I’m not sure what we should do about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I am, however, dead sure about what we shouldn’t do. Please, Washington—don’t listen to John McCain!
The leader of the capital’s bombs-away caucus spoke exclusively over the weekend to the Beast’s Josh Rogin, who nailed the scoop. It was a relief to see McCain acknowledging that there is no plausible military option. So that’s progress. But the steps McCain advises are certain to heighten tensions and probably start a new Cold War, which is surely what the thuggish Putin wants. It’s most definitely not what the United States should want, at exactly the time when, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has proposed, we should be reducing the size of our military and the reach of our global commitments.
McCain floated three notions: tougher sanctions against Russia and its higher-ranking officials; NATO membership for Georgia; expanded and sped-up missile defense systems in Europe. The first is unobjectionable. The world has to do something here, and sanctions are that something. If we can’t prevent Putin from engaging in this kind of aggression—and face it, we can’t—we can at least do what we can to harm his economy and limit the foreign travel of his high government officials.
But Georgia in NATO and missile defense? McCain and other hawkish types (including, very distressingly, Joe Biden back in 2008) have been banging that gong for years now. Calls for Georgian entry into NATO go back to the mid-2000s, when “Rose Revolution” president Mikheil Saakashvili made it a top priority. It was a horrible idea then—expanding a military alliance right up to the doorstep of a certain country, all but surrounding it, is bound to be seen in that country, and not unreasonably, as a provocative act. It’s even worse when that country happens to have 8,500 nuclear weapons.
We have to express our disapproval, and we should impose sanctions. Beyond that, there just isn’t much we can do, and there isn’t much we should do.
And don’t forget NATO’s famous Article 5: an attack on any NATO country will be taken as an attack on all. What would the implications of that commitment have been in 2008, during the Russo-Georgian war in Ossetia? It’s true that Georgia moved first in that conflict, but pretexts for such action are absurdly easy to establish. Would the United States and the other NATO countries have been forced into war against Russia in 2008 if Georgia had been a NATO member then? It’s not at all an idle question, and it’s one well worth keeping in mind now.
As for missile defense, the United States is already scheduled to install missile interceptors in Poland in 2018, which is mistake enough. But at least Obama has drawn back here from stronger commitments to Poland (a charter member of the coalition of the willing, remember?) made by the Bush administration. The Bush commitment was for interceptors of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Obama scaled that back to interceptors of intermediate-range missiles. There will now be pressure from McCain and others to go back to Bush’s plan, and to get them there faster than 2018, which is the Obama timetable.
I’m hardly an expert on the different types of missile interceptors, so if the question is which one to deploy, I readily confess I’m not your man. But I have a better question: What in blazes does Poland have to do with this anyway? Is Putin set to invade Poland—a member of the European Union and of NATO? Is this 1939? The hawks do love those Hitler-era talking points. Yes, certain parallels can be drawn between what Putin is doing here and what Hitler did in the Sudetenland. But do we really think he wants to drag all of Europe into a war, wipe Germany off the map, put Russia’s and Europe’s gay population in concentration camps? Putin is a hideous person, but a latter-day Hitler he is probably not, and even if he did want to do those things, trillions of dollars in trade are at stake for him in his relations with Europe in a way that wasn’t at all true in the 1930s.
In fact, yesterday Putin accepted Angela Merkel’s mediation offer for a contact group to discuss the crisis, suggesting perhaps that his aims here, however repugnant, may fall short of world domination
We have to express our disapproval, and we should impose sanctions. Beyond that, there just isn’t much we can do, and there isn’t much we should do. Timothy Snyder, a leading expert on the region, writes in The New Republic that the EU should undertake a series of moves designed in effect to banish Russia’s upper classes from European banks and cities and private schools and resort playgrounds, which might well get the attention of the only people (Putin-approved kleptocrats) who can possibly influence Putin’s behavior.
And as for McCain and his Cold War caucus: McCain wants the United States to do the things he wants it to do so that the United States remains the world’s only true hegemonic power. For almost all of John McCain’s sentient life, we had a bipolar world, and then, after 1991, a unipolar world. The McCains of America think the bipolar world was a freak accident of history and the unipolar world is the default way things ought to be.
But the unipolar era of U.S. dominance is—increasingly, was—itself a product of particular historical forces, and those forces are changing rapidly. We’re returning to a multipolar world in which there will be other powers that can operate more or less on the United States’ level. Far from resisting this we should welcome it. I’m not a liberal isolationist, and certainly no pacifist either. Although it’s not possible to quantify—it’s like trying to measure how much rain didn’t fall—I think there’s no doubt that our global military presence has prevented more problems than it has created, and we shouldn’t pull too far back. But we should start sharing that burden with other nations and multilateral organizations more than we have.
And most of all, recreating a bipolar world of U.S.-Russia conflict is at the very bottom of our global “to do” list. We don’t have to like Putin or what he’s doing here, but let’s not pretend that who controls the Crimea is a question of first-rank global importance, and let’s not play into Putin’s grubby hands. Demagogues only gain power when they can whip their people into a frenzy about an outside enemy. Obama must not help him, and mustn’t let himself get cowed by a hectoring neocon right into saying things he shouldn’t say.