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Affluent Investor | April 28, 2017

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Russia’s Security Dilemma

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

There is a concept in realist international relations theory called the “security dilemma.” Among other things, this refers to the inherent problem in international politics wherein state actions taken purely for defensive motivations almost always appear offensive in the eyes of other states. Take, for example, Chinese defense spending this year: it rose by about 12%. In the eyes of China, this is a necessary precaution to counter the United States’ “pivot to Asia.” In the eyes of the United States, this is an aggressive move meant to further Chinese control in the South China Sea. Therein lies the dilemma: the Chinese think they are being reasonable and defensive, the United States thinks they’re being aggressive and provocative. This is just one illustration of the problem; another is Russia’s intervention in Crimea. When considering said intervention, we must keep the security dilemma in mind.

Before the accusation is made that Russia is pursuing “19th century imperialism,” as Secretary of State Kerry put it, and before Garry Kasparov and Hillary Clinton compare Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler, the situation needs to be looked at from the Russian perspective. Conventional wisdom states that President Putin is acting in an irrational and aggressive fashion that “defies international norms.” As in most cases, the conventional wisdom here is mostly wrong; Russia is acting as most great powers in similar situations do.

To put it in blunt terms, President Putin is faced with a nightmare scenario: a pro-Western, EU-associated and eventually NATO-integrated Ukraine on its Western border. The security implications of having such a state in that close proximity to the Russian heartland are simply too much for Putin to tolerate. To truly understand the gravity of the situation Russia faces, it would be helpful to consider the following hypothetical situation: imagine a violent revolution in Mexico ends with the overthrow of President Pena Nieto. Those revolutionaries and their leaders that take power are overtly anti-American, and after they take power, they make clear their intention to cut economic and security ties with America. Furthermore, they join an economic union, then a military alliance, composed of all the United States’ enemies and rivals: Cuba, Venezuela, China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, et cetera.

Faced with such a situation, would it not be at least somewhat reasonable for the United States to execute some military operation in Mexico — faced with a “middle-power” state, allied with its chief security rivals, on its border — to protect U.S. interests? It would certainly not be without precedent; especially not for the Americans, who have not tolerated foreign powers’ presence since the establishment of the Monroe Doctrine. This is, in principle, the situation that Russia is faced with. NATO and the EU are to Russia what that hypothetical alliance mentioned above would be to the United States.

Additionally, the Ukrainian crisis has historical factors which give Russia greater motivation for intervention than the U.S. would have in the scenario envisioned above. It should be noted that the Russians have never truly considered Ukraine to be an independent, sovereign state the same way Mexico is. There is a reason that, until very recently, the state was called “the Ukraine” instead of “Ukraine.” The former implies that it is a more a region than a real state. This has some historical basis for it; prior to 1991, Ukraine had been either a de facto protectorate or outright province of Russia since the late 18th century. From Putin’s perspective, Ukraine is nothing more than a region of Russia given independence by a First Secretary of a long-dead predecessor state for political and diplomatic reasons. Is it not just as legitimate for Russia to claim hegemony and sovereignty in Eastern Europe as it is for the United States to claim the same thing in the entire Western hemisphere?

Viewed in this context, Putin’s actions are predictable and at some level understandable. His invasion is almost certainly illegal, and will destabilize the region for the sake of Russian interests. But to call the invasion of Crimea, and perhaps the future invasion of Ukraine proper, some kind of extraordinary Hitlerian evil is absurdity. This was a predictable act that many other great powers in similar situations have resorted to. The United States did not tolerate the Spanish, and later the Russians, in Cuba without a fight; Russia will not tolerate the Americans, Brits, Germans, and Poles in Ukraine. Simply put, it is a fact that having near-complete leverage in Ukraine is a necessary component of Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe, which is itself a central component of Russian security. This has been a foundational principle of Russian foreign policy since the days of the Russian Empire, and it is entirely consistent with the standard politics of great powers.

Of course, none of this means that Putin is actually justified in his invasion. It being standard conduct does not make it morally or legally defensible. The invasion of Crimea is an illegal act based entirely on Russian national security interests. It is not only a violation of international law (not that that such a violation carries much weight) but is also deeply destabilizing for the region and, in the event of real armed conflict, will result in scores of lost Ukrainian and Russian lives. The moral balance is clearly in the West’s favor, but Putin is a realist. For the protection of Russian security interests in Eastern Europe, invasion was a necessity; and while it is a violation of international law, it is by no means a violation of international precedents. Putin is doing what all great powers have done throughout history: violating the sovereignty of lesser powers in the pursuit of national interest and territorial gains. Even the liberal empires of the United States and Great Britain committed this crime on many occasions: America was fundamentally an expansionary power from the late 18th century to 1959; Britain from the late 16th century to 1929. Expansionary “wars of aggression” are not just part of the conduct of 19th century imperial bullies, as Mr. Kerry would allege. They were, and are, standard practice for great powers faced with such threats.

Furthermore, Russia’s seizure of Crimea was not purely for the purposes of simple imperial expansion; rather, Putin recognized that he needed an additional source of leverage over the government in Kiev. Russian control over Crimea is a source of said leverage. That was the real reason for the annexation of the peninsula. It was not just territory grabbing, it was a calculated move meant to represent to Kiev how far Russia was actually willing to go in opposing a Western-allied state on its border.

So, was it really such a breach of normal state conduct for Russia to seize Crimea in the face of such a substantial long-term threat? The answer to this question is a definitive “no.” Though the act itself was aggressive (though not quite as aggressive as the conventional wisdom states), it was done with defensive motivations. In other words, it was an aggressive tactic in a defensive strategy – one of ensuring Russian security through hegemony in Eastern Europe. The history of Ukrainian-Russian relations has been unfortunately forgotten within the mainstream narrative. Unlike Adolf Hitler in 1938, Putin in 2014 is not interested in seizing land for the sake of seizing land. He is interested in maintaining security through Russia’s historical sphere of influence. This is not about creating a new empire; it’s about protecting what is left of the old one.

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  • badbob85037

    Your story said American expansion ended in 1959. I disagree. Since 9/11 America has invaded nation after nation setting up puppet governments. Some of these governments are composed of America’s supposed enemy. Because of this supposed enemy our phones are tapped, our mail is read, our banking transactions recorder, 30,000 drones watch us from above, we can be imprisoned with our due process, held with out charges, we have a camera on every corner and every mile of freeway and our bill of rights is all but null and void. I live in Arizona. If this war on terror is so threatening we are forced to give up all our rights why is our southern border wide open? Why are government agencies working against border patrol to keep it that way? Why is obama administration armed drug cartel in control of Arizona land 45 miles south of the largest nuclear plant in the United States? Hillary and Obama are willing to let Americans be murdered to hide the fact of sending this supposed enemy weapons. Kerry slandered the military and photo hangs on the wall in Vietnam’s Communist war museum in honor along side of Jane Fonda’s Yet these hacks call Putin Hitler. Pathetic.

  • silverzone

    Trying to seat on two chairs at the same time? Putin said he will invade Ukraine to protect Russian speaking population, same thing he did in Georgia. Guess what, Hitler used the same excuse to invade Chechoslovakia. So to compare him to Hitler is not a stretch. Although Britain, France, Spain, Russia were an empires, US never invade the country for annexation reason. There is no outside US colonies, except maybe Guam and Puerto Rico. If you justify this Ukraine invasion, what will stop Putin to do the same with the rest 14 former USSR republics? This is pure expansion of Russia’s territory, nothing less. Your article is full of historical errors.

  • RainahNess

    Most problems are multi-faceted. A) e.g. – in raising children, if one makes a mistake in how the parents relate to each other, quite unintended consequences, all of which can seem unrelated to the communication practices of the parents, can arise in the child’s subsequent adult-experiences throughout his entire life…… Parents’ ability to communicate well together as husband and wife requires a tapestry of considerable complexity, with many parents falling short in their efforts to weave their communication effectively – resulting in plenty of ‘failed attempts’ at parenting to study……. which results in plenty of evidence that this ‘A’ section claim is true…. B) The ‘security dilemma’ is *also* a multi-faceted problem, The various facets of this dilemma are seen differently from each of the nations involved with this struggle in the Crimea. Thus we see that the ‘security dilemma’ is hardly ‘just’ a Russian struggle here. – – – Understanding various other aspects of ‘influence of power’ which began with the rise of Communist Russia and etc. help to bring more facets, and how they fit together, into better focus. 1) e.g. communism – a) communist theory has been espoused in writing at least since the days of Plato (whose political *theory* was astonishingly communistic to the point of having all children taken from their parents so no parent would position themselves for the benefit of their progeny rather than for the benefit of the state – though his friends effectively influenced him to back off from that aspect of his views over the course of time), b) communistic theory was alive and thriving throughout the English-speaking-world’s efforts to legally establish the self-evident truths of natural law as they relate to the liberties of all men, each of whom are created with inalienable rights – effectively putting forward the evidence that, when any government encroaches upon those inalienable rights, consequences arise of the negative variety, all of which are predictable via a basic study of natural law, which is based on two basic principles: do what you say you will do, and do not encroach…something the communistic idealists in, say England, did not trust because of the injustices of the aristocracy, c) thus we remember that Marxism was hardly a new idea, just a written treatise – thought for years to be impossible to implement, d) but mother-russia was effectively given over to communism through Marxism, and all those around the world who are naturally inclined towards communistic-ideals took note, and felt closer ties to ‘mother-russia’ than with any other influence in the world…., e) which led to The-Goverment-of-Russia’s ability to connect with like-minded individuals the world over…, f) however, globally speaking, not all communistic/socialistic-minded individuals agreed w/Russian styled communism g) e.g. – Hitler implemented a different sort of socialism… h) the conflicts in Spain prior to and throughout WWII indicate further struggles of ‘powers-that-be’ with those who believe in various socialistic dogma……, with various ‘big-players’ from other countries allying themselves with various factions of both non-socialistic, and blatantly socialistic flavors throughout Spain, i) on a bigger scale, the same scene played out through WWII: communists throughout the world realizing that Hitler’s Germany was a threat to their slowly rising influence, Germany knew that they could only resist Russia by growing itself and even subjugating Russia, liberty-*espousing* governments who protected the liberties of those considered ‘citizens’ for powers’ sake (whether they realized that limitation of their ideals or not) knew that more than their own borders were at stake……. (e.g. – Churchill); while socialisticly minded leaders in other large and powerful nations listened more to the lead of Stalin than Churchill when it came to planning ways to downplay Germany’s growing threat to everyone but their own version of ‘controlling the lay of the land’ as it were (e.g. – Roosevelt, who had implemented extremely unconstitutional-and-very-socialistically-minded policies (as seen clearly through his battles with the Supreme Court when they both had and then seemed inclined to continue overturning his unconsitutional, and extremely socialistic programs – and his overcoming the Supreme Court via his threat to get congress to pass an amendment allowing for many more justices, all to be appointed by Roosevelt himself) – anyway, *that* Roosevelt followed the lead of Stalin in planning and implementing military strategies against Germany,,,, which is just one illustration of the fact that WWII was really mostly a battle between Russia and Germany, in which Russia won…… with Churchill getting much in the way, and Roosevelt aiding and abetting mother-russia in bigger ways (e.g. – the ‘underbelly of Europe’ attack on Germany vs. the attack through Normandy…… – with Stalin winning on that directive, and benefiting hugely after the war thereby)….. – – – – -;;;; WWII gave Russia a taste of growth from military-styled-imperialism. They tried it again, only to fail. Then they moved to influencing nations through more subtle approaches (helping support communistically-minded individuals to become a part of other nations’ governments, etc.). That was a smart move on their part. It has lead to communist nations throughout the world, many of them tied quite closely to Russia….. // TODAY? Obama is hardly cowing to mother-russia. Mother-russia is hardly inclined to cow to the U.S. OTHERS? each ‘faction’ of socialistic and/or religiously-based imperialism are seeking to ‘win’ at the end of this conflict……, with many seeing the ‘end of the conflict’ looming closer and closer as the hopes and dreams of a United Nations seems a bit closer all of the time……. After all, there is that ‘international law’ issue, the ‘global courts’, much conjecturing about ‘global currency’ being needed with the growing demise of the U.S. dollar and more. What will fill the vacuum of power when the U.S. dollar collapses? THAT, my friends, is really the focus behind what is going on in the Crimea……… Stay tuned, and see if that is not so……….. This ‘security dilemma’ is a historic problem, which might only be seen in light of each nation’s efforts to protect its own local interests, however, in light of the bigger picture, while that might be an immediate ‘facet’ of the ‘security dilemma’ picture, the ‘security dilemma’ question being asked by leaders of great influence is, “Who will come out on top when the U.N. prevails?” Those who do come out on top when a global currency comes into play – have, at least for a season, some amount of their own personal ‘security-dilemma’ and their ‘power-craving’ addressed (or, in the case of those who are actually fervent in their faith as Muslims – a religiously motivated bid for ‘peace via military conquest’ in order to bring in their version of the messiah might be fulfilled), at least for a season….., though none of that will last. Only the Word of God will last, and He, the true Messiah, will come back and rule the world with an iron rod for a millenia (Psalms 2 tells portions of this, the rest of the Bible reveals our need for immeasurable mercy and grace – keeping in mind that much of the old testamentary laws were merely there to ‘make do’ because of the HARDNESS OF THE HEARTS OF MEN, which again reveals our need for immeasurable mercy, which He provided through His manifest grace to those who have ears to hear His Words of Love and eyes to see His Light of Life, yes, and more: His light of love and the fact that only the Truth can set us free, and finally bring true peace – check out the rest of the Bible message…., not in order to know the ‘to do list’ of being good, but in order to see the Revelation of Jesus Christ throughout scripture, throughout history, throughout His creation, and be changed by that Revelation, so you too become a light, that more and more of us will be ready for His coming!)

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