing back. We have to understand Russia’s need for friendly governments on its border.
Familiar, right? Now let’s consider why it’s an awful thing to say.
Every great power, of course, wants friendly neighbors. But the surest way to secure friendly neighbors is to be friendly yourself. It didn’t just happen that Germany is bordered by a friendly France to the west and a friendly Poland to the east. Germany has earned that friendship with its constructive policies in the years since World War II. Germany doesn’t need to subvert French and Polish democracy to ensure French and Polish friendship. Nobody can win an election in France or Poland on a platform of hostility to Germany.
If Russia finds itself in a different situation, it’s because of Russia’s own actions. Russia’s neighbors are frightened of Russia because Russia is frightening. Rather than allay those neighbors’ concerns, Moscow tries to manipulate neighboring political systems and install stooge governments. Neighbors a little further away—Poland, for example, or the Baltic republics—have every reason to worry that Russia would do the same to them, if it could.
But it can’t. And that’s because of the security guarantees enjoyed by NATO members. As a result of that guarantee, Europe—from Estonia westward—is a more peaceful place than ever before in its history. Ukraine is not in NATO; the alliance’s leaders decided that was one extension too many, for reasons both good and bad. Among the good was the rationale that we couldn’t fully rely on the Ukrainian government and military to behave like a proper NATO partner. Ukraine’s officials were too corrupt and easily swayed by Russia; its population’s loyalties too uncertain; and its military capabilities too inadequate. Among the bad were the kinds of arguments summarized in the italicized paragraph above.