"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Russia Holds All The Cards–And Putin Knows How To Play Them

Kissinger once said, “In the end, peace can be achieved only by hegemony or by balance of power.” His realpolitik was based not on moral principle but on might and self-interest – a political philosophy which is as relevant today as it was during the reign of the Henrys of England. Peace in the days of the English kings was not assured through negotiations, conferences, and offerings, but through military might, threat, and intimidation. The world was constantly at war, and British monarchs defended their kingdoms against the powerful ambitions of Spain, France, and the Holy Roman Empire. 

The Pope was a player, and although without legions, wielded considerable power through the blessings of his office, religious intimidation, threat of excommunication, and not inconsiderable wealth and political influence.  It took almost two centuries to bring the Pope’s influence in England to an end – from the first defiance of Henry II until Henry VII finally shuttered the monasteries and tossed Pope and Cardinals overboard.

                           Pope Gregory VI

The English kings were constantly waging war against Scottish and Irish armies, and civil wars wracked the country for decades.  The War of the Roses was a classic internecine battle over accession and right to the throne.
Either England defeated France or not.  Either the English fleet defeated the more imposing Spanish armada or not.  Either Henry V took back French lands or not.  There was no negotiation except as a tactic of war.  “War is the continuation of politics by other means”, von Clausewitz famously said; and the Kissinger doctrine was no different.

Unfortunately realpolitik has always been an untenable doctrine for America.  Any country which believes that it has a moral responsibility to spread democratic, Christian values throughout the world and to live by them, is doomed to failure.  Realpolitik may have been good policy for autocratic English kings who had no compunction about raising an army and sending thousands of men to their death for the flimsiest of reasons, but it is an untenable policy for a country whose core beliefs dictate respect for national sovereignty, the validity of dissent, and the importance of sparing innocent lives.

In Shakespeare’s history play, Henry V, the king disguises himself and goes into the trenches to hear what common soldiers think of him. We are fighting a war on the basis of Henry’s specious claim to France, they say.  Thousands of us are dying for his own arrogant ambitions.  Henry listened, but paid no attention.  He went on to attack, conquer, and become one of England’s most revered heroes.

America has become stymied by its own principles.  The invasion of Iraq might have had a more successful end if the United States had been a brutal occupier.  If US forces had acted like a victorious, brutal, and implacable occupier willing to stay in the country for decades to secure American power and influence, a progressive move to self-government might have been encouraged.  The Romans stayed in their conquered territories for a very long time.

America had the right idea in World War II when it fire-bombed Dresden and Tokyo and dropped The Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki without a second thought; but we have pulled far back from those muscular, military decisions.  Defeating Hitler and the Emperor were the only things that mattered, American presidents and generals knew.  Civilians were not collateral damage.  Their deaths were premeditated attempts to bring enemy adversaries to heel.

Protecting the life of American soldiers has become as important as taking the lives of the enemy, and our military strategy has been built around the policy of minimizing American and civilian casualties at the expense of victory.  Israel values the life of individual soldiers even more than the United States, and has no compunction about blowing whole Arab neighborhoods to smithereens in retribution for a single loss.  Israel is feared and respected because of its absolute commitment to a geopolitical and historical purpose – the protection of the Jewish homeland.  No one messes with the Israelis. 

Unfortunately the United States is no longer feared or respected.  Our moral stance has become a joke because we apply moral principles unequally and based entirely on resources and relative strength.  We hammer poor Uganda for its gay rights stance, but say nothing about oil-rich and geo-strategically important Saudi Arabia. We do war dances and invocations to Mars when it comes to Iran and North Korea, but we do nothing.  We are afraid that the Ayatollah, rooted in a principled, unwavering belief in the rightness of the Revolution and in the will of Allah, will do something dangerous.  As a result Iran continues to expand its sphere of influence and determine events far beyond its borders.  We are afraid that the loony in Pyongyang, as insistent on preserving his power and privilege as his father and grandfather, will send nuclear weapons a-flying.


Richard Nixon, a protégé of Henry Kissinger, knew all about power.  His Madman Theory was not as crazy as it looked at the time.  Nixon wanted the Russians to believe that he would have no problem pulling the nuclear trigger and enabling the next Armageddon.

It is well-known that Kissinger’s war, Vietnam, did not go well; but only because it was not prosecuted in the old, von Clausewitz way – total victory won through military might and unwavering national political will. We lost the war because of ‘the politicians in Washington’ and the always unpredictable democratic American street.  We could have won the war, but we wearied of it; and more than anything else became sick and tired of seeing body bags of soldiers who died for no clear, well-defined reason.

The world knows now without a doubt that we have no stomach for victory.  We may be quick to put boots on the ground, but are just as quick to pull them back.  We, unlike our enemies, have no vital reasons for war.  We do not want a Muslim Caliphate.  No centuries-old resentments drive us to separatism or ethnic purity.  No poverty or inequality propel us to invade and expand territory and wealth.  Oil may have been in the back of our minds when we invaded Iraq, but only way back.  George W. Bush wanted to finish his father’s war, establish American democratic hegemony (remember Wolfowitz and the Neocons) and ‘secure peace in the region’.  Not enough to employ the brutal and unforgiving tactics to assure unalloyed victory.

All we want is to be left alone; but no one lets us slumber on a Sunday in the cornfields.  Just about every ambitious nation in the world knows that it can go about its business with nary a whimper from the United States.  Secretary of State Kerry is regarded as a hectoring, schoolmarm windbag. 
Which brings us to Vladimir Putin.  Now that man is one tough son-of-a-bitch.  He knows precisely what he wants – a restoration of imperial Russia and the territories once held by the Tsars. While no one anticipates a Nazi-style blitzkrieg, everyone knows that Putin will use every, political, and military force necessary to corral Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and other sovereign states within Russian fences.

Putin has been murderously ruthless in his fight against Chechen rebellion.  He has pummeled the region and nearly destroyed it to remove the terrorist threat and to send a powerful message to other Russian republics with separatist thoughts. If few in America have ever heard of Adygea, Altai, Buryatia, Karachay-Cherkessia, and the other 16 Russian Republics besides Chechnya, Putin has; and he is bound and determined that none of them get uppity.

He has been autocratic and inflexible in his rule, knowing that only through such authoritarianism and amoral realpolitik can he succeed in his goals.  He only has to look across the border to China to see how his even more autocratic neighbor has become one of the most powerful and richest countries in the world.  Putin understands Tibet and the Uighur problem very well indeed.

While Obama and Kerry get upset about Russia’s moves in Crimea, any objective observer can see precisely what Putin is doing.  He wants to return Crimea to the Russian fold where it began when Catherine the Great created the Taurida Oblast in 1784.  The Region was a Soviet Republic after 1917 and only in 1954 was transferred to be incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, Crimea had the status of an autonomous republic within the the new nation of Ukraine.

Putin knows that despite the fall of  Ukrainian President Yanukovych, Crimea is likely to fall into Russia’s lap.  He has to do very little except to show solidarity with the region, and he has already done that by deploying troops and activating the Russian navy.  Most Crimean residents are ethnic Russians and militantly pro-Russia and anti-Kiev, especially now that it has turned towards the West.  They would be quite happy to be a Russian Republic or an independent country under the tutelage and protection of Mother Russia.

Putin, realpolitik believer that he is, could care less about Ukraine’s national sovereignty or the sanctity of elected governments or the legitimacy of the power of the people.  He is not hampered by moral or ethical considerations, and as such he is a feared and fearsome adversary. The US will continue to lose the war against Islamic terrorism because we do not fight with the amoral tactics of Muslim militants.  We do not blow up busses.  We respect human rights and democratic values.  Which is why we are afraid of radical Islamist terrorists and have built what we hope will be an impenetrable wall against them. If we can’t defeat them, then at least we can be safe from them.

Putin, on the other hand, operates from the same amoral authority as the Islamists.  Since he is capable of anything, he is feared.  He doesn’t play by the same familiar Western rules.  His game is not cricket. And he is likely to win it.

NOTE: Since this article was written, Vladimir Putin has consolidated his power, outplayed the United States in Syria and the Middle East, maintained his hold on Ukraine, disrupted American politics, and overseen continued economic growth despite sanctions. 

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