Decision Point: Action or Rhetoric?

It is time for America and NATO to make a decision. After years of Putin gradually pushing the envelope and constantly expanding his influence, it is past time to decide on a coherent response to Russia. The options are rhetoric with action to back it up or simple withdrawal from the international conversation. Continuing the path of rhetoric without action, however, serves only to decrease Western credibility, puff up Putin, and continue allowing him to endanger the lives of Russia’s neighbors.

Before we begin, let’s get one thing straight: I don’t believe President Vladimir Putin invaded (er, sorry, “influenced pro-Russian militias to agitate”) Ukraine because America is or looks weak. I don’t think Putin was watching America out of the corner of his eye, waiting for the moment that it fell asleep at the wheel or spread itself too thin before springing into action for the former breadbasket of the USSR. Such Amerocentric perspectives are severely exaggerated and overplayed instances of narcissistic navel-gazing. It is flattery, foolishness, and pure fantasy to believe that America has such a stranglehold on the international community.

But while a distracted America (and NATO) isn’t the only reason Putin has decided to flex his muscles, it would be pure folly to believe that this never entered his decision-making calculus. Though an inattentive babysitter isn’t the sole reason why the child stuck his hand in the cookie jar, surely the child would have thought twice if the babysitter hung up the phone and was an active deterrent. Obviously, one response to this analogy is that America isn’t the babysitter of the world, but that is another discussion for another time. Whether it is by design or by default, America has actively fallen into the role of world babysitter – a role that it is increasingly losing the will (or ability) to fulfill.

In its de facto role, America – and NATO – has consistently ignored Putin’s growing influence and set the conditions for him to continually gradually expand that influence. After the relatively constructive years of Boris Yeltsin opening Russia and joining the G8, Putin began indulging his still-running hobby of seeing how far he can push the envelope. This began with increased forays into Chechnya. While Governor Bush stated that he was in favor of sanctioning Russia for its human rights abuses in Chechnya, President Bush later defended Putin’s firebombing of Chechnya and looked the other way during continued military operations in the region. President Obama continued this policy of looking the other way as the death toll moved past 200,000 Chechen civilians.

Able to get away with murder – literally – within his own borders, Putin looked westward, and Estonia was next to suffer for daring to snub Russia. As one of the first former-Soviet countries to join the EU and NATO, Estonia has always been under pressure from its large eastern neighbor. When Estonia attempted to move a Soviet war monument in 2007, it suffered a massive cyber attack. As one of Europe’s most technologically advanced countries, the cyber attacks on Estonia’s parliamentary, bank, and newspaper servers were crippling. Though the Russian government obviously never claimed responsibility, it is widely accepted that Russia was significantly involved. NATO’s response was to have a meeting, issue a statement promising action, and simply install the NATO Center for Excellence for Cybersecurity in Estonia’s capital.  

With no repercussions for a cyber attack on a NATO and EU member nation, Putin decided it was time for military action just a year later. Georgia, a NATO “Partner for Peace,” was actively working towards NATO membership. Despite – or perhaps because of – these Western ties, Georgia became Putin’s next unlucky target. As Russia’s invasion of Georgia came to a head, Putin faced withering criticism from the West – and nothing else. Not only was Russia’s invasion unchallenged, but its subsequent occupation continues to this day as Russia builds a barbed-wire fence around its military forces currently within Georgian boundaries.  

Seeing that the West was all fluff and bluster in responding to a kinetic military attack on a NATO Partner, Putin turned his attention to threatening major Western powers. The 2000s saw Russia resume Cold War-era naval and long-range bomber patrols around the US and UK. The UK’s Royal Air Force declassified dozens of instances in 2009 alone of Western airspace being breached by Russian nuclear-capable jets with full loads of ordnance on board. These provocative threats went unacknowledged and unabated.

After receiving no pushback for flexing military muscle by buzzing borders, Putin saw an opportunity to test American political mettle in Syria. For eleven months, Putin stood by and offered only mild obstruction while Obama’s administration struggled to deal with the Syria problem. Then, Obama’s administration came out saying that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” that would trigger “serious consequences.” Four months later, Syria launched a chemical weapons attack and has done so no less than a dozen times since. The West’s reaction was to stutter and stumble. Seizing the opportunity, Putin fired a political attack across the bow. While Obama struggled for political support and NATO countries vetoed military action in Syria, Putin was able to come in and save the day with a negotiated agreement.

With no tangible response to Russia’s cyber attack of a NATO and EU member, Russia’s military invasion and ongoing occupation of a NATO Partner for Peace, Russia’s military posturing and threats towards the US and UK, and Russia’s political emasculation of NATO and the US over Syria, it is no surprise to see that Putin was confident that he had the green light to invade the apple of the former USSR’s eye – Ukraine. And just as in Chechnya, Estonia, Georgia, and Syria, the West has responded exactly as Putin planned – heavy on rhetoric, vapid on action. While America responds with ejection from the G8 (an institution Putin never respected or valued) and “heavy sanctions” (against a grand total of 45 individuals – exactly .00003% of the population – and 18 companies – excluding Russia’s energy giants), Putin’s amusement grows.

Putin will gradually back down from this brinksmanship in Ukraine. Military tensions will deescalate and pro-Russian protests will fade to black. While making a note of how the West responded to his latest poking and prodding, Putin will calm his rhetoric and eventually – but begrudgingly – begin working with President Poroshenko. But when the smoke clears and relations re-normalize, Russia will remain firmly in control of Crimea and Putin will have de facto control and outsized influence over Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv, and other portions of Eastern Ukraine.

But as for the West, we are at a decision point. We must realize that we are no longer living in the Yeltsin years when Russia was responsive to rhetoric and threats of sanctions; we are now facing a haltingly resurgent Russia with Putin at the helm. It will soon be imperative for us to match our rhetoric with demonstrated will and committed strength or dial down our rhetoric to the actual level of our disinterested involvement. A failure to make that decision soon will only signal Putin the thumbs up from the West to extend his campaign to “rescue” beleaguered Russian speakers in Moldova, Lithuania, Poland, or beyond.

-Micah Ables is a freelance writer and has lived in and traveled extensively throughout Ukraine. His interests include Ukrainian and post-Soviet politics, the future of Sino-Russian relations, and religion, terrorism, and society in Chechnya. Any views expressed in this piece are solely those of Micah Ables and are not representative of any other organizations or institutions.