Americans, being a moral people, want their foreign policy to reflect the values we espouse as a nation. But Americans, being a practical people, also want their foreign policy to be effective. – George Shultz
A day after President Trump’s first dialogue with Vladimir Putin, leading congressional Republicans made clear they oppose any attempt by the new administration to wipe away U.S. penalties imposed on Moscow by Obama’s White House. “I’m absolutely opposed to lifting sanctions on the Russians,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “If anything, we ought to be looking at increasing them.”
McConnell is in good company with fellow Republican Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio, and with Democrats, who see the fundamental aim of American foreign policy toward Russia as the perpetual confrontation of evil.
The folly of this approach is that it promulgates a policy unmoored from a sense of history and post–Cold War geopolitics.
Ukraine, which has neither historical nor cultural links to Crimea, holds no valid title to this piece of real estate. Crimea was part of Russia from 1783, when Russia wrested it from the Ottoman Empire, until 1954, when Premier of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev, ina symbolic gesture, transferred Crimea from the Russian Republic to the Ukrainian Republic. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukrainians gained independence and Crimea became part of a new state called Ukraine. The Russian population of Crimea found itself trapped under Ukrainian rule. Pro-Russian sentiments – ranging from recognition of the official status of the Russian language to outright secession – had always been prevalent in Crimea.
Furthermore, Russians universally perceive Crimea as an inextricable part of their patrimony; every square inch of Sevastopol’s land is soaked with Russian blood spilled in numerous wars for this vitally strategic gem of Russia.
An aloofness of history led the proponents of sanctions to treat the acquisition of Crimea as a moral issue. As a consequence, they fall prey to the illusion that the benefits of the removal of sanctions will eventually outweigh its cost. In contrast, the Russians see the acquisition of Crimea as a geopolitical issue paramount to their security as well as a fulfillment of nationalistic aspirations and are ready for sacrifices beyond the West’s comprehension. In this manner, the outcome of sanctions is preordained; even if sanctions are kept in place for the next hundred years, they will not weaken Russian’s resolve. As far as Moscow is concerned, Crimea is a fait accompli.
Eastern Ukraine, populated predominantly by the Russians, has the same issue with the government in Kiev as does the population of Crimea, and aspired to independence and self-determination just as did the people of Cyprus, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, who were forced to tolerate a mélange of incompatibilities.
From every standpoint – political, economic and military – the imposition of sanctions on Russia was the greatest lunacy committed by American policy in the post–Second World War era. It profoundly affected the evolution of American foreign policy from harnessing American idealism toward policies inconsistent with Russian dignity and nationalistic passion. It transformed America from being loved and aspired to, to being widely hated; it inflamed militaristic tendencies and fostered Russian foreign policy in the direction of adversarial relations with the West.
Most importantly, the practical result of this ideological abdication had a devastating impact on the development of Russian democracy. Before the sanctions Russia was steadily advancing toward the club of democratic nations. While we can concede that Vladimir Putin is not Thomas Jefferson, we should also acknowledge that every subsequent Soviet/ Russian leader after Joseph Stalin was more benevolent than his predecessor, an evolution in which the moral authority of “the land of the free” has played such a decisive role.
But when President Obama joyfully announced that the sanctions were hurting the Russian economy, he confirmed Putin’s narrative that the West was deliberately inflicting hardship on the Russian people. Russia against the West, a familiar chronicle of the Cold War, has consolidated Russians around their president to an extent we have not seen since the cult of Joseph Stalin. Putin’s approval rating has skyrocketed, enabling him to accuse his political opponents of being in collaboration with the enemy, suppress dissent, prosecute his critics and in some instances eliminate them altogether.
The longer Crimea and Easter Ukraine stand in the way of Russian-American rapprochement, the more intransigent and authoritarian Russia becomes. In the international arena, just like during the Cold War, increased tensions will be accompanied by continued Russian attempts to achieve a strategic advantage causing upheavals in various parts of the world.
If a strategy does not accomplish its stated objectives, a reasonable observer may conclude that the strategy has failed. As Talleyrand said of the Bourbons after the French Revolution, “They had neither learned nor forgotten anything.”
Alexander G. Markovsky is an American immigrant born in Russia. He is the author of “Anatomy of a Bolshevik” and “Liberal Bolshevism: America Did Not Defeat Communism, She Adopted It.” He has also written for the New York Daily News, RedState, and WorldNetDaily.