The most dire of analysis of Russia’s unwarranted occupation of Crimea is this: The Cold War is back, only now the United States has been exposed as a terribly weak nation, feared by no one, and led by a president whom Russian president Vladimir Putin has no bones about defying.
None of this is true, although the dynamics of the U.S.-Russian relationship have surely changed dramatically since the days when “mutually assured destruction” was all we had to guarantee peace. As eerily similar as the Russian aggression in Crimea (and for that matter, Georgia, a few years back) is to Soviet expansionism of the mid-20th century, it’s not the same thing at all. The terms are different, the consequences are different, and even Putin – who has run a repressive regime and seems worrisomely nostalgic for the days of the Soviet empire – is different.
The old construct (and not just for the U.S.-Soviet match-up) used to be that America was a big, powerful country with a massive military and could vanquish any act of foreign aggression or human rights abuse with a quick and effective visit from U.S. troops. That is no longer the case. Not only do other nations have military forces of their own, but some have leaders who are willing to devastate their own countries and murder their own people in the face of a military threat from the U.S. or anyone else. The ill-conceived war in Iraq has had an enormous impact on the current U.S. ability to threaten a military strike, whether in Eastern Europe or, for that matter, the Middle East. That conflict was not, as the American public was told, a slam-dunk effort which would end quickly and with accolades and flowers from the Iraqi people. It was long, it was expensive, it was painful, and we ended up with basically nothing for the effort.
The argument has been made that other nations are not afraid of challenging President Obama because he has made it clear he is not eager to get involved in another war. It’s true that he isn’t but nor does the American public want to get involved in another war. We’re still struggling out of a damaging recession, and the financial and human costs of policing the world are looking too high.
The hopeful reality is that Putin, while being a frightening character, is not stupid, and is not interested in being isolated from the world. He clearly wants to be a player on the world stage (the Sochi Olympics extravaganza was only part of it), and being made an international pariah is not going to get him there. The popular uprising in Ukraine was literally and figuratively a bit too close to home for Putin, who is throwing people in jail in Russia (now that the Olympics are over) to quell dissent. But at some point, Putin must realize that further aggression will result not only in diplomatic isolation, but economic punishment. That is something Russia cannot afford, and would only result in more discontent among an already restive Russian people.
It’s true that the U.S. cannot afford to launch a military strike in Eastern Europe. But Russia can’t afford it either. While Ukraine is hardly an economic powerhouse, its military is in relatively good shape (especially compared to Russia) and could be helped by foreign economic assistance of necessary. Putin does not have the old Soviet powerhouse behind him to annex Ukraine or even beat it into submission. Ukraine’s future is rosier if it aligns more with Europe; bribes of trade deals and financial packages from Russia won’t work.
The Cold War conflict was rooted in military power. The modern crisis in Eastern Europe is about money. And Putin’s Russia doesn’t have the economic power to sustain its current act of aggression. Let’s hope that Putin realizes that before too much damage is done.