Paleoconservatives Are Wrong About Putin
The American Conservative prides itself on paleoconservatism, an ideology which quite rightly rejects the neoconservative worldview of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and the military adventurism of the George W. Bush administration. Unfortunately, the publication gets a lot of other things wrong.
One of the magazine's writers, Daniel Larison, authors a blog whose raison d'etre appears to be less about proposing solutions to complex foreign policy problems than about characterizing the statements of others as "nonsensical," "dishonest," "pitiful," "absurd," "comed[ic]," "ignoran[t]", "reckless," "desperate," "cheap," and (my personal favorite) "muddle-headed."
Last year, I drew ire from Mr. Larison due to an article I wrote about how to deal with the Russian annexation of Crimea. True to form, Mr. Larison wrote, "Alex Berezow's approach to foreign policy might be summed up as 'doing stupid things because Russia won't like them,'" but he proposed no solution of his own.
His criticism was in response to my proposal of five non-mutually exclusive options for the West: (1) Economic sanctions and asset freezes; (2) Diplomatic isolation; (3) Fast-tracking Ukraine to NATO and EU membership; (4) Deploying NATO troops to western Ukraine; and (5) Surrounding Kaliningrad (a Russian exclave buried within the European Union) with NATO troops.
Mr. Larison took particular exception to options 3, 4, and 5. He wrote:
If one wanted to come up with quick ways to escalate and widen the conflict, these would be a good start... [I]t is still remarkable that anyone can look at the crisis in Ukraine and ask, "How can we possibly militarize the situation more and get many more countries involved in a war?" This is the sort of mentality that would take a regional crisis and potentially turn it into a major war if enough Western governments were insane enough to share it.
Despite the fact that Western governments did not share my "insane" opinion, Vladimir Putin turned the regional crisis into a war, anyway. Russia has been sending weapons and soldiers into Ukraine. Russian-armed rebels murdered 298 innocent civilians on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The death toll in eastern Ukraine has likely surpassed 5,000. In the face of little to no provocation whatsoever, Mr. Putin conducted military drills in Kaliningrad. Recently, British airplanes intercepted Russian bombers off the coast of England. Furthermore, Mr. Putin has flagrantly violated and even mocked the recent ceasefire agreement. And according to The Economist, to boost support at home and abroad, Russia's extensive propaganda network, which includes the English language channel RT, "churn[s] out lies and conspiracy theories."
In short, Mr. Putin never had any intention of seeking peace. Irrespective of the West's response -- which did include some nontrivial sanctions and the ejection of Russia from the G8 -- Mr. Putin appears to have planned for an invasion of Ukraine and a ratcheting up of tensions with Europe. Thus, what Mr. Larison and other paleoconservatives fail to appreciate is the fact that Mr. Putin is perfectly capable of escalating conflicts all by himself.
Surely, Mr. Larison, who is also opposed to economic sanctions partially on the grounds that they may exacerbate tensions, would claim that these recent events constitute proof that sanctions do not work. That may be true for the moment, but Mr. Putin cannot flout basic economics forever. The Russian economy is supposed to contract by 3 to 5 percentage points this year due to, as the International Energy Agency claims, a "perfect storm of collapsing prices, international sanctions and currency depreciation." Sanctions, combined with good luck, appear to be working. And more may be coming.
The most damaging economic sanction likely would be banning Russia from using SWIFT. This would, essentially, shut Russia out of the international banking system.
Incidentally, damaging Russia's economy is the best reason to send arms to Ukraine. Few observers are disillusioned enough to believe that Ukraine would defeat Russia in a war. But, arming Ukraine could greatly increase the cost for Mr. Putin. As wallets shrink and soldiers return in body bags, Russians may start to think twice about their support for him.
Yet, Mr. Larison believes arming Ukraine is futile. (How Mr. Larison can believe that sanctions are simultaneously futile and escalatory is perhaps left as a paradoxical thought experiment for the reader.)
Finally, Mr. Larison claimed that "NATO and EU membership are farther away for Ukraine than ever."
That is only partially correct. Ukraine is unlikely to join NATO anytime soon, but the prospect of EU membership appears enhanced. According to the German Marshall Fund, a majority of Europeans want Ukraine to join the EU. Amazingly, two-thirds also want stronger sanctions against Russia, even if it provokes a confrontation.
It is unclear to me what Mr. Larison believes is a proper response to Russian aggression. All retaliatory measures carry a risk of escalation. However, few people want to live in a world where Russia is allowed to misbehave with impunity. Still, if it is true that my foreign policy can be summarized as "doing stupid things because Russia won't like them," then it is equally true that Mr. Larison's foreign policy can be summarized as "sticking one's head in the sand and hoping that Putin goes away." Alas, Mr. Putin will not.