Do Not Underestimate Russia’s Resolve

Do Not Underestimate Russia’s Resolve. By James Soriano.

The various events leading up to that war are complex and there is not space here to summarize them, but in general Russia-friendly pundits hold that there is sufficient material in the gathering storm to justify a preventive war of self-defense.

The critics will have none of this. They say Russia launched an “unprovoked” war of aggression, it has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty, and it must be held to account.

Spheres of influence versus independent and sovereign nations:

The two camps differ not only on the cause of war, they have completely different world views as to how a system of sovereign states works. Russian war policy is the epitome of a broader realist approach to international affairs: states have interests, not friends, and they must rely on self-help to do what is necessary to protect themselves. Accordingly, Russia went to war not to conquer, but from a no-nonsense threat assessment. By contrast, the United States entered the fray with an ideologically charged missionary spirit. The U.S. has long seen itself as the savior of the world, the “indispensable nation,” Its diplomatic discourse often lapses into moralizing rhetoric. It believes that a world filled with more democracies would be a safer and better place than it is today. It is disdainful of traditional balance of power politics and favors a “rules based” world order.

The Russian view of power politics is “bottom up” and conservative. It insists that a state’s historical and geographic circumstances must be taken into account. It grapples with the question, “What is there?

The American view of the world is “top-down” and revolutionary. It is less concerned with historical contexts than with hypothetical theorizing about how people and states ought to behave. It grapples with the question, “What should be there?”

It has often been said that the United States could have defused the Ukraine crisis before it spilled into war by coming to terms with Russia on the status of Ukraine’s NATO membership. However, a psychological barrier blocked the way. The West fears that meeting the Russian “ask” on Ukraine would have been the first step on a slippery slope. Russia would have then made other security demands elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and pretty soon the U.S. would have, willingly or not, become a party to a “sphere of influence” arrangement. Such an outcome is abhorrent to the United States.

“The days of empire and spheres of influence are over,” President Obama proclaimed in a speech in Warsaw in 2014. “Bigger nations must not be allowed to bully the small or impose their will at the barrel of a gun.” Never mind Obama’s gloss over the Monroe Doctrine, the point here is that denunciations of “spheres of influence” can be found in American pronouncements on foreign policy going far back into history. …

Several weeks before the Russian invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Beijing for the Winter Olympics. There he met with China’s leader Xi Jinping, and although we do not have the minutes of that meeting, it is a good bet that Putin told Xi that he had no choice but to go in with force. The two sides issued a joint statement, saying: “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions.” Thus, on the eve of battle, Russia and China, for their own national interests, made a last call for respecting spheres of influence. America does not talk that language.

One side is saying that world peace is served when the great powers exercise self-restraint and are respectful of other powers’ security. The other side is saying that maintaining a sphere of influence is implicitly an aggressive act.

One side is saying that tension between the great powers is not the result of the particular character of their regimes, but rather is built into the international system whenever a great power veers out of its lane. The other side is saying that a regime’s character is exactly the point, because different characters affect the relations among the states in different ways.

One side emphasizes historical and geographic circumstances as a constant in world affairs. The other side de-emphasizes these in favor of an overlay of law and ethical precepts.

Many Russians believe that U.S. talk about “spheres of influence,” and respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the need for a “rules-based” international order is only a moralizing cover for what the United States really wants — which is regime change in Moscow. Russia has suspected this all along. Ironically, it sees the United States pretty much as the United States sees itself: as a messianic power spreading the good news of democracy around the world.

Russia knows that if it had acquiesced to Ukraine’s joining NATO, if it had been passive in allowing an opposing military alliance to push itself right up against its fence, then Russia would permanently lose its freedom of action and any claim to great power status. It would have to fit pliantly into an American-designed world order. It would have to go along with the U.S., rather than to present itself as an alternative to it. …

The Russian people get this. They sense that the battle in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine. It in an existential fight, a struggle of life or death, between them and the West.

1945 – 90. Too much?

To them a challenge originating in the West has once again reared up to put Russia under overwhelming pressure. They believe that losing this fight would not amount to just a setback from which Russia could later recover; it would be tantamount to Russia’s losing its historical identity, not merely as a country but as a civilization, for Russia is a civilization culturally distinct from that of the West, and not, as many Westerners mistakenly believe, an un-democratized expanse on Europe’s eastern edge.

Are countries near a great power allowed to join whatever economic clubs and military alliances they want? Or do they to ask permission? How far from Russia do you have to be in order to not to have to ask Moscow’s permission?

The Ukrainian counteroffensive isn’t making much progress, so don’t expect any answers soon.