The White House has responded to Russian actions in Crimea by taking a number of steps against Moscow: It has ramped up sanctions, verbally denounced the Kremlin's flouting of international law, effectively kicked Russia out of the G8 and given rhetorical support to Ukraine's new government. Such measures, however, are likely to deepen and prolong the crisis, not resolve it.
The conventional view in Washington is that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a belligerent authoritarian intent upon expanding Russia's borders and confronting the West. What the White House refuses to acknowledge, however, is that the Russian leader is simply acting in what he believes to be his country's best interest.
A more holistic and accurate picture emerges when one considers things from the Russian perspective. After the end of the Cold War, NATO began expanding eastward to include countries that had previously been in the Soviet sphere of influence: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Croatia. In the last six years, NATO has attempted to expand its membership right up to the Russian border by enticing Georgia and Ukraine to join the institution.
For their part, Russian leaders question why the West seeks to move NATO — a military alliance designed for the specific purpose of containing Soviet power — closer to its borders. While Russia might have been willing to accept some limited NATO expansion, it drew a clear red line when it came to its immediate neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine. To make matters more complicated, some in Washington have spoken openly about their desire to deploy missile defense systems in Europe.
With respect to the current crisis, Washington kept no secrets about which side it supported in Ukraine when American diplomats backed the protesters who overthrew pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovich and lent immediate support to the new government in Kiev. It was at this point that Moscow intervened in Crimea for the express purpose of reclaiming what it sees as a strategically vital ally, to which American policymakers responded with shock and indignation.
American attempts to portray Mr. Putin as a power-hungry, war-mongering tyrant conveniently ignore how America itself has acted under similar conditions. When pro-American leaders were removed from power or Soviet-leaning leaders came to power in places like Iran, Guatemala and Panama during the Cold War, the U.S. either directly intervened or supported anti-communist rebels to defend its national interests. As recently as 1994, it deployed troops in Haiti to reinstate President Jean-Bertrand Aristide who had been removed from office in a coup.
Yet the U.S. continues to demonstrate a remarkable ability to whitewash its own motivations and actions in its foreign relations with other states, while ignoring the legitimate security concerns of rival countries. Political scientist Robert Jervis pointed out nearly 50 years ago that the inability to put oneself in another's shoes constitutes a key source of "misperception" in international politics. On the other hand, the skill to consider events from an opponent's perspective demonstrates strategic and sophisticated thinking — a necessary component of effective and informed decision making.
It would have been helpful, for instance, for the Obama team to have considered how it might have reacted if the friendly governments in Canada or Mexico were suddenly replaced with regimes hostile to American interests. From such a perspective, is it any wonder why Mr. Putin has fought so hard to salvage Russia's ally in Ukraine?
What, then, should the U.S. do? To start, President Obama should recognize three things. First, he should understand that Mr. Putin is acting less like a madman and simply doing what any leader of a major power would do in his place. Second, the president should also recognize that "punishing" Russia will likely lead to further reprisals by Moscow, thus deepening the crisis. Russia might also retaliate on issues of key issues of concern for American foreign policy where Russian cooperation is needed like Syria and Iran. Finally, the president should acknowledge that both Russia and the U.S. have a mutual interest in regional stability and Ukrainian neutrality.
To this end, the U.S. should reverse course on Ukraine. It should renounce any desires to incorporate Russia's immediate neighbors into NATO and not interfere in Ukraine's internal politics. It should also demand that Moscow do the same. Some pundits might criticize this approach as self-defeating. On the contrary, it is a strategic way to recognize Russia's security concerns and secure American interests in the region, while avoiding the possibility of another unnecessary war. Unfortunately, such an approach is unlikely to materialize so long as American policymakers refuse to consider things from the Russian point of view.
Nilay Saiya is an assistant professor of political science and director of International Studies at the State University of New York, Brockport. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.