Stephen Gottlieb: Ukraine – The Cold War Again?

Mar 25, 2014

There has been a lot of loose talk about how to deal with Russia over Ukraine. Some people think Obama should be, or sound, tougher – or more careful. Toughness is mostly about impressing the home audience, and getting people fired up. But it has nothing to do with what actually has to happen, what the choices or consequences are – it’s all about posturing. Foreign affairs is not a simplistic referendum on “toughness,” and the avatars of toughness should be laughed out of the public space.

So let's be clear – just as there was no war directly between the Soviet Union and the US, the controlling fact is that Russia and the US won’t attack each other – neither of our countries are that stupid. There are too many troops and weapons on both sides. This is a chess game, not a boxing match.

That doesn't mean there will be no hostilities. It does mean that hostilities will be conducted through proxies, sanctions or a geopolitical race in which possession is irrefutable. A proxy war is going on now in Syria and we may be losing it because, for good reason, we have been unwilling to finance and support religious extremists who may turn against us just as the Taliban did.

Meanwhile Russia won the race for possession in Crimea. Whether western Ukraine or Eastern Europe are up for grabs partly depends on where the troops are. According to the Defense Department, we have a minimal presence in the countries of and around the old Soviet Union, probably confined to embassies, intelligence and diplomacy.[i] A number of those countries now belong to NATO but deployments appear to be episodic rather than stationed in multi-national NATO bases.

Economic sanctions and the NATO flag may be enough, but Russia can beat us into those countries if we are not there already. If Putin thinks we’re going in, he may just decide to get there first, and, since it’s in their part of the world, he can. Europe can move faster than us but may not think it wise. Acting as the world's policeman would sap our economic strength and has its risks. More, Ukraine and Crimea are major nationalist issues for the Russian people, not just something Putin whipped up, though Stalin both won and lost hearts in different parts of Ukraine.[ii] Pity the world's so complicated.

So Obama, or anyone in his position, has to walk a tightrope, to convince the Russians that we and NATO mean business, but do it without driving Russia to rush in, or embroiling us in hostilities that our national interests in Ukraine don’t justify.

Obama isn’t Chamberlain and this isn’t 1938 Munich partly because the US and our Allies had not rearmed in the face of the Depression. In 2014 we have a formidable force but we all have weapons no one wants to have to use. So it’s much more like a game of chess – there are places we, and they, simply cannot move, strategies to exert pressure, and national interests for both countries to calculate.

Sometimes in a diplomatic chess game, loudly second-guessing every decision makes any president's position impossible. Public rhetoric can lead to foreign misreading of our intentions, and affect the consequences in unpredictable, sometimes unsupportable ways.

[i]https://www.dmdc.osd.mil/appj/dwp/getfile.do?fileNm=SIAD_309_Report_P1312.xlsx&filePathNm=milRegionCountry

[ii] Steve Leibo’s comments on this station on the Russia-Ukraine connection are well worth hearing, http://sagethoughts.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/confronting-the-ukraine-crisis-march-2014/.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. 

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