You’ve got to hand it to Vladimir Putin: He knows his neighborhood.
Like a junkyard dog with the run of a sprawling and unruly domain, Putin cocks a leg, marks his territory as he sees fit and jealously defends it. He knows he is the strongest mutt in the yard and he understands his rivals are too isolated to expect help from beyond the perimeter. He can strike more or less with impunity so long as he confines his bullying to the Caucasus and Black Sea regions, one of the few parts of the world America is not obliged to defendeither by treaty (Japan, South Korea, Europe), economic interests (the Persian Gulf), or domestic politics (Israel).
By occupying Crimea this week Putin again demonstrated that spheres of influence, a Cold War-era term of dubious repute, did not dissolve along with the Soviet Union. On the contrary, a world dominated by a handful of regional powers - China, of course, but also India and perhaps one day Germany and Iran - is a far more natural and enduring state of affairs than a unipolar order, as the unraveling of American imperium makes clear.
Putin understands this. So did George Kennan, the esteemed American Sovietologist and one of his country’s last clear-eyed statesmen. (More on him in a moment.) So too, at least intuitively, does the increasingly hapless Barack Obama. Even the U.S. Congress, for decades an enclave of oafish militarism, has been generally mute in the wake of the Crimea crisis. In part, that’s because the last time Putin invaded a neighbor was in August 2008 - under President George W. Bush - when he sent tanks to “liberate” the secessionist South Ossetia in its war with the pro-West Georgia. The trigger-happy Bush proved as unwilling to confront Moscow then as the comparably hyper-cautious Obama is now.
Not long ago it was unfashionable in Washington to acknowledge spheres of influence still existed. Doing so implied there were pockets of the world that lurked outside America’s imperial writ, which hardliners in Washington refused to concede. (“No Beach out of Reach!”, etc.) It also allowed for the awkward fact that Washington throughout the nineteenth century administered its own sphere of influence in Latin America - and in a manner not unlike the way Putin treats his “near abroad” today. Largely as a result, spheres of influence are associated with Victorian-age brutality and Cold War proxism.
Behold, for example, Putin: thug, liar, and gross poseur possessed of no imagination beyond what is needed to cantilever his Ozymandian ego. Rather than marshal the abundant human and natural resources at his command, he created the worst kind of kleptocracy. Contemporary Russia is feared for Putin’s police state and muscle-bound army, not respected as it was under Catherine the Great for its enlightened reforms and diplomatic cunning. Had Putin invested his energies in building a diversified economy, competent governance and a rule of law, his Russia would be a legitimate regional hegemon rather than a petulant spoiler. Its closest ally and trading partner might well be Ukraine.
Putin’s Crimean adventure may exact a stiff toll in the form of Western-imposed sanctions on Russia’s already troubled economy. It is by no means clear, however, if Europe is prepared to estrange itself from one of its most important energy sources. A U.S.-led military reprisal, meanwhile, is all but inconceivable.
As one analyst told the Financial Times this week: “We can’t send a strong military show. Nobody is willing to go to war over Crimea.”
This is progress. Remember how, in 1999, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright dragged America into a war to rescue Kosovo from Serbian aggression by promoting intervention as a sine qua non of NATO credibility. Though successful, the operation nearly provoked a war with Russia. Today, the Republic of Kosovo is recognized by little more than half of United Nations member states. It is host to some 7,000 NATO peace-keepers, a haven for money laundering and is routinely characterized as a narco-state.
Last month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel unveiled a defense budget that would defer outlays on costly new weaponry like the F-35 fighter jet andreduce America’s troop strength to its lowest level since 1940 - a draw-down that would all but demand a winnowing of U.S. security commitments worldwide, particularly in Europe. Last month, a chorus of senior German security officials, beginning with new Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, called for the country to match its economic and diplomatic clout with an enhanced role in European strategic affairs. Historians may regard such remarks as a tentative first step towards the evolution of Europe into a German sphere of influence, perhaps in a pas de deux with France, assuming Paris can ever get its act together, or Poland.
Which brings us to George Kennan.
Writing in the International New York Times this week, the editor of “The Kennan Diaries” argued that the author of the Cold War doctrine of containment would have welcomed the diminution of American empire in favor of spheres-of-influence diplomacy. “Mr. Kennan wanted the United States to abandon its exhausting efforts at playing world policeman,” argued Frank Costigliola, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut. “Mr. Kennan’s strategic vision entailed containing adversaries, curtailing our foreign ventures, and conserving our moral and material assets …. Policing the globe exacerbates resentment abroad while neglecting the decaying infrastructure at home.”
However reckless and destabilizing, Putin’s march on Crimea may be remembered as the clarifying event that forced Washington to accept the futility of empire and the inexorable logic of a multipolar world.