Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Putin, Mueller, and Thucydides; or, You haven't shown nothin'

Imagine a hypothetical opponent of a view I have occasionally supported here. This skeptic might say:
A major European power has invaded a neighboring country. You aggression-is-passé, major-power-war-is-obsolete people are full of it. It's now clear that you're nothing more than industrious tailors to a naked emperor.* In plainer language, your high-falutin theories are rubbish!
Um, not so fast. First, this kind of thing doesn't happen very often (which supports us, not the skeptic). Second, the chances of this leading to a major-power war are extremely low (if not zero, then very close to it). 

TV pictures of Putin watching military exercises outside St. Petersburg, which I just saw as shown on yesterday's PBS NewsHour (viewed via Youtube), are worth pausing over. Here we have a quasi-authoritarian leader of a country with a sizable military watching, with binoculars, his army's helicopters, tanks, etc. engage in maneuvers. One might almost be forgiven for thinking this was a newsreel from decades ago and that the army was about to roll across some (other) frontier. Binoculars and tanks, however, derive their significance from things one can't see. TV is great at visuals, but even good reporting doesn't always supply the context that visuals require.

In short, you nothing-has-changed-since-Thucydides folks have no reason to crow, because this event doesn't 'prove' anything. To adapt the title of the Stevie Wonder song: you haven't shown nothin'.

ETA: Just saw Dan Nexon's piece on the 'failure' of the 'reset' at Monkey Cage. More on it, perhaps, in due course. 
*This phrase is borrowed from the title of Oran Young's 1969 review of a book by Bruce Russett, in World Politics, v. 21, no. 3.


Anonymous said...

The worrisome thing, I guess, is that Russia's neighbors start building up arms so as not to get the Crimea treatment themselves, and things generally get more martial-looking. I wonder how the Poles and Lithuanians feel about Kaliningrad these days?

But so far, my money's on the folks saying Putin has overreached himself.

LFC said...

The worrisome thing, I guess, is that Russia's neighbors start building up arms so as not to get the Crimea treatment themselves, and things generally get more martial-looking.

I'm not too worried about this. B.c those in NATO, e.g. Poland, don't need to. Plus I don't think Putin is going to embark on a course of mil. expansion, which was sort of what I was driving at in the post.

Not that there aren't terrible armed conflicts going on in the world now, notably Syria, it's just that they're not likely in Europe. Btw, even at the height of the 90s break-up-of-Yugoslavia conflicts, where ethnic
cleansing was taking place and Bosnian Muslims were being massacred in Sarajevo etc etc, no one stooped to dropping barrel bombs the way Assad is doing. Did Milosevic/Karadzic/Mladic et al not use barrel bombs simply because it didn't occur to them, or for some other reason? I'm not sure.

I wonder how the Poles and Lithuanians feel about Kaliningrad these days?
Apart from knowing (i think) that Kaliningrad used to be in E. Prussia as Koningsberg, i don't know much about it. I suppose I shd look it up and refresh my memory.

Btw, Charles King had a recent piece in NYT on Ukraine/Crimea that I had mixed feelings about, but the last 2 paragraphs, where he called 19th cent Russia a precursor of the 'responsibility to protect', were just dumb. I'll add the link later.

LFC said...

P.s. not suggesting that Europeans as a category are somehow *inherently* more 'civilized' than Middle Easterners or Arabs. That's a quasi-racist line of argument, imo. And since conceivably someone might stop by here who doesn't know my views, thought shd make it clear.

LFC said...

Come to think of it, one big reason for no barrel bombs in the ex-Yugoslav conflict was prob. the presence of Western no-fly zones. (Plus Serbia might not have had all that much in the way of an air force.) Obvs I don't really know what I'm talking about here, which is one reason I'm glad not many people are going to read it. ;)

Anonymous said...

"B.c those in NATO, e.g. Poland, don't need to."

They may not have complete faith that NATO would go to war with Russia if Russia tore off a little bite here or there. More like, "no, you know what, your map looks *better* now."

Might not be rational of Poland et al., but as we are seeing, rationality does not hold sway in IR or in any other human endeavor.

hank_F_M said...


I think if he does not get greedy time is on Putin's side. Russia can absorb tthe cost of the stand off longer th Ukraine can. In a month or so offer a face saving deal that gives him every thing he wants.

You have posted several times on the stability of borders. An idea you started bouning in my brain.

Prior to the early 20th century an occupying power was entitled to collect the normal taxes of the occupied place. This would often pay for the cost of occupying and perhaps a little extra to support operations. Now if you govern a place it is expected to that you provide a an expensive array of social and other services. Modern tax structures may be inadequate to support them. The cost benefit ratio is not as certain in changing borders in your favor. De facto control might look like a good option.

So Putin insists that Crimea (and other areas with a large Russian minority?) have an increased amount of autonomy, Russia gets the navy base, fleet, port access, and behind the scenes control of what they want. Ukraine is stuck with paying for central government services.

And every body, except the Ukrainians, congratulates themselves on forcing Putin to back down.

LFC said...

I would not be at all surprised if the scenario you describe in the last two paragraphs were the way this ended.

Btw I see Kissinger has a piece on the crisis in the W.Post whose tag line is "start from the end" or words to that effect. I haven't read it but I suppose I'll have to. But I'm going to put it off till tomorrow.

LFC said...

On a five-second glance, K's column actually seems to make sense (much as it sort of pains me to admit that he could be right about something). However, I'll read it more carefully later.