Russia’s brazen annexation of Crimea presents a vexing foreign policy crisis for the Western powers. How can these actions be denounced without pointing a finger back upon their own forays and interventions? Indeed, President Putin said as much in his recent address in the Kremlin, chiding the West for its condemnations of Russia’s actions and stating that “it’s a good thing that they at least remember that there exists such a thing as international law — better late than never.” Putin reinforced this view by citing the “Kosovo precedent” — which he takes as “a precedent our western colleagues created with their own hands in a very similar situation, when they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country’s central authorities.”
Without validating Russia’s motives and the ways in which such arguments provide rhetorical cover for its own imperial aspirations, there is a salient point here that coheres with arguments often cited by progressive voices in the West. In particular, as to the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other interventions, there are echoes of anti-war perspectives to be found in the Russian president’s deflection of Western criticisms: “Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle ‘If you are not with us, you are against us.'”
The fact that Russia is now explicitly validating these misguided principles seems to be of no moment to President Putin. A stronger argument, to be sure, would be to refuse to participate in exceptionalism-oriented policies, perhaps instead arguing for Crimean autonomy rather than its annexation. Certainly the presence of Russian troops there during an electoral referendum gives the appearance of coercion rather than liberation. If the U.S. and its allies are to be critiqued for hypocritically advocating “democracy” through “the rule of the gun,” then it is difficult to see how Russia’s invocation of similar principles to justify its behavior represents more than mere cynicism and an elaborate rationalization for its own ambitions in the region.
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We can thus perceive in all of this a sense of foreign policy blowback from the U.S.-led wars and interventions of recent years. By citing Kosovo as well as Iraq and Afghanistan (among other instances, such as Libya), Putin connects the policies of the last three U.S. presidential administrations, essentially constituting the period since the dissipation of the former Soviet Union. Further, by reaching back into Crimea’s status as part of Russia’s “common historical legacy” and its longstanding cultural importance to Russia, an attempt is being made to turn back the clock to the halcyon days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. (No mention was made, of course, of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan throughout the 1980s, which helped form the basis for a world in which aggressive interventions — and eventual blowback — would soon define a “new normal” for international affairs.) While perhaps not quite (yet) representing a reassembly of the Iron Curtain, the annexation of Crimea clearly presents numerous strategic implications for the balance of power both regionally and globally.
To wit, Putin specifically notes the strategic importance of Crimea as the “main base of the Black Sea Fleet” and as a potential bulwark against NATO incursions eastward. Reinforcing this mindset, Putin observes that Sevastopol (in southwestern Crimea) is a “fortress” and that Crimea’s deep connections to the homeland symbolize “Russian military glory.” Not explicitly cited in Putin’s speech is the centrality of Crimea as a locus for oil and gas production, which as Businessweek notes has already drawn the interest of Big Oil. Others have observed the importance of the region for agricultural distribution and production, and the pipelining of gas across the continent. There has been relatively little analysis of the situation in Ukraine as a “resource conflict,” but in the present state of geopolitics such implications are always at hand.
In this light, we can read the Crimean crisis as a form of comeuppance for policies set in motion and continually reinforced by nations in general and the U.S. in particular, bent on promoting a form of “security” that devolves upon control of resources and a penchant for unilateralism in achieving this end. In fact, President Obama unabashedly affirmed such policies in his speech to the UN in September 2013: “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region… We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world. Although America is steadily reducing our own dependence on imported oil, the world still depends on the region’s energy supply, and a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy.” As such, President Obama was not so much announcing a new policy as validating an ongoing one: the legacy of the Bush Doctrine based on unilateral action and calculated intervention. Once these terms of engagement have been set, it becomes difficult to condemn others taking up the mantle for their own purposes.
And this, in the end, may well be the lingering retribution for the U.S.-led wars of recent years. As many pointed out at the time, the invasion of Iraq in particular foretold a world wracked by disregard for international norms and defined by the mercenary pursuits of national self-interest. In setting a template for the policy engagements to follow, this archetype of adventurism ushered in an era in which exceptionalism has become the norm, where the cavalier disregard of domestic and/or global objections is considered politically acceptable, and where powerful nations can exercise a free hand in determining the future of less powerful ones when strategic interests are involved. It would be hard to conceive of a more pointed version of realpolitik, and the term is doubly poignant in light of the outcomes we are seeing today.
Russia’s rhetorical reliance on misguided Western policies does little more than render concrete that which has already been known and deployed by powerful interests for decades, if not longer. But the invocation of recent U.S.-led forays and the specific use of the word “exceptionalism” in Russian discourse add a dimension that is deeply troubling for the future prospects of peace. By making realpolitik more, well, real, the annexation of Crimea is less likely to draw a military response from the West than it is to elicit wider forms of emulation. In abdicating their already-tenuous hold on moral legitimacy in international affairs, the US and its allies have eroded one of the last potential bastions against the imminent realization of a world dominated by strategic resource acquisition as a function of security.
Again, none of this should be surprising by now, although we might take a moment to lament its further instantiation as the dominant modus operandi of powerful interests across the globe. Such a state of affairs asks us to revisit the past and reassess our narrowing options for the future.