AN UNLIKELY source holds the key to how the West should respond to Russia’s takeover of the Crimea. While researching for my book Ethical Realism (which I co-wrote with the rightly celebrated Anatol Lieven), I came across a startling fact. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the US’s best-known twentieth-century political thinkers, was also the author of The Serenity Prayer, later adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous. “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Such an intellectual mindset is exactly what is now required by the West.
First, here’s what we cannot, will not, and should not do: entertain any notion of using military means to regain the Crimean peninsula. No one in the West, be they American or European, is going to fight a war for either Crimea or Ukraine, while Russia quite possibly would. Such a disparity in intensity gives the Kremlin a powerful in-built advantage.
After just a few days, having made his point, weakened Western standing, crippled the new Ukrainian government (which will now certainly not join either the EU or Nato), and secured primary Russian interests, Vladimir Putin can now afford to be mellow. Yesterday, he calmly stated that, while he reserves the right to use force in Ukraine, there seems no need to do so.
In contrast to this measured response, President Obama’s problem lies precisely in the discrepancy between his irritating maximalist Wilsonian rhetoric and his more limited real world options on the ground. It is this disconnect that is opening the door to general scorn of the West; and don’t get me started on the EU and European countries on this score, who seem absolutely ridiculous in their pretensions.
Also, the more one looks into it, the more placing economic sanctions on Russia seems like a spectacularly terrible idea. In a sense, the very global interdependence so often naively celebrated by the leftish foreign policy community is our great handicap; to cripple the Russian economy would certainly send a just-recovering Europe back into severe recession. With Russia supplying more than one-third of Europe’s gas supply, such a suicidal act would amount to cutting off our nose to spite our face.
But here the second part of the Serenity Prayer must kick in, for we must have the courage to change the things we can. If Putin can draw lines, if he can demarcate spheres of influence, well, so can we.
The line in question is already there– Nato membership – and it must simply be greatly reinforced to reassure our rightfully terrified Central and Eastern European allies. First, specific threats are best. Symbolically but powerfully, Obama must use the bully pulpit to make it perfectly clear that – given Article V of the Nato Treaty – the US is indeed prepared to fight a war for all the exposed members of the alliance, from the Baltic states to Poland. Such a clear statement takes away the risk of miscalculation by either side.
Second, Nato should (whatever Russian protests) forward deploy troops to the Baltic states and Poland, as a physical gesture of the West’s continued solidarity. Third, a new missile defense system should – whatever the Kremlin’s whining – be deployed in Poland. This physical reinforcement, coupled with rhetorical clarity, would go a long way towards both calming our allies’ fears and clearly mapping the limits of what will be tolerated.
Lastly, the West must be prepared to play a long game, all the while calmly seeing that we hold most of the geopolitical cards, given that Russia is a demographic calamity, and an economically rickety state, wholly dependent on oil and gas just to survive.
In contrast, America is quietly experiencing a shale revolution of almost unprecedented magnitude. Largely due to unconventional drilling, it is pumping 8m barrels of oil per day, 1m more than this time last year, and 2.5m barrels more than just three years ago. Now is precisely the time to use this new weapon, and over time liberate Central and Eastern Europe from the servitude of being forced to buy Russian oil and gas, which has long perpetuated the Kremlin’s influence.
Obama, by executive order, must reverse the antiquated ban on oil exports. Then, along with the country’s new abundance of liquefied natural gas, he must begin to set up the infrastructure to export some of the US’s new-found bounty to its Nato allies, thereby securing their energy independence, directly threatening the oligarchs who keep Putin in power, and imperilling Russia’s great power pretensions.
Ethical realism is the way forward for besting a man who practises his realism without the moral niceties.
Dr John C Hulsman is president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a global political risk consultancy. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again.