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I’ve never been a Robert Gates fan. I’ve always seen him a more of a pale, man-in-a-gray-flannel-suit-type apparatchik. My lack of enthusiasm for Gates and all his works was made more acute when he agreed to stay at Defense as a beard for Barack Obama’s decidedly un-masculine vision of the military.
My views shifted a bit when his memoir hit the streets and refreshingly confirmed that what many of us outside the Pentagon feared was happening was in fact reality.
Today, Gates writes an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled Putin’s Challenge to the West. In it he, in my view, accurately assesses Putin’s objectives:
Mr. Putin aspires to restore Russia’s global power and influence and to bring the now-independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Moscow’s orbit. While he has no apparent desire to recreate the Soviet Union (which would include responsibility for a number of economic basket cases), he is determined to create a Russian sphere of influence—political, economic and security—and dominance. There is no grand plan or strategy to do this, just opportunistic and ruthless aspiration. And patience.
Mr. Putin, who began his third, nonconsecutive presidential term in 2012, is playing a long game. He can afford to: Under the Russian Constitution, he could legally remain president until 2024. After the internal chaos of the 1990s, he has ruthlessly restored “order” to Russia, oblivious to protests at home and abroad over his repression of nascent Russian democracy and political freedoms.
In recent years, he has turned his authoritarian eyes on the “near-abroad.” In 2008, the West did little as he invaded Georgia, and Russian troops still occupy the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. He has forced Armenia to break off its agreements with theEuropean Union, and Moldova is under similar pressure.
He also has a dramatically different worldview than the leaders of Europe and the U.S. He does not share Western leaders’ reverence for international law, the sanctity of borders, which Westerners’ believe should only be changed through negotiation, due process and rule of law. He has no concern for human and political rights. Above all, Mr. Putin clings to a zero-sum worldview. Contrary to the West’s belief in the importance of win-win relationships among nations, for Mr. Putin every transaction is win-lose; when one party benefits, the other must lose. For him, attaining, keeping and amassing power is the name of the game.
While many of Gates’s prescriptions – bigger US defense budget, expel Russia from the G-8, reduce European dependence on Russian gas – are toss-offs, he does recommend many of the more aggressive actions being advocated with NATO military circles: moving NATO troops into the Baltic States and expanding Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty to include cyberattacks.(For a more in depth discussion of those options see G-8 Suspends Russia).
I think his overall strategy proposal is doomed to failure:
The only way to counter Mr. Putin’s aspirations on Russia’s periphery is for the West also to play a strategic long game. That means to take actions that unambiguously demonstrate to Russians that his worldview and goals—and his means of achieving them—over time will dramatically weaken and isolate Russia.
Over the years the Russians have demonstrated a limitless appetite for self-deception. If we start ratcheting up the pressure on Russia, the odds are the Russians will become ever more solidly aligned behind Putin and he will us the pressure to crack down on all forms of dissent. Having said that, we need to realize that he has also virtually eliminated dissent even though we were wooing him with low interest loans and access to Western markets. The bottom line is that Putin is going to follow his plan regardless of what the West offers in the way of blandishments.
We can’t control what Putin does, in fact, we don’t seem able to even influence what he does. What we can control is what we do. As Gates recognizes, while no one wants a new Cold War, letting Putin run unchecked virtually guarantees that will happen.
No one wants a new Cold War, much less a military confrontation. We want Russia to be a partner, but that is now self-evidently not possible under Mr. Putin’s leadership. He has thrown down a gauntlet that is not limited to Crimea or even Ukraine. His actions challenge the entire post-Cold War order including, above all, the right of independent states to align themselves and do business with whomever they choose.
Tacit acceptance of settling old revanchist scores by force is a formula for ongoing crises and potential armed conflict, whether in Europe, Asia or elsewhere. A China behaving with increasing aggressiveness in the East and South China seas, an Iran with nuclear aspirations and interventionist policies in the Middle East, and a volatile and unpredictable North Korea are all watching events in Europe.
The world needs leadership. Unfortunately, that leadership has to come from Barack Obama for whom “leading from the rear” seems to mean “hanging out behind the gym with the Choom Gang.” Absent strong and decisive American leadership, Putin will continue to plunder his way around the borders of Russia. And part of Barack Obama’s legacy, in addition to a ruined economy and a demoralized military, will be a new Cold War.