On October 24, Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, gave a speech at a Russian "discussion club" as part of symposium entitled, "The World Order: New Rules or a Game without Rules." The speech is long and repetitive, but it provides Americans with a perspective they need to hear to understand the world we now live in, and how we got here. Putin is now using Russian troops to help ethnic Russian rebels (whose real local strength we will never know) establish new independent Republics in eastern Ukraine. This is, obviously, a disruption of the postwar international order and the idea of the rule of law. These were the topics of his speech
The thrust of the speech was simple: that it was the West, and more specifically the United States (although he generally spoke in vague terms), that first changed the rules of the game. We did so, he argues implicitly, first in 1999, when the Clinton Administration undertook the war against Yugoslavia on behalf of the Kosovars with the support of NATO, but in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution. He has a point. George H. W. Bush, who fought in the war that established the UN, did not go to war with Iraq in 1991 before he had secured United Nations support, including the support of the USSR. Bill Clinton, born the year after that war ended, must have known Russia would not support this new conflict, but he went ahead anyway, believing, in the best Boomer fashion, that he was right. Fortunately, he was at least successful.
That, however, was a relatively modest initiative compared to the action taken by George W. Bush in 2003, when he decided to overthrow the Iraqi government without the support of the Security Council, world opinion, or most of our allies, with the single major exception of Great Britain. And that war, as Putin pointed out, has been an immeasurable catastrophe, splitting Iraq effectively into three pieces, one of which is now allied with Iran and one of which is largely under control of the ISIS. Barack Obama brought the troops out of Iraq (and despite all the criticism he is now taking for having done so, it is not clear that he had any choice in the matter), but his liberal interventionist team escalated the fighting in Afghanistan, encouraged the Arab spring, and arranged the strikes that helped bring down Qadaffi in Libya. Then, last fall, the government of the United States blessed the street protests in Ukraine that brought down the elected government. A released phone intercept suggested that the State Department, in the person of Victoria Nuland, the wife of neoconservative Robert Kagan, was indeed trying to take advantage of the situation to install an American client government on Russia's border. Putin responded by annexing Crimea and fomenting rebellions in eastern Ukraine--supported, now by Soviet forces. He has also been sending Soviet jets across NATO airspace--including the airspace of the United States.
I am not suggesting that Putin is motivated by any but a new form of Russian imperialism, much less that his actions are a just punishment for our own sins. I am, as a good friend explained to me some years ago, a consequentialist--I judge acts by their results, not by their intentions. Putin is showing us that two can play the same game. More importantly, while we are using street demonstrations, air strikes and invasions to bring down governments in faraway countries of which we know little or nothing, he is doing so on his own borders, where we cannot intervene, and where he disposes of formidable military assets, as well as some political ones. I am extremely concerned, as I wrote some weeks ago, that the next move will be a lightning occupation of one or more of the Baltic states, a real prize, which will strike a blow at the heart of NATO by proving that the Clinton Administration, indeed, decided in the 1990s to extend American influence well beyond its natural limits.
Putin suggests that we need new rules for a true new international order. I agree with the sentiment, although I'm not sure that he is really sincere. He does point to the chemical weapons agreement he helped negotiate with the Syrian government and the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program as promising steps. (Another is this week's China-U.S. climate change agreement, of course.) I am afraid, however, that he was simply playing to his constituency.. (The speech has been almost ignored in the US.) The genie is out of the bottle: we are in a new age of anarchy, such as those I wrote about in Politics and War. Since the new age features precision-guided munitions rather than mass armies, we still may well not see millions of casualties, but the world will take a long time to shake itself into a new and more stable shape.