Putin’s Crimea, West’s Ukraine

The Russian takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula has been an opportunity to observe international hypocrisy at its finest. Russia is surely in the wrong, but western memories are short when it comes to one country invading another. One might think that the near-daily bombings in Baghdad would be a reminder.

vladimir-putin-time-magazineRussia will face sanctions, international isolation, G8 expulsion, and other limited pushback for its aggressive breach of Ukrainian sovereignty, and more than a few western news outlets have lamented Putin’s lack of foresight in terms of Russia’s national interest being weakened by his belligerence. But his actions were not undertaken without consideration of likely consequences. Putin is a practiced authoritarian statesman. The Ruskies know what they’re doing, and they will succeed.

Putin seems to be the most “honest” political leader on the world stage. This statement should by no means be taken as a sign of admiration for the Russian president. It’s just that American, British, Canadian, and other western leaders truly believe that their farts don’t stink and that the stench of Iraq doesn’t linger in their undergarments. Putin, in contrast, displays his dirty underwear without reservation, which is somewhat refreshing.

True, Canada did not take a direct role in Iraq, but had Harper been prime minister at the time, he would have eagerly sent our troops in lockstep with the Americans and the British and the token nations that followed their lead. So he wears the hypocrisy, as well.

Putin knows what he’s doing and is playing the game of idealist/realist international poker to advance Russia’s national interest. Protecting (advancing) national security was the supposed justification for the invasion of Iraq using falsified evidence and specious linkages between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Those actions led to the deaths of more Americans than did the 911 terrorist strikes and of more Iraqi civilians than American officials will take responsibility for. Flouting international law and using dubious claims of national interest to invade a sovereign nation has, since the dawn of the new millennia, not been the actions of states acting outside the normal purview of the international community. It is the new (old) normal, (re)normalized by the United States.

Western leaders, particularly those in the US and Britain, are playing the moral high card. But falsified evidence and specious linkages aside, the absolute relinquishing of any moral superiority was lost through associated mistakes such as extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, etc. If there’s anything the last decade or so has taught it’s that American exceptionalism remains alive and well as a reasonable belief only between the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel.

From a Russian perspective, Putin has taken over territory essential to Russian’s national interest (Crimea) and secured vital military instillations (Sevastopol) without (yet) firing a single shot or (not quite yet) turning an entire region into a terrorist hotbed. Although the geopolitical game in Ukraine is far from over – the threat of civil war and regional instability are very real – if we were to rate leaders or countries on how effectively they advance national interest without killing hundreds of thousands of people, Putin might just be the ideal, not the pariah.

In Andrew Coyne’s opinion, I probably fall into the “legion of academics [who] emerge to urge understanding of the other’s ‘perspective’ – understanding, not with a view to repelling [Russia’s] advance, but to acquiescing in it.” But in reality, I’m just tired of the ‘we so right, he so wrong’ mentality. I’m tired of the unreflective rhetoric that pervades and poisons political discourse, domestically and internationally. With the state of public education these days, ours and others’ citizenry just isn’t equipped to think through the BS. Coyne seems to bemoan the loss of Bush administration-style certainty in American foreign policy:

While it is too simple to blame the crisis on the Obama administration, neither can it be divorced from the string of similar foreign policy debacles going back a decade or more — Georgia, Syria, the abandonment of Afghanistan and Iraq, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea, with Iran almost certain to follow, all of which have sent a signal of vacillation and uncertainty.

I agree with Coyne that Russia’s invasion is wrong and must be countered, and I realize that my arguments generally amount to nothing but an unhelpful sceptical rant, but am I the only one troubled by the clear hypocrisy of the West vs. Putin divide? Since when is the abandonment of Afghanistan and Iraq a foreign policy debacle? And here I thought the invasion of Iraq was a foreign policy debacle. But what do I know.

Western leaders and columnists spout the rhetoric that “this is not how states act in the modern world” or that Putin’s “irrational behaviour” cannot be explained. But his actions seem completely in line with rational, modern states acting to advance their national interest, no matter how immoral I or we think those actions might be. States are not moral actors. Governments act to advance their (perceived) national interest and security. Everything else is just rhetoric. When national interest aligns with stated values, as it does with the West and Ukraine, it is very convenient. In all other situations, national interest trumps values. For a stark example, see the U.S. and Canada’s reaction to pro-democracy protests in Bahrain and the military intervention by Saudi Arabia to quell the unrest for their incapable authoritarian neighbours. Protesters in Pearl Square or on the streets in other authoritarian countries allied to the West just don’t seem to get the same attention as those in the Maidan. Interest trumps values. Always. Can we stop all the high-minded rhetoric already?

That being said, it is in the West’s interests to stop Putin’s advance, and our governments should act accordingly in a united fashion to rebuff Russia’s aggression.


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