The institutional and political inertia accorded the “Washington rules” of international geopolitics may be causing the West to severely misconstrue the depth of Russian interests in the Ukraine.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the “West” has continually tried to project its influence into the former Warsaw Pact countries and even into many of the former constituent republics of the USSR. Sometimes it has succeeded. Examples include many of the above-mentioned countries membership either in NATO, the EU, or both. One could also consider the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine of 2004-2005 to be a success from this perspective. Sometimes attempts to Project influence have failed miserably, as in the 2008 South Ossetia War, when Georgia’s (Western-goaded) military provocation was summarily crushed.
It is important to note that the “West” cannot be considered as a unitary abstraction. Sometimes its soft, hard and covert power projection involves measures proposed and enacted by the United States unilaterally. Sometimes it involves multilateral measures with key American allies acting in concert with Washington. Sometimes it involves measures filtered through multilateral institutions that the United States essentially controls (NATO). Sometimes it involves actions taken through multilateral institutions the United States has considerable influence over, but far from total control (UN, EU).
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This overall project is one of containment, rollback and encroachment upon the former Soviet Union, perhaps best understood as yet another example of the “Washington rules.” In this paradigm, the United States portrays itself as the arbiter and conduit of freedom, democracy, self-determination, the rule of law, and free markets throughout the planet (Bacevich, 2011), in spite of how hypocritical this may seem to many (Blum, 2013), especially to those who live and get their news outside of America. In this particular geographical theater, however, speaking in the raw language of realpolitik, we are dealing with the “grand chessboard,” (Brzezinski, 1998): the ongoing competition for control over Eurasia, a part of the world that has seen the ebb and flow of empires for millennia.
Aptly summarized by Brzezinski, the bipartisan Washington rules harken “back to the more brutal age of ancient empires” and can be distilled into “the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy” which “are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together” (1998, p.40).
Given the central importance of Eurasia as “the geographical pivot of history” (Mackinder, 1904), the consequence of turning geographically (and often cultural, historically, and linguistically) close neighbors of Russia into vassals and tributaries of the west is heightened. One of the greatest prizes in this contest is Ukraine.
Russia is a relatively young civilization and nation, if one uses the Grand Duchy of Moscow as the starting point. It has also wavered for five centuries between a cultural identification with Europe and its former eastern suzerain. During the period of the USSR, it was strong enough to create its own bloc and sustain a bipolar world during the Cold War. It is no longer rich and strong enough to do so. It can, however, be very influential in creating and co-leading a bloc capable of successfully challenging the rapidly waning power of the Pax Americana.
The important point to note is that Russia cannot continue to hold this influential international position without being able to profit from its vast natural resources and without having a sturdy capacity for forward force projection. Russia profits in many ways from its natural resources, especially from its extensive natural gas pipeline network through Ukraine to Europe, which also provides Russia with immense economic and geopolitical leverage over the EU. Likewise, Russia’s capacity for forward force projection is highly dependent upon its single warm water port, Sevastopol, in Crimea.
In the recent past, Russia expressed its displeasure at Western attempts to absorb countries on its periphery. In Ukraine, however, it will certainly do more than express displeasure through diplomatic channels and words. Instead, it will take whatever actions it feels are necessary to keep Ukraine pro-Russian (or at least “pliant,” to use Brzezinski’s words). Whether this requires a de jure secession of Crimea to Russia (following the de facto one that has already occurred), the partition of Ukraine, and extensive military action remains to be seen. Many of the most powerful security chiefs ofUkraine have switched allegiances to Crimea and, therefore, Russia. Russia has expedited the issuance of visas to members of Ukraine’s elite security forces.
From its perspective, Russia must retain control over some of its most significant chess pieces in the great game of Eurasian “pipelinestan” (Escobar, 2014), keep its warm water port and other bases in Crimea, and appear to be protecting the predominantly Russian Crimea and Russian eastern half of Ukraine. This is especially true in Crimea, since Khrushchevonly gave that peninsula to Ukraine in 1954. Crimea has considered itself a part of Russia for far longer than that.
Control over Crimea and maintenance of Ukraine as a “vassal” is a matter of vital national interest and overwhelming strategic necessity to Russia. It is a clear and distinct line that cannot be crossed. This seems to elude many of America’s top leaders.
In February, 2014, a YouTube audio recording of Valerie Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (a bipartisan career diplomat, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, and wife of influential neoconservative historian Robert Kagan) caught her in a phone conversation with Geoffrey Pyatt, the US Ambassador to Ukraine, saying “fuck the EU” in regards to their potential role in the crisis (Rogan, 2014).
There are several ways to interpret this undiplomatic outburst. 1) She was expressing in a crude and vernacular way Washington’s frustration with the EU’s often slow decision-making process on foreign affairs. 2) She was expressing Washington’s fear of a growing Russia-Germany bloc, which could turn into a Russia-EU bloc, which could turn into a BRICS-EU bloc, which could definitively end America’s imperial reign. 3) Or, she was behaving petulantly, with a disconcerting lack of geostrategic and historical knowledge, and all of the hubris and sense of entitlement characteristic of American exceptionalism, which is at the heart of the Washington rules. In the same recording, Nuland also expressed a preference for an IMF-approved, austerity-oriented, Mario Monti-type, bankster-friendly technocrat, Viktor Yanukovich, over another Ukrainian opposition leader, the former boxer Vitali Klitschko.
President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are talking tough lately, but have little if any cards to play. Obama warns Russia of “costs” for this “intervention.” What costs might this entail? Keeping the other seven members of the G8 away from the Sochi G8 2014 planning meetings? Throwing Russia out of the G8? Withholding the US delegation from the 2014 Sochi Para-Olympics? To bandy words like “costs” around to a proud and strong country regarding issues in its own neighborhood makes him seem like an amateur (or a salesman) in geopolitics and foreign affairs, one who could even get “forced” by right-wing domestic pressure from people like Senators Rubio and Graham to “look tough” on foreign policy. This could box him in to the point of no longer relying upon covert means like the National Endowment for Democracy, as in the Orange Revolution, but to the point of making this a shooting war.
Obama and Kerry frame Russian involvement in Ukraine as an issue of international law and national sovereignty being violated. This is laughably hypocritical, considering that American support for far-right neo-Nazis and pro-western/IMF elements in Ukraine is precisely what started this crisis and fomented a coup d’état against the constitutional authority. It is even more laughably hypocritical when America is violating the sovereignty of nearly a dozen nations through ongoing military actions today and has made it a national habit since World War I (Blum, 2013).
It would indeed be laughable if the stakes were not so high and the situation so explosive.
In fact, even eminences gris in the bipartisan national security state, people we might normally expect to urge sanity and calm, are instead urging extremely provocative measures to prove “credibility.” Brzezinski (Carter’s national security advisor) and Stavridis (former supreme commander of NATO) are urging a nearly full war footing for NATO, including mobilizations around Ukraine (Brzezinski and Gardels, 2014; Stavridis, 2014).
Any military action by NATO in Ukraine, the Black Sea, or the immediate environs would be extremely provocative to Russia at this point. Yet the “realists” of US foreign policy (those we might expect to provide a pragmatic, realpolitik perspective that could help rein in the posturing of western politicians and pull us back from the brink) are instead pining for war. Or at least the preparations and posture for war that could easily lead to it. If this is what the sage and august strategists are saying publically, I can only imagine what is going on in the more operational corridors of power.
If they ever were, the Washington rules are no longer flexible or pragmatic, especially now, in their highly institutionalized state. Instead, they prevent key decision makers from seeing the big picture clearly and make them see quick and easy success where none is to be found. This can paint these actors, their countries, and their militaries into a corner diplomatically, militarily and economically. It has already fomented arguably the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War.
Perhaps, letting “cooler heads prevail” among the mandarins of the western diplomatic, national security and economic policy corps will mean letting macrostructural economic trends continue until they finally implode into their own “shock doctrine” of their own accord, as they did in the former Yugoslavia (Klein, 2008). Part of why this crisis is occurring isUkraine’s desperate poverty. The county is soliciting foreign aid from Poland and the United States. According to the World Bank, in 2012 Ukraine had a per capita GDP in current US dollars of $3,867, while Poland had one of only $12,708 – and this while approximately 5% of its population is working abroad because of challenging economic conditions at home. In the former Yugoslavia, this strategy unleashed the worst war in Europe since World War II – one whose horrible wounds remain unhealed – but it did arguably pry the Balkans away from the Russian orbit and into the neoliberal camp. Even the Balkans, as important as they were, remained a periphery to Russia. The Ukraine is not.
Khrushchev had the common sense to turn the ships around when their presence was fomenting an international crisis on America’s doorstep during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the leader of what is, for a few more years, a great power, Obama should exercise an equal measure of common sense and restraint. Whether he will or not, however, is open to debate. Political scientists call the inertia of following preexisting policy regimes “path dependency.” In this case, the path dependency of Beltway elites following the Washington rules could well start World War III.
Short biography: Boyce Brown was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. His professional career has largely centered around school administration, nonprofit administration, and education law, although he is beginning a transition to academia. He earned two masters (educational foundations and cultural studies) and a Ph.D. (education policy) from the University of Hawaii and remains an artist, lover of the wilderness, and incorrigible vagabond.
Bacevich, A.J. (2011). Washington rules: America’s path to permanent war. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Blum, W. (2013). America’s deadliest export: Democracy – The truth about US foreign policy and everything else. London: Zed Books.
Brzezinski, Z. (1998). The grand chessboard: American primacy and its geostrategic imperatives. New York: Basic Books.
Brzezinski, Z. and Gardels, N. (2014, March 3). Brzezinski: Formally recognize Ukraine, prepare NATO troops. Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from https://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Global-Viewpoint/2014/0303/Brzezinski-Formally-recognize-Ukraine-prepare-NATO-troops
Escobar, P. (2014, February 28). Carnival in Crimea. Asia Times. Retrieved from https://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/CEN-05-280214.html.
Klein, N. (2008). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. London: Picador.
Rogin, J. (2014, February 6). State Dept Official Caught on Tape: ‘Fuck the EU’. Daily Beast. Retrieved from https://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/02/06/state-dept-official-caught-on-tape-fuck-the-eu.html.
Stavridis, J (2014, March 1). NATO needs to move now on Crimea
Action may provoke — but so does doing nothing. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from https://www.foreignpolicy.com/https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD.
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