By Clark S. Judge: managing director, White House Writers Group, Inc.; chairman, Pacific Research Institute
In the month since I last filed a column, I have traveled overseas, as well as within the U.S. In the course of these visits, I have taken in presentations by and had private discussions with a number of current and former players from both the senior and staff levels of a number of friendly governments. The topic: Russia, Ukraine and what’s next. Most of these discussions were on an off the record or not for attribution basis, so, as I often do in this space, this report will be vague about the particular speakers and their countries:
- In similar language, I heard more than once that Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and move into eastern Ukraine and the West’s non-response blew up the entire concept of international law as it has existed since the end of the Second World War. For the first time since the war, one European country has seized territory from another.
- Some noted the parallel between Russian president Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Russian parliament during the Crimean action (in which he claimed the right and intent to protect Russians in other countries) and Hitler’s statements when Germany moved on Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, a parallel that has, of course, been widely noted here, as well.
- What is more, several noted, the same arguments Putin used to justify moving into Ukraine could be used for almost any European country moving into any other. There has been a tremendous mingling of populations in Europe over the last 75 years, particularly the last twenty. Russian populations are everywhere – but so, too, are populations from every country in every other country, including in Russia. In Europe after the First World War the matching of ethnic and national identities may have made sense. No longer.
- President Obama’s red line with Syria came up repeatedly. Putin noted Mr. Obama’s bold talk and timid action. The U.S. president’s failure to follow through gave the Russian president confidence that he could move with impunity.
- It was noted that the preparatory troop movements for invading the Crimea began on the first night of the Olympics, I think I heard right, during the opening ceremonies. This was news to me. I had a flash of Michael Corleone’s men taking care of business even as their chief was at his child’s baptism renouncing the devil and all his works.
- The view was expressed that Russia doesn’t want to annex eastern Ukraine. The cost and difficulties of taking and holding so much at least partially hostile territory would make such a move unpalatable. It is enough to have the region under Russian domination. Putin’s immediate objective is to prevent Ukraine from becoming a successful country. The new government might have moved to eradicate corruption and start the county’s economic engine. It might have succeeded. If so, the bordering areas of Russia would have demanded something of the same. Putin was acting from weakness, not strength.
- Indeed, one of these experts said the concern we should have is not how a strong and expansionist Russia would behave but how a weak and expansionist one would.
- Putin’s next targets? There was considerable discussion of the Baltics. Estonia and Latvia were repeatedly mentioned. Not so much Lithuania, though one pointed out that Lithuania has a significant Russian population, moved in as part of Stalin’s occupation.
- But if Putin moves into Baltics and NATO does not respond, what then? Putin’s big objective in all these moves, I heard, is to break up NATO, as NATO failure to defend Baltic members would surely do. Some claimed that Putin has said so directly. American columnist George Will made news last month saying that NATO dissolution was the Russian leader’s objective. Several of these overseas sources have reached the same conclusion.
- What leverage does the United States have? Insert troops and position military equipment in Poland and the Baltics, some insisted — and one thing more. Shale gas is killing Russia. The U.S. should flood the global markets with natural gas. Shale gas is a major weapon, perhaps the major weapon, that Putin fears most.
- But the administration shows no sign of moving in this direction, part of why one remarked, I don’t understand the thinking in this administration.
- Finally, it was noted that far from being bold, Putin is a cautious man. He will test. He will probe. If he encounters resistance, he will pull back. So the U.S. needs to show resolve. A little more displays of determination and truly uncrossable lines and a little less rhetoric would go a long way.
- I was reminded of former Estonian president Mark Laar’s comments at a conference I attended in 2009 and recalled in the last column before the break (http://bit.ly/1dwRflw): “He argued that the Soviet Union would have fallen in 1953 with the East German uprising or in 1956 with the Hungarian one. Both times, he said, rebellions had started in the other nations of Eastern Europe and the Baltic. But with no help from the West, they could not succeed. The difference in the years before the Soviet collapse, he added, was leadership.”