In recent months, Vladimir Putin has been playing hardball with the world. Yet Russia’s bullying and bravado can be seen as signs of a longstanding weakness.
With oil prices falling, the ruble is tumbling down, and Russia’s immediate economic prospects are grim. But the Russian leaders’ political will to retain Ukraine is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. The lands that became modern Ukraine had been part of Russian empire for three and a half centuries. Vladimir Putin has shown inexhaustible energy in obstructing Ukraine’s rapprochement with the West; Ukraine’s prospective successes in integrating with the EU (or, in a more adventurous scenario, with NATO) would be a heavy blow to Russia’s prestige and to Mr. Putin’s ego. Therefore on the long run, it seems unlikely that any person or institution can prevent the Russian president and his cronies from wresting Ukraine back firmly into the Russian orbit.
Putin is pushing a new nationalist conservatism with a strong strain of anti-Americanism, promoting a vision of the United States as the primary conspirator pulling strings to foster international chaos and regime change.
As former Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul noted recently in the New Yorker, “Putin has a theory of American power that has some empirical basis.” The CIA overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala, the United States bombed Belgrade to remove a dictator, and there is, of course, Iraq. However, a close examination of American policy toward Poland—the country the United States pushed hardest to break from the Soviet sphere in the 1980s—brings to the fore just how far the Russian president’s views are removed from reality. The United States is not nearly the revolutionary mastermind Putin seems to think it is.
The United States has championed a values-based approach with a strong missionary impulse behind it. Woodrow Wilson provided its first full-blown articulation, and post-World War II policy saw to its full-blown application. Holding a dominant global position, Washington sought with varying degrees of urgency and determination to advance a basket of ideological goods. U.S. leaders have articulated these goods in a variety of ways such as “democracy,” “free-market capitalism,” and “human rights.” But underlying all these formulations is a strong and distinctly American belief in the autonomy of the individual and a commitment to political liberty and limited state power. In the rhetoric of American statecraft these notions are a leitmotiv. They have generally set the direction of U.S. policy responses to problems of the sort that Ukraine poses.
The Washington Post published its Holiday Guide yesterday, featuring the Best Books of 2008. Included in “The World” section is Vladislav Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev. At the beginning of the year, Richard Rhodes reviewed Zubok’s book along with Melvyn Leffler’s For the Soul of …