Last week, I argued in a piece at Reason that Russia did not decide to intervene militarily in Ukraine because of alleged “weakness” on the part of U.S. foreign policy, despite what hawks would have us believe. The talking point, especially but not exclusively from Republicans, is that Putin saw the Obama administration’s reluctance to use military force in, for example, Syria, and therefore calculated that he could get away with it, without risking a harsh U.S. reaction.
One counter argument that I pointed to is the fact that Russia took comparable actions in Georgia in 2008, when George W. Bush was president. No conservatives ever suggested that Bush’s reluctance to go to war drove Moscow to take military action in that case.
On Sunday, my argument was repeated by an unlikely source: former secretary of defense under Bush and Obama, Robert Gates.
“Putin invaded Georgia, I didn’t hear anybody accusing Bush of being weak or unwilling to use force,” Gates said. “Putin is very opportunistic in these arenas. Even if we had launched attacks in Syria, even if we weren’t cutting our defense budget — Putin saw an opportunity here in Crimea, and he has seized it.”
Plenty of informed voices have slipped in to dispel this myth, but it lingers on. At the National Interest, Paul Pillar critiques the “toughness” argument “that Russia’s moves in Ukraine should be attributed to a supposed pusillanimous ‘retreat’ of American power and to adversaries responding by becoming more aggressive.” If anything, Pillar points out (as do I in the Reason piece), Washington’s lawlessness and aggression on the world stage give regimes like the one in Moscow license to act out. The “act of U.S. aggression [in Iraq],” Pillar notes, “is recent enough that it still is a prominent detriment to U.S. credibility whenever the United States tries to complain about someone else’s use of military force against another sovereign state, including Putin’s use of force in Crimea.”
At The American Conservative, Daniel Larison chips in, pointing out that supposed U.S. “weakness” is perceived very differently by our geo-political rivals:
What [hawks] perceive as “inaction” in Syria, Russia and Iran likely perceive as ongoing interference and hostility to their interests. The crisis in Ukraine also looks very different to Moscow than it does to the Westerners that have been agitating for an even larger and more active U.S. role. Western hawks were frustrated by how slow their governments were to throw their full support behind the protesters, and as usual wanted the U.S. and EU to take a much more adversarial and combative approach with Russia because they see Western governments as being far more passive than they want. However, Moscow doesn’t perceive the U.S. role in Ukraine to be a limited or benign one, and the toppling of Yanukovych has been fitted into their view that the protests were a Western-backed plot from the beginning. The idea that Russia would have responded less aggressively to the change in government if the U.S. had been giving the opposition even more encouragement and support is dangerously delusional, but that is what one has to believe in order to argue that the U.S. “emboldened” Moscow in Ukraine.
To keep that logic going, over all U.S. policy toward Russia has been anything but “inactive” in the eyes of Moscow. “From the moment the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991,” writes Stephen Kinzer, “the United States has relentlessly pursued a strategy of encircling Russia,” bringing “12 countries in central Europe, all of them formerly allied with Moscow, into the NATO alliance,” placing U.S. military power “directly on Russia’s borders.” Moscow could hardly see this as accommodative.
Finally, what hawks making this argument seem to ignore is that the American people vehemently opposed going to war in Syria and overwhelmingly oppose any direct intervention in the Ukraine crisis. They don’t care. According to their worldview, America must at all times be bombing practically every state that does not obey the demands of politicians in Washington, otherwise we will invite more disobedience.
The argument that U.S. “weakness” leads other governments to take bold military action that they otherwise might have abstained from is lacking in substance and evidence. Yet, it persists. It’s time to put it to bed.