It is a characteristic of the shameless autocrat that he can lie outright, he can know that you know he is lying, and he doesn’t care. Words are merely weapons in the game of power. That is the kind of leader Vladimir Putin has become.
Thus, we have the bizarre statements by Russian leaders condemning Ukraine for using its military against its own people. They are referring to the efforts by Ukraine to expel rebels from public buildings they had seized in eastern Ukraine. It is an ordinary function of the state to react against rebels seizing government property. Think Fort Sumter. Unfortunately, there have been a handful of deaths as Ukrainian forces confront roadblocks and buildings held by dissidents.
Secretary of State John Kerry has asserted that the Ukrainian dissidents are led by Russian agents there to stir up trouble, and there is no reason to doubt that Kerry is telling the truth. Russian agents reportedly were highly effective in guiding events leading to the annexation of Crimea.
The Russian complaints about Ukrainian actions are especially bizarre given Russian support for the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, who has killed not three or four individual rebels, but more than 100,000 Syrian civilians. Putin’s own record in the wars suppressing rebellion in the Russian territory of Chechnya is of brutal assaults on civilian areas, reducing the Chechen capital of Grozny to rubble. Thus, complaints about Ukrainian brutality are nothing but a pretext for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, should Putin choose to follow that course. It is the thinnest pretext.
The United States always considers its foreign policy challenges through two lenses. There is the moral lens through which we consider the effect on human rights, freedom and democracy of a given action by a bad actor on the world stage. Then there is the lens of realpolitik through which we consider our own economic interests and the potential for a foreign power to upset the power balance among nations. These two lenses often interact with each other in ways that blur our vision.
During the Cold War, we viewed the Soviet Union as a moral threat capable of undermining democracy and freedom and of thwarting those striving for freedom. That was the pretext for actions that, in reality, appear to have been mainly motivated by economic self-interest. The coups mounted in 1954 to overthrow elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala fit that category, with dire results for decades to follow.
It does no good for the interests of democracy or human rights to pursue quixotic battles that, in terms of realpolitik, are doomed to failure. Thus, our invasion of Iraq, conducted amid grandiose rhetoric about freedom, has cast an entire region into bitter sectarian warfare with no end in sight. In that context, the most brutish flourish — thus the determination of Assad that he will not suffer the fate of Mubarak in Egypt or of Gadhafi in Libya.
Putin, leading a country in the grip of economic decline, has chosen to join the ranks of the brutish. President Barack Obama knows that it is not in our interest to take on every thug who wanders down the alleyway. Embroiling ourself in every rumble in every neighborhood of the world is an impossibility, practically and morally. We have our interests in Europe and the Middle East, and we need to marshal our resources and commitments carefully.
Ukraine is suffering from poor governance by kleptocratic Ukrainians and is now trying to sort out its destiny in the midst of bullying interference from its neighbor. The neighbor may well create further trouble in the region, but as it suffers the effects of further economic isolation, its power will weaken. The United States does well to stand by the people of Ukraine, Russia and other places who are struggling against dictatorship. Their day will come as the leadership of Putin and other dictators crumbles under the weight of their failures.
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