Vladimir Putin is a czar.
A dangerous, cunning and ultra-sophisticated KGB-turned-statesman world player intent on resurrecting a Russian empire, if not the Soviet Union itself.
Of course he is, right? Wrong.
Barack Obama is a weak president, vacillating, disoriented, incapable of recognizing let alone exercising US power, and being manipulated easily by Putin Rasputin.
Sure he is, right? Very wrong.
Then there is the conventional wisdom according to which Russia is in the midst of an inexorable trajectory ascending to greatness, while the US, the poor old US of A, is trapped in an invariable decline trend all over the globe. “Declinism” they call it.
This may very well be “conventional,” but it hardly qualifies as “wisdom.”
And of course, how not, the Middle East is being inserted into the mix. Naturally, you cannot have a crisis on this scale without the Middle East.
It is the geo-political equivalent of Woody Allen’s “Zelig.” No matter where or what, the Middle East is always in the picture, like an immutable law of international politics.
A plethora of bombastic, unequivocal and historically deterministic statements have been issued left and right concerning the Crimean crisis, but the one connecting it to the Middle East stands out as a shining fallacy.
It goes something like this: Putin acted the way he did, and assumed he could do so with relative impunity, because of Obama’s terrible debacles and shrinking power in the Middle East. Putin felt he can get away with de facto annexing Crimea because his perception of the US and the US president is that of a fatigued, drowsy weakling who botched Egypt, hesitated to act in Syria and was out-smarted and out-maneuvered on Iran. So goes the explanation.
Other than opinion and foreign policy inclinations, there is no evidence that either premises – of Russian imperial expansion or of American decline is true. In fact, if anything the crisis in Ukraine and particularly in Crimea illustrates that Putin (and Russia) are far from being omnipotently strong and Obama (and the US) are not quite in decline. Much of it has to do with political perceptions, threat-perceptions and academic and foreign policy fashion. A lot of it has to do with Putin plainly and not violently asserting claims to Crimea, and Obama in his turn standing up to him with economic sanctions. An acceptable quid pro quo.
How this translates into “A new Cold War” escapes reason.
Putin has been anxiously accused of trying to rebuild Russian global dominance since he became president for a second time and since the invasion of Georgia in 2008.
But how has Russian power been manifested successfully and effectively since? Where has Russian dominance tipped geo-political balances? Where are the new Russian spheres of influence that turn it into a hegemonic power rivaling that of the US? True, Putin never accepted the diminished role Russia had in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. True, he seeks hegemony and economic power over what used to be the USSR. True, he is engaged in a tug of war with the European Union over former Soviet republics that joined or aspire to join the EU.
But is Russia truly a world power, projecting might and exerting influence? Could it really prevent the Baltic states, Poland or, in time, western Ukraine from orbiting away from Moscow? Is it possible that Putin acted, albeit not in a very aesthetic manner, out of Russian interests pertaining to its immediate surroundings? And that Russia’s actions are arguably legitimate? Could it be that Putin feels he is losing grip geopolitically, rather than flexing muscles? Is it possible that he acted because, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel observed, he is “in another world,” or in other words, his perceptions of reality are distorted, rather than calculated? And, is it possible that despite the anti-democratic and “unacceptable” stench of Russia’s actions, Putin is substantively right on Crimea?
Yes, his language on saving Russian citizens from Ukrainian fascists is reminiscent of the language used by Germany in both the Anschluss with Austria and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, both in 1938, but that hardly turns him into Hitler.
Yet the bigger, more interesting story here is American foreign policy and the shaky argument that Russia acted the way it did based on what it interprets as US weakness in the Middle East.
The idea and contention that the US is capable of developing a comprehensive, coherent and general foreign policy at this point in international relations history is wrong. The notion that it is at all possible or desirable is misleading. That first and foremost applies to the Middle East. When the number of variables is huge, uncertainty rules, predictability nonexistent and the dynamics of change fast and furious, it is impossible to develop a foreign policy that is applicable to Egypt, Syria, Libya and Crimea, because there is no one overriding strategic interest.
In this respect, Crimea and Egypt, Putin and Bashar Assad, present the US with the same dilemma: In the face of unclarity, unpredictability and a shift in balances and power relations, you need to be agile and flexible, not rigid and adhering to some outdated foreign policy strategy.
What worked in the Middle East might just work in Ukraine. Righteous indignation and belligerent posturing are perfectly legitimate.
But they are not foreign policy.
The writer was consul-general in New York and adviser to four foreign ministers. He is a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum.