The most threatening thing Vladimir Putin has done in eastern Ukraine, worse than his massing of troops and trumping-up of separatist movements, is the way the Russian President has unleashed, on our shores, a zombie apocalypse.
These zombies, raising their crumbling limbs from the dank soil of think tanks, university departments and military alliances, are the Cold War hawks. Shaking off the loam of a quarter-century’s irrelevance, they have used Mr. Putin’s moment of nastiness as an opening to stagger en masse onto TV news shows and op-ed pages and, we fear, into ministers’ offices, where they foul the air with their very bad ideas.
We need to “show strength” and deliver a “robust response,” lest the West appear to be “in retreat” and insufficiently “assertive,” making us “vulnerable” to attacks from those who see our weakness. We should send ground troops marching to the banks of the Dnieper, and aircraft carriers into the Black Sea, because “this is the only language Putin understands.” What these soldiers are meant to do, we’re never really told.
It’s time to get the pitchforks. The Cold Warriors have a consistent record of being wrong.
They’re wrong about military power. In the eyes of the hawks, former CIA official Paul Pillar recently noted, “it is all seen as one big contest in which setbacks for one side somewhere on the global playing field mean that side is losing overall.”
But, as he notes, it makes no sense at all to commit a military action that will produce no useful outcome simply in order to enhance your nation’s prestige and image of forcefulness on the world stage. In support of this, writer Peter Beinart cites political scientist Daryl Press, whose analysis of a century of signal-sending wars found that they never work: “Those countries that have fought wars to build a reputation for resolve,” Dr. Press concludes, “have wasted vast sums of money and, much worse, thousands of lives” without achieving that outcome.
They’re wrong about Russia. Mr. Putin stands to gain absolutely nothing from eastern Ukraine. Even the most “Russian” of the eastern districts has no more than one-third Russians in its population, and they are by no means united behind Moscow. Adding such regions to Russia would give him economically useless territory that would likely be plunged into perpetual civil war. This is not empire-building; his territorial thrust puts him in a position of weakness, not strength.
The Russian military is weak: While it claims a million soldiers, almost all of them are make-work conscripts who are unable to fight; Mr. Putin’s viable fighting force is estimated in the tens of thousands. Europe has hundreds of thousands of soldiers who can be deployed instantly.
It does not help him that Ukraine is not in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; the alliance’s military successes and quick responses have all been on behalf of non-NATO members. Had Ukraine been made a member in 2004, this crisis simply would have happened a decade earlier.
His possession of nuclear weapons does nothing to enhance his influence or power in the region (or his vulnerability to economic reprisals). A hawkish response from the West would make no difference to any of this, other than to prevent an actual resolution. And that resolution will be derived from Russia’s weakness – especially its economic weakness – not from some mutual display of strength.
They were wrong the last time around. The Cold War Hawks have been interred in cold earth for decades because they were wrong about the Cold War itself.
Vietnam was the first, and characteristic, test of their ethos. Few cared about its fate per se, but full-scale war there was meant to show resolve and contain the Soviet Union and China. It didn’t: There was no chance of victory, and the bloodshed did nothing to lend menace to the West or deter the communist countries.
In the 1980s, the hawks blew our chance to end the Cold War. When the USSR was about to collapse politically and economically, the hawks persuaded NATO to respond to Moscow’s gestures with military confrontation. The 1983 stationing of missiles along the Iron Curtain did nothing to reduce the size or scope of the Soviet empire, but forced Moscow to keep the charade going for years after it would have quit. We should have known: Decades of such hawkish threats had done nothing to prevent tanks from wheeling into capitals and democratic movements from being overthrown under Moscow's orders in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Poland in 1981.
“Strength” didn’t end that conflict. It cemented it in place and rendered it irresolvable. What finally ended it was something that remains our best hope to end this one: strong economic sanctions, tough but constant dialogue and sensible exploitation of Moscow’s weakness.