Over the past few weeks, the foreign policy anti-interventionists—a coalition of cynical establishment “realists,” blame-America-first leftists, and libertarian millennials disillusioned by the Iraq War—have given us a lot of excellent advice about the potential costs of getting involved in the conflict over Ukraine, about the dangers of escalation, about the virtue of caution.
Somehow they forgot to tell any of this to Vladimir Putin, who has spent his time assembling a massive buildup of Russian troops, tanks, and helicopters on the Ukrainian border.
Here is a rundown of all the seemingly reasonable advice that apparently hasn’t been transmitted to Vladimir—and why he’s not going to listen to any of it.
1) Leave other countries alone, and they will leave you alone.
Ron Paul, the godfather of the Libertarian anti-interventionists, urged us to listen to Osama bin Laden—who better as an authority on terrorism?—to make the point that the only reason we have to worry about being attacked is because we meddle so much in the affairs of other people. So how come Putin doesn’t grasp that if he leaves Europe alone, they will leave him alone?
Except that’s what they were already doing. Well, they weren’t exactly leaving Russia alone. The Europeans were buying Russia’s oil and gas, and the West’s big financial centers were eagerly helping Russia’s corrupt “oligarchs” find places to stash their money.
The anti-interventionists will tells us, no doubt, that the Russians felt threatened by the economic agreement the European Union was trying to forge with Ukraine. So an invasion and a massive military buildup are required to fend off the threat of expansionist imperialism from…the European Union? You mean the guys with no military budgets, whose most intrusive act of colonialist aggression is to force you to change the names of your cheeses? It’s like mobilizing for war against Canada.
When Vyktor Yanukovich scuttled the trade agreement in November, the European Union responded by…doing nothing. It comes naturally to them. It was Ukrainians who protested, not because of the specifics of the EU deal, but because they saw Yanukovich’s turn toward Moscow as a sign that he intended to establish a dictatorship. And they were right.
Putin isn’t interested in Ukraine because he sees it as any kind of direct threat. He’s interested in Ukraine because he wants his oligarchs to be able to loot it. His big geopolitical program is to assemble a dictators’ club of kleptocracies to surround Russia and insulate it from the influence of more liberal political systems. After all, if millions of ethnic Russians can live in freedom in Ukraine, who knows what they will expect back in Russia? That’s why he can’t leave Ukraine alone.
2) Using military force will damage your standing in the world.
That’s as opposed to President Obama’s policy of withdrawal and retrenchment, which has made America so honored and respected that…Putin is invading Ukraine.
Running roughshod over Ukraine helps Putin keep other Russian satellites in line, and it impresses Russia’s client states—particularly in Damascus, Tehran, and Caracas—that Russia is strong and the West is weak. The point of Putin’s policy is precisely to re-establish Russia’s standing in the world by showing that he can make things happen on the ground against the opposition of the West.
3) Military intervention always becomes a quagmire.
Rand Paul’s initial reaction to the threat of a Russian invasion was to fantasize about Ukrainian students blowing up Russian natural gas pipelines: “A Ukrainian teenager with $200 of explosives and a burning desire to thwart the Russian bear can disrupt a pipeline.”
I hope that if the Russians mount a full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian army will be able to make things very hot for them. Or if they don’t, I suspect that some of the young men who did battle last month in the Euromaidan will put up some resistance. But dressing up in adapted hockey gear to take on riot police is one thing. Taking on tanks and helicopters is quite another. For all the romanticized mythology about the elusive insurgent who turns an evil empire’s invasion into a quagmire, the fact is that most insurgents lose. Ask the guy who flattened Grozny.
And we haven’t heard of any effective resistance to the Russian occupation of Crimea, perhaps because the Crimean Tatars are terrified of a repeat of their murderous deportation under Stalin.
Senator Paul muses, “Surely, though, some among the renewed nationalists of Moscow must remember the Mujahedin?” Does Senator Paul remember what happened in Afghanistan? It became a quagmire for the Russians largely because we poured in huge amounts of money, arms, training, and military intelligence to support the insurgents (at some cost to us later on). It was one of the biggest interventions, short of war, in America’s history. So this isn’t a story about the failure of Russia’s intervention. It’s a story about the success of our counter-intervention.
4) The public won’t support it.
The Russian public apparently does. Putin escalated the conflict in Ukraine partly to prop up his approval at home, based on the expectation that appealing to jingoistic Russian nationalism works. And it does.
You might object that this approval is artificial, bolstered by Putin’s control of the media. But that’s just the point. If the Russian-owned network RT America is a propaganda outfit, imagine what the press back in Russia is like. Putin has suffocated opposition parties and prosecuted any potential rivals on trumped up corruption charges. He has used the Ukraine crisis as an excuse to shut down his political opponents outright, putting them under house arrest and blocking their websites.
So no, I don’t think Putin is going to be stopped by political opposition at home, not any time soon. Shutting down the opposition is part of the point of the conflict in Ukraine.
5) It’s going to bankrupt your economy.
Certainly, increased tensions with the West will hurt Russia. But Putin is betting that the Europeans won’t have the nerve to impose sanctions, especially if they listen to the Western anti-interventionists. And if the economy sags, do Putin and his cronies ultimately care? Reflect that the per capita annual GDP in Ukraine is about $4,000, yet Vyktor Yanukovich built himself a lavish mansion, and another one, and who knows how many more.
There’s a shortage of toilet paper in Venezuela—shades of the old Soviet Union—yet the Chavistas merely tighten their grip.
Worrying about the economy reflects our values and our political system. But dictators have never shown any qualms about living in opulence while the people starve.
6) The Cold War is over.
Not for Putin it isn’t. He clearly believes that the only reason the Soviets lost the Cold War is because the pansies who were in charge lacked the will to crack down on Eastern Europe and the breakaway Soviet republics. If only the Soviet Union in 1985 had had a truly strong leader, a manly man, someone with the courage to be photographed with his shirt off. So Putin wants a do-over.
I’m old enough to remember the final years of the Cold War, and guess what? It’s back. I’m not at all happy about that, and I really wish the Leader of the Free World would do something about it. But don’t worry, Joe Biden is on the job.
This new Cold War is not like the old one. It’s only Cold War Lite, because Russia no longer controls former satellites like Poland and former imperial possessions like Ukraine and the Baltic states. Yet that’s precisely what Putin is trying to change.
7) It’s better to lead by the power of your example.
Actually, Putin knows this one—and that’s what should terrify us.
He’s trying to set an example of how to successfully re-establish a dictatorship, rebuild an empire, defy the West, and restore Russia’s status as a superpower equal to or stronger than the United States. He’s setting an example that he expects his admirers and client states across the world to follow, from Iran to Venezuela. And he’s looking to add a few more clients, maybe in Cairo. Which will mean a world of new trouble for the United States.
This is not to deny that Putin’s Ukraine adventure will run into many problems. His dream of a reborn Russian empire is ultimately a delusion that cannot be maintained. But so was the Soviet dream of world domination, and recall how much damage it caused before it faltered. Also recall that the Soviet Union was brought down, not by passive anti-interventionism, but by a global strategy of counter-interventions, most of them short of war, that blocked Soviet expansion and eventually undermined its power.
This is the fundamental naiveté of the anti-interventionists. They offer excellent advice, just not to the people who need it. You might call this the paradox of pacifism: the reasonable counsels of peace find their most eager audience among those who least need to hear them, while being ignored by the fanatics and strongmen who actually drive most of the world’s conflicts.
So all of this advice just ends up restraining the good guys and letting the bad guys run wild—until we are forced into a much bigger intervention in the future.