Foreign Policy Blogging at OTB

I’ve just published a foreign policy-related post at Outside the Beltway:

Understanding Russia’s Interests

Regardless of how American critics of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy have framed it, Russia has serious long-term interests in Ukraine and we don’t. They’d’ve acted much as they have and we’d’ve done what we have regardless of who was president of either country.

If I have a criticism of the Obama Administration’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine, it’s contained in TR’s terse summary of his own policies: “Speak softly and carry a bit stick.” We still have a big stick, even with the defense cuts proposed by the Administration we’ll still have the biggest stick in the world. We can’t escape from the reality of our big stick. I just think we should be speaking more softly than we are.

16 comments… add one
  • Andy

    Unfortunately, the DC establishment disagrees with you. Talking softly is lacking “resolve,” is demonstrating “weakness,” is displaying “fecklessness.”

  • And people wonder why we’ve been at war for the last twenty some-odd years.

  • PD Shaw

    Sorry, don’t find that any more persuasive than if someone offered an apologia for American foreign interventionalism by stating that first you have to understand Manifest Destiny, and American Exceptionalism, and how it feels about other countries trading with Cuba, so Americans have no choice but to do what they do and the world should accept it. It may be a good idea to understand a country’s subjective views of right and wrong, but its another to buy into this Russia had no choice because its suffering status anxiety and doesn’t understand what was happening in Ukraine.

    I read that linked piece and I think the Russians are crazy. There is very little of “interests” in that piece, its made up factual claims and face-saving and don’t worry Americans will want us (and trust us?) to deal with China?

  • Let’s try another analogy, PD. Imagine that the Mexican government controlled all of California, Oregon, and Washington and we had access to the ports of San Diego, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco, etc. guaranteed by treaties. California, Oregon, and Washington as now have a majority non-Hispanic population and a Hispanic minority. As now the entirety of our Pacific trade moved through those ports. An anti-American government comes into power in Mexico City and immediately declares that only Spanish will be used in its California, Oregon, and Washington possessions and begins removing pro-American officials from office.

    What would we do? I think we’d react very much as the Russians have. Note that I’m not defending the Russians’ actions. I’m just trying to explain them.

  • PD Shaw

    On February 23, 2014, a bill passed the legislature, repealing a 2012 language law, that the President said he’d vote on February 28, 2014. How about letting the political process work before invading? I think America understands the messiness of democracy far better than Russia; the Russians thought they had made a deal with demonstrators, and they’ve lost face because demonstrators kept demonstrating?

    I don’t understand your hypothetical, because it seeks to get me to feel some ownership over some other country. If I felt some ownership of the Pacific Coast, I might be inclined to make up a pretext to seize it. I just wouldn’t expect the pretext to be accepted in honest talk.

  • PD Shaw

    vote = veto

  • How about letting the political process work before invading?

    That would have been my preference for Russia’s actions. I think they should have tried to influence the political process in Ukraine and taken their case to the Security Council before sending troops (which protestations to the contrary notwithstanding I think they have done). Paranoia really is an enduring feature of Russian thought. Although I guess it isn’t paranoia when everybody actually is against you.

  • jan

    Sometimes I believe people think too much in hypotheticals and analogies when constructing their ideas about the worthiness of either domestic or foreign policy. Everything in life is a balancing act of every-changing variables. Consequently, what may have been true under one set of circumstances, in one historical time slot, may not necessarily be so in another.

  • I don’t understand your hypothetical, because it seeks to get me to feel some ownership over some other country.

    It extends the notion of an easement to relations between two countries. But that’s the distinctive problem between Ukraine and Russia. The two have been intertwined for the last millennium. Modern Russia grew from Kievan Rus but, then, so did modern Ukraine.

  • PD Shaw

    I think most of the complaints are pretextual. Russia let it be known back in September that it would be legally entitled to support partition of Ukraine if the EU association agreement was signed. Link Everything besides the association agreement is smoke and mirrors, except that Russia is concerned about its port, for which I see no credible threat. Notwithstanding the editorial’s claim that

    “. . . to sign an association agreement with the European Union at any moment, ignoring Moscow’s position. For Russia, that would spell a total loss of economic ties with Ukraine and the future loss of Sebastopol as the base of the Black Sea Fleet, as Ukraine would turn into a kind of cordon sanitaire.”

    To claim that the agreement would result in a total loss of economic ties and Sevastopol strikes me as propaganda. Some of the best kind of propaganda, because you can probably find some European activists saying this kind of fool thing.

  • Andy

    PD Shaw,

    To the Russians, the threat is quite credible. They look at the history over the last 20 years and their view is that the West in general and the US in particular never passes up a chance to step on Russian interests. They believe that, given the chance, the West will step on Russian interests again. Ukraine is different and they will not take chances through influencing the political process. Crimea is too important to them.

  • ...

    Didn’t the West promise back in 1991 or so that it would not expand NATO into the old Warsaw Pact nations? That didn’t last long, and I can see why that would make the Russians twitchy and paranoid.

    Frankly, I just don’t think our actions since the collapse of the Soviet Union have done anything to make the Russians think we have anything bit their worst interests at heart.

  • PD Shaw

    @Andy, it doesn’t make the Russians any less crazy to point out that its because they were hit on the head with an iron skillet.

    After Kissinger summarized the Russian p.o.v. in a recent editorial, he proposed:

    “1. Ukraine should have the right to choose freely its economic and political associations, including with Europe.

    2. Ukraine should not join NATO, a position I took seven years ago, when it last came up. …”

    Sounds reasonable, but Russians cannot handle 1, because they are crazy. Or as Steven Ward diagnoses — Russians suffer from href=””> obstructed status anxiety disorder, and if not treated like a child they will go full-Napoleon on everyone.

  • PD Shaw

    Russians suffer from obstructed status anxiety disorder, obstructed status anxiety disorder, and if not treated like a child they will go full-Napoleon on everyone.

  • Ben Wolf


    Once we understand there’s no such thing as foreign policy, we can see the Russians are acting quite rationally.

  • steve

    Seems to me like they are acting much like many other great powers when stuff happens in their backyard. Look at China in Tibet. Look at the US in Latin America, Grenada, Panama, etc. We somehow decided a country thousands of miles away was a threat, so we invaded. Russia is acting well within historical norms. Powerful countries do stuff because they can.

    In this case, I agree that the Russians are a bit crazy. OTOH, NATO and the EU have relatively quickly expanded into Russia’s area of influence. They should have tried diplomacy, but I suspect that looking weak is as fatal a flaw in Russia as it is in the US, maybe even more so. (Putin wouldnt want to hear comparisons with Jimmy Carter.)


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