Tom Friedman says that our sanctions on Russia may work too well. There is a debate to be had on whether Russia's sanctions are effective. On the one hand, it may be that they are causing Putin to dig his heels in and continue fomenting unrest. After all, the violence there escalated today, with another diarist saying that it was looking more like civil war. But on the other hand, how will international law mean anything if we don't?
Friedman asks the question of how we can deter Putin without weakening Russia to the point of instability. The problem is, the more drastic the sanctions imposed, the more unintended consequences may happen. Just like the unintended consequence of the Euromaidan Revolution was the seizure of Crimea by Russia and the resultant chaos.
When we lived in a world of walls — during the Cold War era — weakening Russia was a strategy that seemed to have only upsides. But in a world of webs, a world that is not only more interconnected but interdependent, the steps we take to make Russia weaker can also come back to haunt us. When the world gets this tightly interwoven, not only can your friends kill you as quickly as your rivals (see Greece), but your rivals crumbling can be as dangerous as your rivals rising (see Russia or China).The problem is that Russia can pull the plug on Europe's gas if the sanctions get too hot. Russia is already negotiating an $8 to $10 billion energy deal with Iran. They are negotiating a massive deal with China. And in a development that went unnoticed, Russia canceled most of a debt that North Korea owes in return for building a gas pipeline across North Korea and sell it to South Korea for much less than America can. These sorts of possibilities explain the caution with which the West is imposing sanctions on Russia.
In Friedman's belief, the danger of Russia weakening is that there would be no counterbalance to China; furthermore, a weak Russia would facilitate crime around the world. We would add to that terrorism given that the Caucasus is still restless. Here is where he misses the mark:
I take no joy in seeing Russia put under economic stress, and we should be ready to consider its legitimate interests in terms of protecting its borders. But the problem today is how President Putin defines those interests. It’s bogus. After all, what is Ukraine trying to do? Host U.S. nuclear missiles? No. Join NATO? No. It isn’t even trying to become a full member of the E.U. It wants to sign an “Association Agreement” that would provide Ukrainian companies more unfettered access to European markets and require them to abide by E.U. regulations, which Ukrainian reformers believe would help drive more rule of law inside their own country and make it more globally competitive. The Ukrainians want to import E.U. rules, not NATO missiles!
The problem is that NATO membership for Ukraine was discussed as early as 2002. Allowing Ukraine to join NATO would put missiles on Russia's doorstep, which would be similar to Russia putting missiles in Cuba. The Euromaidan Revolution, facilitated by Victoria Nuland, can be viewed as a provocation against Russia. The Ukrainians don't just want to import EU rules. Putin's remark in 2008 that Ukraine was not a country anymore must be viewed in that context; he would rather see Ukraine effectively destroyed as a nation instead of a member of NATO.
But two wrongs don't make a right, and the US facilitation of the coup in Ukraine and their repeated breaking of promises to Russia not to expand NATO do not justify Putin's invasion of Crimea, the seizure of hostages, and the fermenting of civil war in Ukraine. And Putin's actions are having their own unintended consequences. Georgia is once again pushing for NATO membership, which had been derailed following their five-day war with Russia. There is also talk of possibly Finland or Sweden joining as well; even Belarus is distancing itself from Putin over Ukraine. Ukraine's President has said that they may follow suit if Russia's provocations continue. So what we could have is Russia carving up the east and Crimea and Ukraine turning around and joining NATO, along with Moldavia. The US has already drawn a red line against Russian incursion against NATO countries. Russia's aggression in Georgia and Ukraine has revived an organization which had increasingly been seen as irrelevant.
The danger is that this will ferment the cycle of instability that is going on right now. A cornered animal, even one that is normally harmless to people, is extremely dangerous and Russia is no exception. One fear, raised in the Bloomberg article, is that Russia would test NATO's resolve given that Obama drew a red line over the use of chemical weapons in Syria and then failed to follow through. Friedman continues:
It’s actually what Putin should be trying to do for his country, rather than trying to prevent his neighbors from associating with Europe. But Putin is focused on building the power of his state, not the prosperity of his people. And he wants total political control and the right for him and his clique to steal vast sums, while seeking out foreign devils to distract the Russian public. These are not geopolitical interests that we have to respect.This description is awfully familiar. That is because it describes the Bush administration perfectly. No wonder he said that he could see into Putin's soul. But seriously, Ukraine's people have always been split on NATO politically as well as the EU. We should have respected this fact and not attempted to force Ukraine to choose between the EU and Russia. We don't have to respect a country's flouting of international law, a culture of corruption, or blatant violations of human rights. But we do have to respect each country's defense interests, such as the desire not to have missiles pointed at them from right across the border. And we do have to respect historical ties; Ukraine and Russia's ties go back to the 9th century, as Friedman, in a previous column, notes.
Friedman says that one reason Putin feels threatened is that a successful revolution could spread to Russia. Putin himself, in his Crimea annexation speech, predicted a possible US coup attempt in a few years against him like we have so many other world leaders we didn't like over the last several decades. Friedman concludes that the Ukrainians, "empowered by globalization and the IT revolution" are challenging "Comrade Putin's" values. The problem is that this is a blanket statement that does not necessarily reflect reality. Ukraine is completely polarized as a nation. The west wants to go one direction while the east wants to go another even if they don't support annexation by Russia or even if they do support annexation by Russia but don't support the violent methods being used. And Putin, the opportunist, is exploiting this to the fullest.