There is land of wonder where magic princes and princesses rescue humble folk from the malignant spells of wicked sorcerers. Call it the Kaganate of Nuland: I refer of course to Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland and her spouse Robert Kagan, respectively the source of the silliest statement on record about U.S. foreign policy (“F— the Europeans”) and the worst book on foreign policy in a generally dismal decade.
I reviewed Kagan’s awful tome when it appeared three years ago, with its fairy-tale thesis about the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy. “It is possible that in the Arab Spring we are seeing a continuation of the Third Wave, or perhaps even a fourth. The explosion of democracy is about to enter a fifth straight decade, the longest and broadest such expansion in history,” Kagan wrote. Nuland got her 15 minutes of fame when someone, presumably Russian intelligence, leaked her expletive-adorned 2013 conversation with America’s ambassador to Ukraine to YouTube.
Kagan and Nuland authentically believed that Ukraine’s Maidan Square overthrow of the Yanukovich government would inspire a democracy movement in Russia that eventually would depose Vladimir Putin, just as they believed that the Arab Spring heralded a great wave of democracy in the Middle East. Instead, Putin rose to the highest popularity ranking (at 86%) of his long and checkered career, and Russian hostility to America surpassed the levels of the Soviet era. “More than 80 percent of Russians now hold negative views of the United States, according to the independent Levada Center, a number that has more than doubled over the past year and that is by far the highest negative rating since the center started tracking those views in 1988,” the Washington Post reported March 9.
The Europeans — upon whose doorstep the Ukrainian mess has landed — are understandably aghast. Der Spiegel, Germany’s largest news organization, complained March 6 that Nuland and some other Americans want “regime change” in Moscow. I want regime change in Moscow, too; I also want the restoration of the Temple sacrifices in Jerusalem, but do not expect to get what I want anytime soon. For the foreseeable future we shall have to live with Putin, and promoting regime change is the equivalent of shooting spitballs at the zoo lion: It simply increases the likelihood that the zookeeper will get eaten.
American policy has produced the precise opposite of what it intended: We did not consider that most Russians might view with disfavor the prospect that Crimea, a Russian province since its founding, would become part of the Western alliance system, or bridle at Western efforts to manage their political affairs. We did not consider that China and Russia might patch up their considerable differences and line up against us. We did not listen to Russia’s open warning that it would ally with Iran to retaliate for our policy in Ukraine. We are like a chess player who thinks one move ahead. Putin thinks three or four moves ahead. He can spot us both rooks and beat us handily.
It is now obligatory for Republicans to posture against Putin, and to blame Obama for the distressing outcome. Obama, to be sure, gave us the worst of both worlds, namely provocation (from Mrs. Kagan) combined with weakness. Our direct options in Ukraine are limited. We can send all the weapons we want to Ukraine; the Russians may be far weaker than we overall, but they can best us in their own backyard. Putin is not trying to control the Ukraine. He is turning it into a suppurating abscess of instability, as I predicted he would a year ago. Putin is not on a rampage. His actions are measured, calculated, and malicious, and they are achieving exactly the result he intended. As Jakub Grygiel observed in the American Interest, Putin “does not fear failed states. In fact, he wants to cause one.”
Putin’s overriding advantage over the U.S. — despite Russia’s weakness — is his willingness to force the burden of uncertainty onto his opponent. One listens to Nuland’s YouTube diatribe and groans; her notion of governance in Ukraine recalls a six-year-old girl arranging dolls for a tea party. Putin thinks like that great American anti-hero, Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op: “Plans are all right sometimes. … And sometimes just stirring things up is all right — if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes to the top.”
Against Putin’s Continental Op, America is playing the Lone Ranger. Who do you think is going to win that one? Meanwhile, Germany’s perspicacious chancellor Angela Merkel has told us in so many words, “What do you mean we, Paleface?” Don’t expect reality to seep into the Kaganate of Nuland’s magic kingdom; they believe in the march of liberal democracy with the fervor of millennial cultists. It’s their substitute religion, and real-world outcomes have no effect on the intensity of faith.
We beat the Soviet Union during the Cold War by persuading its leaders that they couldn’t possibly match America’s next generation of military technology. Lots of things helped, but that was decisive. America’s massive defense R&D effort around missile defense and other technologies showed the Russians they couldn’t win a war against us. If we want to put Russia in its place, we should launch a crash program to make its formidable air defense systems (including the S-400 system that Putin is selling to China) obsolete in the shortest possible time. That will remove Putin’s strongest asset, and get China’s undivided attention.