At the present writing there has not been a final resolution to the crisis in Crimea and the possibility of a worsening situation remains high as the new Ukrainian Prime Minister heads to Washington DC while local Crimean authorities, with Russian support, promise to hold a referendum on basically seceding from Ukraine and rejoining the Russian Federation. Many respected and accomplished voices have written eloquently on both sides of this dilemma, testifying to the complexity of the situation and affirming how little global affairs ultimately have to do with black-and-white caricatures and hyperbolic posturing. What remains fascinating and frustrating, however, is a continued ‘Cold War residue’ that refuses to leave the stage when it comes to how the United States and Russian Federation deal with each other. Too often the instinctive academic and diplomatic positions in the West place responsibility for poor relations exclusively on the Russian side. While Russia undoubtedly plays a major role (it does indeed take two to tango), there is an inexplicable absence of focus on the culpability of the United States in fostering this negative interaction. Foreign policy is difficult enough, let alone when sides refuse to recognize reality.
In some ways the United States has played a very strange self-injurious game since 1991 when it comes to Russia. On the one hand, it expects that the former rival accepts a new stage after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in which there are no more fundamental ideological battles and that DEMOCRACY in big capital letters is the clear and undisputed victor. As the greatest champion of democracy this of course infers that such acceptance also automatically declares the US the world’s only superpower, the hegemon with no rivals. On the other hand, despite this expected acquiescence, America still tends to see Russia as scheming to relive Soviet glory days and interacts with Russia only on its own terms and in that distrustful light. Given this general backdrop, it is a bit disingenuous for those of us feted as ‘Russian experts’ to question why Russian-American relations have been such disjointed bipolar affairs for the past generation.
The situation does not improve when you get to the specifics. Since 1991 there have been three major situations with direct Russian military involvement that gained intensive scrutiny from the United States: Chechnya, South Ossetia, and Crimea. In Chechnya, Russia was often privately outraged that many in the US characterized that conflict as a ‘battle for independence’ by an oppressed minority rather than it being about a war against radical religious extremists engaging in terrorism. In South Ossetia, Russia was outraged once more when it was accused of ‘invading’ another country when it felt it was justifiably responding strongly to unrest and instability threatening its own North Ossetia (which resulted in Russian peacekeepers being killed according to the UN) and sending an appropriate force message to Georgia to stop exacerbating the situation. And now in Crimea, Russia is bluntly pursuing its best foreign policy interests during a time of political turmoil in a region that was once its own (Crimea was given to Ukraine in the 1950s with an air of diplomatic indifference as the expected eternal nature of the Soviet Union made the ‘gift’ irrelevant – Moscow would always control it.), while listening to the West say it is trying to ultimately occupy all of Ukraine.
In each case, when you look back over numerous media, academic, and diplomatic sources, the word ‘imperialism’ factors prominently: Russia’s motivations in each case were not based on its own national security interests, but were instead founded on its inevitable need to regain its old Soviet ‘imperialistic’ nature. This Cold War residue even made the categorization and scope of the conflicts themselves a source of political discord: Chechnya became ‘Southern Russia,’ South Ossetia became ‘Georgia,’ and Crimea has now become ‘Ukraine.’ In other words, time and again Russia preferred keeping situations more case-specific and minimalized, while the United States (in Russia’s opinion at least) effectively re-characterized the situations so that they seemed more far-reaching and maximized in terms of danger and concern.
No doubt even more galling to Russia has been the need to answer such criticism while the United States has pursued decidedly more aggressive maneuvers on a global scale without interference. Russia did not interfere when campaigns were launched in Afghanistan and Iraq. Russia did not interfere with maneuvers in Libya and Yemen. What Russia bristles at is when America characterizes its own maneuvers as somehow being something ‘above’ basic foreign policy priorities and national security objectives while everything the Russian Federation does in much the same light is declared ‘neo-imperialist’ or breaking international law. Make note that this is not any lame or manic anti-American diatribe. Russia is not anti-American. Russia is simply first and foremost pro-Russia, just as it expects and assumes America to be first and foremost pro-America. And here is the tricky part: on this issue, in the eyes of most of the world when speaking privately, Russia is right. America is the only country that indefatigably explains its positions as being about something more than just purely American interests. But the US needs to understand that this sermon is being delivered from a pulpit more and more often to an EMPTY congregation.
Asking allies and adversaries alike reveals nothing but dismissive smirks for the idea that American global maneuvers are based more on higher principles rather than on what best positions American interests. Again, remember the subtlety: such dismissiveness is not anger about America actually trying to leverage its power for maximum output but is rather irritation at how often America tries to judge and prevent other states from doing the exact same thing. Other countries might not like how Russia expresses its power but they accept those maneuvers, for better or worse, as the way the game works on a global stage of differentiated power capacity. As long as the United States continues to delude itself on this basic fundamental of global affairs, and envisions itself as the great preserver of international principles while never supposedly acting opportunistically against said norms, then it will continue to blow a mighty wind on situations like Crimea while accomplishing nothing. It will continue to bring a knife to a foreign policy gunfight.
Dr. Matthew Crosston is Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”