American foreign policy has always been a bit short on perspective, but that problem has been markedly worse since 9/11. Somehow our enemies, no matter how weak or pathetic, loom like giant mechanical super-villains in our imaginations. Viewed with a sober, long-term lens, events unfolding in Ukraine could not be more favorable for the US. We have not been so lucky in decades.
Here is what is happening that we are somehow not seeing.
Russia is unravelling. The neo-fascist dictatorship under which the Russians live has been growing more and more brittle as oil prices stabilize and the population grows ever sicker, poorer, and more isolated from global markets. The population is in free-fall, due mostly to staggering mortality rates. The military is grumbling, underfed and underequipped, incapable of sustaining operations against an organized enemy. Their “nuclear deterrent” is a crumbling collection of poisonous garbage that was probably minimally functional in the best of times. The threat it poses now is the toxic waste it is leaking into the environment and the risk that the pieces might fall into the hands of someone capable of using it.
This is not 1956 and Kiev is not Budapest. There are sizable, influential Ukrainian communities in New York, Chicago and London. The Russians have no ideological influence in the world. Zero. No matter what else happens now, by invading Ukraine Putin has slipped a noose around his neck. He is very unlikely to die in his own bed.
Here is a list of forces Putin has set in motion this week in his stupid, short-sighted effort to retain dictatorial control over his own people:
Turkey has now been pushed into the EU. For a decade the Turks have been flirting with the idea of Islamic nationalism as an alternative to integration with Europe. That was never a good fit for an increasingly sophisticated, globalized and secular culture. That experiment died this week.
Turkish resentment of Russia has always been far stronger than their connection to their mostly Arab coreligionists. The Turks just learned where their future lies. The Russians can expect to lose the ability to move the Black Sea fleet and experience significant harassment of their Black Sea trade. They cannot challenge the Turks, partly because the Turkish military is stronger than the Russians, but more importantly because Turkey is a NATO member. Turkey, like several other countries, is about to rediscover its enthusiasm for NATO.
Whatever global leverage the Russians may have accumulated by their resistance to the American wars in the Middle East just disappeared. Whatever people around the world may think about America, they have far more fear of Russian (and Chinese) power than of America. The Iraq invasion may have been stupid, but there was a certain weird logic to it and we got out of there as soon as we could sober up and find a way. This invasion communicates to every country on Russia’s periphery (and there are lot of them) that they could be next, with little warning.
Putin may have just guaranteed that the Keystone Pipeline gets built and Europeans get access to vast new supplies of natural gas from North America. As Russia becomes a naked pariah, new markets for natural resources are going to pour money into the American Midwest. That new flow of resources and money are going to add to the desperation of the Russian people as opportunities dwindle.
All the leverage Iran and Syria have held in their efforts to keep building nuclear weapons or keep murdering their people, respectively, just blew away like smoke. There will no longer be any reason for the US or Europe to continue to defer to the Russian regime on anything, anywhere.
European Union expansion is back on the table. The problems with the Eurozone took some of the luster off of EU membership for many countries on the periphery. At the same time, Russia’s bluster raised the cost to the core EU countries of any potential expansion. This muscle-flexing changes the logic behind EU expansion both for countries inside and outside the Union.
NATO has a new reason to exist. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan had placed serious strain on NATO. The unilateral decision US to invade Iraq raised the internal political cost of NATO membership at a time when the logic behind the alliance seemed to be fading away. This week, Vladimir Putin generously rescued the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, giving the organization the energy it needs to remain vital for at least a generation and expand to new members.
What’s more, Ukraine will almost certainly be a NATO member within a decade. It will be interesting to see what happens now with Georgia, but it is now far more likely that Georgia will join both the EU and NATO than it was before Putin invaded the Crimea.
For all of this to unfold to the US’s benefit, we must remain sober and patient. These events validate American power and influence in the world. So long as we don’t panic and don’t overestimate our enemy, everything about this mess turns toward the benefit of the US and the spread of liberty.
We should begin imposing sanctions on the Russian regime in a gradual, but steadily escalating manner. Senator Rubio’s proposals are a good start, except for the ridiculous suggestion to immediately invite Georgia into NATO his pointless political jab about arms control. Putin has placed himself in an absolutely impossible situation. The conflict he has started is one he can neither win, nor extract himself from. It will probably end with him swinging from a light pole in some gray Ural hellhole. The Russian people are likely to pay the highest price in this drama and there’s little we can do for them now. Most of all, we just need to keep our heads and let Putin lose his.