Vladimir Putin baptized his conquest of Crimea with a powerful, unsettling speech that should be a warning that an embattled Russia is fighting for what it sees as its national dignity – in ways that require a firm and patient U.S. response.
Putin played all the strings of the balalaika in his speech Tuesday announcing the annexation of Crimea. He was: sentimental, sarcastic, resentful and intimidating. He put the world on notice that he is determined to restore Russia’s place as a leading nation, even as its domestic economic and political position decays.
Eerily, Putin painted the Cold War as a benign moment: “After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability.” Putin’s cure, evidently, is a return to what he would see as principled confrontation of an arrogant America.
The gist of Putin’s argument is that Russia has been subject to “double standards,” with America “calling the same thing white today and black tomorrow.” For example, he said the U.S. asserts a legal right for Kosovo to break away from Serbia but will not recognize Crimea’s split from Ukraine.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Putin is right: America does indeed ask to be treated differently than other countries. If so, that’s not because America is an innately “exceptional” or “indispensable” nation, as some would claim, but because the practical consequences of American leadership have been positive, especially for Europe.
The test of good U.S. policy going forward should be precisely this standard: Will American leadership help create a stable and prosperous Ukraine that can join the European economy, without threatening the security of Russia? Every element of American power should be focused on this goal.
The abiding truth about the U.S. is that it has been Europe’s friend and salvation. It rescued the continent from two world wars, unselfishly and at great cost. In place of Europe’s misguided “reparations” plan to punish Germany after World War I, the U.S. adopted the Marshall Plan for European reconstruction after the Second World War.
Honest students of history should admit that America, like Russia, has embraced a “sphere of influence” near its borders, as expressed by the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Two modern examples of intervention in our region were America’s invasions of Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989. So while we assert the illegality of Russia’s recent actions, we should understand that they are not unique – and may be remediable.
“Ukraine matters,” says former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. By that, she means the U.S. needs to work now in Ukraine, as it did across Europe after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, to build free markets and open political systems. This will require money, probably more than the $15 billion Europe has already pledged. It will mean “tough love” in fighting Ukraine’s endemic corruption. Though Ukraine won’t be a NATO member anytime soon, the alliance can help Ukraine build a strong security force through the “Partnership for Peace” program, of which it has been a member since 1994.
Putin seems to understand Ukraine is the strategic prize. He made a show of respect Tuesday, asserting: “We want Ukraine to be a strong, sovereign and self-sufficient country.” Amen to that. The challenge for U.S. policymakers is to make this free and independent Ukraine work.
David Ignatius’ email address email@example.com.