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Avoiding the Guns of April

April 7, 2014

The Washington Treaty creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was signed sixty-five years ago this week (April 4, 1949). The preamble of the treaty made explicit that the alliance was intended “to promote stability,” and cited “the preservation of peace” among its chief purposes. Unfortunately, in proposing responses to the illegitimate annexation of Crimea by Russian President Vladimir Putin, American neoconservatives are proposing to abuse the NATO structure by pulling in non-alliance members in a way that will increase instability and create the danger of escalation with a nuclear state.  In fact, the very use of NATO in this manner, along with other prescriptions (e.g. missile defense), will only serve to confirm in Moscow all of the fears they have held about NATO ‘encirclement’ and ill intentions.  One does not have to concede a special sphere of interest to the Russian Federation to understand Russian apprehensions about both NATO expansion into certain countries and exhortations for the alliance’s members to increase military spending – especially when Russia has been told they are excluded from joining the alliance.  One does not have to take a sympathetic view of President Putin to see how the collapse of an interim agreement, which he had encouraged the Ukrainian President to sign, was perceived as a threat to the homeport of the Black Sea Fleet and neighboring military bases. With tensions high and suspicions rampant it seems that all parties should be searching for a way to step back from the abyss.

These moves by Putin, which would be considered neoconservative if carried out by the U.S., have led to a dangerous elevation of rhetoric and bellicosity.  To the neocons, President Putin has finally been revealed as a duplicitous and evil chess master schooling a naïve American president and a host of weak Europeans on the art of power.  On the other hand, ironically, some in Moscow view President Obama as some new age Talleyrand, pulling all the (covert) strings that transformed Ukraine from a friendly neighbor, freely electing a pro-Russian president in 2010, to a proto-NATO dagger at the underbelly of the Russian Federation in 2013-14.

In fact President Obama is neither as weak as the neocons claim nor as crafty as the Russians fear.  It is also certain that President Putin is not the brilliant strategist that many say he is.  In moving into Crimea, Putin has made two crucial errors: driving Ukraine strongly in the direction of the European Union and possibly NATO, and sowing suspicion with the elites in countries with substantial ethnic Russian minorities, such as Belarus,  which are essential to building his vision of a Eurasian Union.

It is unfortunate that many in the West invariably view the use of force as a sign of strength, as in this case it is a manifestation of Russia’s weakness in playing a losing hand in Ukraine since 2004.

In mustering an effective and reasonable international response to Putin, the West must not heed the counsel of people such as Senator John McCain, America’s version of Leopold von Berchtold.  In the 2008 Georgia crisis McCain stood before the Republican Convention and melodramatically declared, “we are all Georgians now.”

A year later, however, the European Union issued a definitive report in which it declared that the “culminating point” precipitating that little war was “massive shelling” of Tskhinvali by the Georgians themselves.  The report also criticized the Russians then, as now in Crimea, of overreacting to events.  The neoconservatives learned nothing from the Georgian misadventure and apparently still believe the U.S. should have risked confrontation with Russia, even though Georgia’s then-president Mikhail Saakashvili had acted impulsively, recklessly and contrary to explicit admonitions from the Bush administration.  Sadly, it is all too obvious that these same critics would be arguing the opposite point of view had some country unleashed an artillery barrage in which American peacekeepers had been killed. Now, the very same Senator McCain has stated that, “we are all Ukrainians now.”

He has been joined by the usual chorus of neoconservatives with the same type of failed prescriptions that brought us Georgia and Iraq. Charles Krauthammer has called for a “tripwire strategy” that would involve a NATO confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia even though Ukraine is not a NATO member and the majority of Ukrainians do not wish to become so.   Former Vice President Cheney criticized the President for taking military options off the table. Writing in the Weekly Standard Thomas Donnelly mourned, “It would be politically courageous to call his bluff and find out what cards Putin really holds, but no American—no Western—politician seems willing to cover that bet with boots on the ground.”  All of these critics have called for President Obama to deploy missile defenses to the Czech Republic and Poland – something the Russians find threatening, and which would undermine as liars the last two American presidents and the U.S. military, who rightly assured Moscow that these systems were aimed at Iran and posed no threat to Russia.

Senator McCain has now urged that in response to Ukraine we stick the finger in Russia’s eye yet again by extending an immediate invitation (and an Article 5 tripwire to major power war) to Georgia (and Moldova).  NATO is supposed to enhance Western security, while it has been very clear that including Georgia and Ukraine would create instability and increase the likelihood of escalation.

Apparently Senator McCain and many of his neoconservative allies have learned nothing from recent events, except that that the way to douse a fire is to pour gasoline.

The neoconservative thesis that Moscow will “behave” only if presented with displays of strength does not hold up to scrutiny. The fact is that Moscow has always acted when it believed its security interests were in jeopardy. In June 1948 the Soviets boldly blockaded Berlin and almost brought the world to war.  Moscow was undeterred by the fact that Truman held a monopoly on atomic weapons – which he had used twice – and had just as boldly stood up to the Communists with the Truman Doctrine. In 1956, the Soviets unleashed an incursion into Hungary, even though a five star general and hero of World War II sat in the White House.  In 1968 Brezhnev sent troops into Prague even though President Johnson demonstrated a willingness to back American words by massive force in Vietnam.  In 1981, the Poles, then a Soviet proxy, instituted martial law and sent tanks into the streets even though Ronald Reagan was in Washington standing vigil against the Evil Empire. And we should not forget that Putin acted with complete disregard for these very same neoconservatives when they were in power during the Bush/Cheney years when he overacted to military provocation ordered by the former President of Georgia, himself a poster boy of the neoconservatives.

In fact, there is considerable evidence that Moscow’s decision to stand up to the West stems, contrary to the neoconservative worldview, to the very shows of force which they advocate: NATO expansion, the air war in the Balkans and sequent recognition of Kosovo, the second Gulf War and (from the Russian point of view) overreaching on the terms of the UN Security Council resolution on Libya. (On this topic, I recommend Angela E. Stent’s The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.)

This year marks the centenary of World War I, a tragedy that took an unfortunate event in a small, unstable country and literally blew it into the most horrific war to that time in human history.  The czar’s precautionary mobilization was seen by the Germans as a move towards war.  Tripwires in treaties (Germany to back Austria-Hungary and Britain to defend Belgium) cascaded into a global war.  When asked how many troops Britain should send to the aid of France, Marshall Foch, who understood tripwires, famously replied: “One single private soldier—and we would take good care that he was killed.”  The annexation by force of Crimea is unacceptable and needs to be opposed, but how can it make any rational sense to tie all of the NATO countries to tripwires in unstable places like Georgia and Moldova?


David W. Wise is a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law of Diplomacy at Tufts University and is a member of The International Institute for Strategic Studies.


Photo credit: Secretary of Defense

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5 thoughts on “Avoiding the Guns of April

  1. Spot-on. Just like the Guns of August, the road to war over Crimea is ranted and raved for by out-of-touch politicians in far away capitols for countries with no geopolitical or national interest dog in the fight.

  2. Perhaps instead of supplying counterfactuals and cautions regarding the risk of war you’d like to supply some examples of times when the Russian government has acceded to diplomacy or cowed by international laws? The only recent example is Syria, where the Russians only began to deal on Syria when American destroyers were in the Mediterranean and the French were fueling up strike fighters.

  3. Uh, NATO’s defense doesn’t start start at NATO’s borders. The idea of Collective defense means the defense of the collective and their vital interests, whatever and where ever they are. Just lucky perhaps, the Commonwealth/Ukraine chiz has landed on NATO’s front lawn.

    The Russians may not wanna get all combatty with NATO. Yet Russia may very well keep on annexing turf til NATO puts a stop to it.

    The Neo bashing is sooo 2004 btw

  4. This article makes some good points, but its main shortcoming is that the author fails to offer an alternative approach that would deter Russian adventurism at the expense of its neighbours sovereignty, or reduce the threat posed by Russia to NATO’s interests. Instead, all the author does is attack proponents of hard power. I do think the problem is that now NATO must prevent Russia from going further – eastern and southern Ukraine, and Transd’nistria for starters. That has to be the key task – and complaining about how beastly the neo-cons were to Moscow does not answer this fundamental policy challenge.

    Furthermore, I’d argue that NATO expansion actually contributed not to Russian insecurity, but to Russian security by building a stable, prosperous and peaceful western frontier. No one seriously believes NATO expansion was based on aggressive intention. I mean, for much of the last 25 years, NATO states have been convincing themselves that there was no longer any need to seriously invest in defence capabilities, let alone planning to march on St Petersburg! The only reason that ‘history is over’ mindset is now changing is because of Russia’s actions in Crimea and the implied threat of further actions.

    I am getting tired of people blaming NATO for Putin’s desire for rebuilding Russia’s imperial power.