Invoking brinksmanship comes with a high price

Vladimir Putin’s recent invasion of the Crimean peninsula and the March 8 move into Kherson Oblast to establish control of land access into Crimea bring back unpleasant memories. The obvious threat of extension of this latest Russian military incursion from Crimea into Eastern Ukraine is undeniable. Having served the entirety of my Marine Corps career during the Cold War, this sort of confrontational brinksmanship is all too familiar.

In a move reminiscent of the Khrushchev Doctrine (used as an excuse for the invasion of Hungary in 1956); the Brezhnev Doctrine (used as an excuse for the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968); and a similar move by President Putin when he invaded Georgia in 2008, the justification for an invasion of sovereign territory went something like this.

“A sovereign nation on our border has been subjected to violence and put in danger by unwelcome outside influences causing unrest and instability. At the request of the duly-elected government representing the interests of its people, Russian forces have peacefully entered this nation to restore order and safeguard and protect innocent lives.” Really? Could any ruse or pretext be more thinly-veiled?

So what reason would Putin have to make such a transparent move? His potential gains in the short term are political and economic. Politically, he appears to his supporters and countrymen to be a strong, decisive leader who is willing to stand up to the West and particularly the United States in the defense of fellow Russians. Economically and militarily, he retains unquestioned control of the Russian Black Sea Fleet port of Sevastopol and concomitant control of the access routes to the Mediterranean. Movement further into eastern Ukraine would provide access to rich coal fields and elimination of cumbersome Ukrainian regulation of Russian oil and gas imports to and shipments through Ukraine.

The downside of this all-too-familiar farcical political-military gamesmanship are extraordinary, though these probably weren’t considered by Putin and his planners prior to pulling the trigger. First of all, nobody needs what Russia has. The Russian economy is shallow and one-dimensional: it is based on the sale of oil and gas. In case no one bothered to inform President Putin, there is plenty of oil and gas in just about every region of the world, and those areas who don’t have their own supply can easily import these commodities. Second, Russia is far more dependent on the rest of the world for staple products and goods than the rest of the world is dependent on Russia, making an economic boycott potentially devastating for Russia. Third, the Russian government does not have the ability to control and manipulate information as it did when the Soviet Union was still in existence. People in Russia have access to the internet and a multitude of information sources and will no longer sit patiently by believing phony platitudes while their country’s economy collapses around them. The Russian economy and currency have, in fact, already been weakened by Putin’s incursion into Crimea.

As President Putin is probably finding out the direct and indirect costs of military adventurism are untenable in today’s world. No one has the available resources or the public will to support large scale land warfare as in the past. More importantly, marshaling public support for such adventures is well-nigh impossible in today’s world for reasons cited above. Most importantly, people the world over are tired of fighting and exhausted from endless, poorly-planned, imprudent military adventures and interventions by leaders following policy and doctrine from another era. We can no longer afford big force-on-force military engagements – and I don’t use the word afford in a figurative sense.

I believe that, with regard to diplomacy, mutual security often equals individual security. President Obama, his advisors, and hawkish U.S. Senators clearly fail to understand this simple concept. The greater the feeling of trust and rapprochement, the greater the willingness to make real gains in international relations. While some of Putin’s bluster is designed to marshal popular support at home, much of his distrust of the west is genuine given his background as a senior KGB officer. The buffer zone concept as a bulwark against potential invasion has long been a Russian strategic goal and goes a long way in explaining the reasoning behind the establishment of the ‘Soviet Bloc’. In order to perhaps reduce Russian angst, absolute disinterest in any potential military action against Russia must be stressed repeatedly. American threats and saber-rattling over an issue which is of no strategic significance to the United States achieves the opposite end.

As I attempted to illustrate in my book El Volcan, culture should be the most important determinant of policy and national boundaries, not some convenient geographic feature or ancient, dusty treaty whose sole aim was divvying up the spoils of a long-forgotten conflict. In reality, much of Ukraine probably would choose to be part of Russia if given the opportunity, given the ethnic Russian majority in much of eastern Ukraine and Crimea. A genuine public referendum free from the outside influence of heavily-armed Russian troops probably would have achieved Putin’s ultimate goal in a much more legitimate manner than this weekend’s vote. If this had been done in a free, monitored environment, the most likely outcome would probably have been western Ukraine moving toward the EU and eastern Ukraine and Crimea moving toward Russia. Following cultural and ethnic lines is more natural and would provide more stable national boundaries and greater internal security. Any change of this nature, however, must come from within the Ukraine for it to have any legitimacy with the international community – who Russia in point of fact needs more than the international community needs Russia.

Military adventures just aren’t what they used to be, and, as I’ve said in a previous article, the age of the Empire of Influence is over. If Vladimir Putin continues on this course, he will eventually fall on his rusty old KGB sword.

Charles Levy, M.D., lives in Marietta.