Skip to main content

There is a common but seriously flawed thesis running through too many commentaries on the unfolding crisis in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. According to this widely shared view, Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Crimea was a direct product of America's declining global influence, President Barack Obama's weak and feckless foreign policies in places like Libya, Syria and North Korea, and a dangerous deficiency in American capabilities and resolve to credibly deter opponents.

According to GOP Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, "it started with Benghazi. When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression." This interpretation of the link between contemporary U.S. foreign policy and Mr. Putin's motivations is seriously flawed.

Mr. Obama's application of U.S. power and coercive diplomacy in Syria succeeded. It was virtually impossible for officials in Damascus and Moscow to know with any certainty whether U.S. officials would be able to limit the threatened air attacks to an "unbelievably small" campaign (to use Secretary of State John Kerry's words). If the airstrikes produced no clear signs of progress, if the regime retaliated by using chemical weapons again, or if humanitarian conditions on the ground continued to deteriorate, the pressure on Washington to sustain the bombing campaign would have been significant. When Mr. Kerry suggested in a press conference that Bashar al-Assad could avoid the air strikes if he turned over "every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community," Mr. Putin jumped at the offer, persuaded Mr. Assad to take the deal, and immediately initiated discussions leading to the UN disarmament resolution.

Consider the evidence of U.S. power and influence in this case: without firing a single shot, Washington forced Mr. Assad (Russia's key ally in the Middle East) to acknowledge Syria's possession of chemical weapons, sign the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibiting further production and deployment of proscribed weapons, and identify the exact location of the regime's stockpiles and production facilities. In light of the strategic role chemical weapons played in the conflict up to that point, and the deterrent value Syrian officials assigned to these weapons in relation to their rivalry with Israeli, a formal agreement to destroy these weapons constitutes an impressive foreign policy success and a clear victory for the credible application of coercive diplomacy. None of this would have occurred had the Obama administration lacked power and credibility, or followed the critics' recommendation to back down and retreat.

North Korea's annual outbursts during U.S.-South Korea military exercises are a product of Pyongyang's weaknesses, not Washington's. Kim Jong-un is completely isolated and becoming increasingly reliant on a strategy of exploiting fabricated irrationality to extort concessions from the West, precisely because the regime is too weak to do anything else. Even China was persuaded to sign the U.S.-sponsored (unanimously endorsed) UN Security Council Resolution imposing a new round of economic sanctions on the regime after its underground nuclear test in February, 2013.

With respect to the Ukraine crisis, Mr. Putin's actions are largely motivated by his perception of threats from NATO's (military) and the European Union's (economic) expansion eastward. Ukraine's parliament was contemplating a free-trade deal with the EU that would have loosened Russia's economic grip on a vital piece of the former Soviet Union – Ukraine is arguably a red line for Mr. Putin. Negotiations over the Ukraine – European Union Association Agreement were abandoned by the deposed president Viktor Yanukovich, but that move spawned the widespread protests and sniper attacks that led to his removal. In sum, Mr. Putin's admittedly risky strategy in the Crimea is driven, in large measure, by fears associated with the 'expansion' (not contraction) of American, NATO and EU power and influence in the region.

Mr. Obama's credibility was never on the line in this case; he had very few options before the crisis and even fewer now. His critics certainly have complaints about the U.S. response but offer no credible alternatives.

Now that Russia has deployed troops to the Crimea, Mr. Putin is very likely to be concerned about his own credibility, particularly if he remains convinced that his strategy will have a positive impact on regional and global impressions of his resolve to protect Russia's interests. Unfortunately, if this is how Mr. Putin sees the world, the international community will have a very hard time convincing him to retreat. Ironically, the very strategy Mr. Putin has adopted to demonstrate his resolve will also convince Ukraine that its economic and territorial security lies with the West – a self-fulfilling prophecy Mr. Putin and his advisors appear to be missing.

Frank P. Harvey holds the Eric Dennis Chair of Government and Political Science at Dalhouise University and is a Research Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. His most recent book, Explaining the Iraq War: Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence (Cambridge University Press), won the 2013 Canadian Political Science Association Book Prize for the best book on international relations.