WORLD AFFAIRS:  When the West’s leading experts get elementary facts about Ukraine wrong, blithely encourage Russian expansionism, or make illogical arguments, I worry. As should everybody. After all, these are presumably the people influencing or making policy in the United States and Europe.

The latest two examples are Jacques Attali, the founding president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and Ian Bremmer, president of the New York–based consultancy, Eurasia Group.

Attali’s views on Crimea, Ukraine, and Russia are alarming, indeed, irresponsibly so. Bremmer’s rest on definitional ambiguity and faulty logic.

Here’s Attali’s interpretation of what just transpired in Crimea:  “a majority vote from a Russian-speaking province, part of Russia for centuries, attached in 1954 to another province of the Soviet Union on the whim of the secretary general of the Communist Party at the time, Nikita Khrushchev.”

No word of the Russian invasion, of the gangsters running Crimea, of the Crimean Tatars inhabiting the Crimea “for centuries” before Russia grabbed it in 1783, of the 1944 ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Tatars, of the bogus referendum conducted recently in the shadow of tanks, of the public opinion survey showing that only 41 percent of Crimeans supported unification with Russia, of the mass settlement in Crimea of Russian veterans after the expulsion of the Tatars. And the bit about Khrushchev’s whim is too precious. Doesn’t Attali know that the USSR was always run on the whims of its leaders?  

Then there’s this:

Crimea and Russia chose to use the chaos born of the arrival in Kiev of a strongly anti-Russian government to reunite. Why does it bother us? Why should the Crimean population be denied the will to choose their destiny against the view of the country of which they are a member? After all, aren’t we preparing to allow the Scots to vote on exactly the same issue in Great Britain? Don’t the Catalans intend to do likewise in Spain? … And what will happen if Moldova, Belarus, or the Russian-speaking part of Kazakhstan ask to become attached to Russia? We will interfere? On what grounds? … What about Czechoslovakia splitting up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia?

Does Attali really believe that referenda in Scotland, Catalonia, and Quebec, and the break-up of Czechoslovakia, are in any way comparable—procedurally—to Russia’s military occupation of Crimea and the subsequent bogus referendum? Does he really believe that the government in Kyiv is “strongly anti-Russian”? Heaven help us all, if he does.

But Attali’s rhetorical questions—“And what will happen if Moldova, Belarus, or the Russian-speaking part of Kazakhstan ask to become attached to Russia? We will interfere?”—are nothing less than an invitation to Putin to invade these territories. By the way, what if Russian-speaking Nice, Berlin’s Charlottenburg, or the high-end parts of London ask “to become attached”?

Attali appears to be blithely unaware of the consequences of such land grabs. Ukrainians, Moldovans, Belarusians, and Kazakhs will resist. There will be war in much of Eurasia, along with tens of thousands of casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees. And every country on Russia’s borders will promptly engage in a military buildup. “What do we have to fear from Crimea returning to Russia?” Attali asks. “That Russia calls the Russian-speaking part of the Baltic states part of Russia and thus a prime target for annexation? Come on! These countries are in the European Union and in NATO! Therefore, they have nothing to fear.” That “therefore” comes a bit too quickly to be reassuring. If Europe is willing to ignore a Russian attack on its neighbors and pursue Russia’s integration despite its aggressions, Estonians and Latvians would be fools to think Europe would sacrifice integration for the sake of two tiny countries.

Attali is dangerous; Bremmer is just wrong. His key premises are twofold: “Ukraine is far more important to Vladimir V. Putin than it is to America”; “Mr. Putin’s policy, including whether to seize more of Ukraine, will be informed overwhelmingly by national security interests, not near-term economics.”

Although he insists “the United States needs to see the Ukraine crisis from Russia’s viewpoint,” Bremmer doesn’t tell us what that viewpoint and what Russia’s national security interests vis-à-vis Ukraine are. Like every state, Russia is entitled to want a friendly government in Ukraine. Is it also entitled to invade Ukraine? That might be “Russia’s viewpoint,” but is Ukraine’s destruction a Russian national security interest or in any other way valid? How about committing genocide against the Crimean Tatars? Also a valid interest? See the problem. By leaving Russia’s national security interests undefined, while extolling its right to pursue them, Bremmer must, like Attali, justify any Russian policy—including war and genocide.

Bremmer also ignores the West’s national security interests. Surely it’s in the West’s interest not to have untrammeled imperialist expansion in Eurasia, to avoid a major land war on Europe’s eastern borders, and to maintain the post–World War II international order. Notice how Bremmer focuses only on the economic costs of sanctions:

… if Russia pushes farther into Ukraine, America’s attempt at tougher Iran-style sanctions, coordinated with allies, will ultimately fail. Indeed, if Mr. Putin pursues a broader military campaign, a similarly robust response from both America and Europe is unlikely. Russia’s energy exports, its commercial power and its sheer size make the costs of ignoring it prohibitively high for Europe.

But the West, like Russia, has both economic and national security interests (and some economic interests are also national security interests). Bremmer does logic a disservice by juxtaposing undefined Russian national security interests with narrowly defined Western economic interests.

Bremmer believes that “sharp rhetoric from the West could push Mr. Putin to be even more aggressive. That’s because he does not believe that the West would ever treat Russia like Iran and implement robust sanctions that would cut off vast areas of Russia’s economy from the West.”

Now, that just doesn’t make sense. If, as Bremmer argues, “Mr. Putin’s policy, including whether to seize more of Ukraine, will be informed overwhelmingly by national security interests,” then why should he buck the West? To annoy it? To demonstrate his toughness? But just what does that have to do with Russia’s national security interests—unless those encompass imperialism, war, and genocide? In which case, nothing can stop Putin and nothing can “push” him to “be even more aggressive.” He’ll just keep going until he’s stopped. 

Alexandr Motyl

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