Conservative Americans in their umbrage over President Obama’s perceived weakness over Ukraine, are making the same mistake as Putin. They accuse the president of weakness because they want to DO something flashy and explosive and what is the President doing? Seemingly nothing. As perverse as it sounds, and as counterintuitive as it might be, conservatives and Putin are on the same side. That’s not to suggest that conservatives are unpatriotic, quite the contrary. But they see the world through the same old fashioned Cold War perspective as Putin does with the same old geopolitical goals and means. Massive arms build ups, military industrial complexes, fighting proxy wars, accruing debt. Your classic Reaganism. It won’t work in the short term and in the long term it’d be disastrous for US foreign and domestic policy.
Do you know why we’re giving Ukraine economic assistance instead of military? If we’d followed the conservative playbook we would have done the same thing as Russia. Sent complex and sophisticated weapons into a volatile area. As a result that airline could just as easily have been shot down with by the Ukraine government instead of the rebels and that would have been a disaster for us instead of Russia. Because of this inevitable atrocity, Russia is now a pariah among nations and facing even stricter sanctions. Moreover, military aide would further justify Russian involvement. With more weapons to match the Russians, the situation would escalate, atrocities would be committed and it would be our fault. We’d run the very real risk of destabilizing the region and permanently dividing Ukraine. People would flock to the Russian banner not because of Pro-Russian sentiment, or for nationalism but simply to fight the intrusive Americans. In the exact same way, a narrowly divided Ukraine has shifted dramatically to the west because it resents Russian involvement.
So we’re popular. For now. What of it? Russia could roll right over Ukraine militarily if it wanted to. We need to do something to prevent it. Right? No. We don’t. Imagine for a moment that Russia could and would take over not only eastern Ukraine but all of Ukraine and even the nations further west, what should we do? The conservative playbook says to draw a line in the sand and build up a powerful (and expensive) army that’s so powerful that Russia doesn’t dare cross it. This is wonderful for Russia. Russia sees a massive sophisticated army on its border and responds to this existential threat by cracking down on freedoms without inciting it’s people, beefs up its economy through defense spending, and build exclusive trade partnerships with its allies. Russian power and prestige grows. It collects hardened allies from those nations hostile to American intrusion and now we’re back to the Cold War.
It won’t work so let’s toss out the conservative playbook even though Putin is still reading from its pages. Let him. Let Russia take Crimea, East and West Ukraine and whatever else it can seize militarily. Russia won’t be able to keep the territory any more than the Soviets could. The move would spark massive unrest which would provoke equally massive repression. This would begin an unending cycle of violence and retaliation that would destroy the regional economies and make the newly claimed territory ungovernable and worthless. Eventually Russia would have to retreat and western powers would move in diplomatically and economically to consolidate power in the region. How do we know this? Because that’s what happened last time and it led to greater political, economic, and military integration under the western aegis.
If Russia makes the same mistakes a second time the gains for the west will be even greater. The key is economic stability and prosperity. This is a war of ideas and trade not with guns and bullets. If conservatives confront Russia with an aggressive military posture, Putin will mirror it and consolidate or expand power. Consider that even now Russia has gained an insignificant peninsula and (potentially) a small bit of land in Eastern Ukraine. As a result it’s been diplomatically isolated, proWestern sentiment has skyrocketed, and where the Russian economy was doing relatively well it risks depression or even collapse due to ever tightening sanctions. Russia can not exist as it is in isolation. No sophisticated economy could. If you really want to battle Russia, develop cheap and easy alternative fuels. You’ll crash the Russian economy even without sanctions and you remove Russia’s only real leverage. OR better yet, reduce the military, balance the budget, provide a legitimate safety net, invest in education and technology, and broaden dollar diplomacy and trade agreements. That’s how you win.