Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 March 2014

Crimea: the Slippery-Slope Fallacy


[This is the latest in a series of essays on the fast-moving crisis in Ukraine. For a suggestion for a better kind of diplomacy, click here. For the earlier ones (in inverse chronological order), click here, here, here, here or here. For a 2009 essay on why NATO has outlived is usefulness vis-a-vis Russia, click here.]

Sometimes even the PBS News Hour falls down. On Tuesday, it fell prey to anti-Russian propaganda.

Not only that. Although PBS usually takes great care to present both sides of every issue, in this instance both guests took the same line.

Neither guest was a well-recognized American expert on Russia. Both aired what, in my view, are two simplistic fallacies about Russia.

The first I call the “slippery-slope” fallacy. It holds that, if Crimea becomes part of Russia again, so will the Baltics, Moldova, Belarus and perhaps even other fragments of the former Soviet Union having substantial Russian minorities. More immediately, this fallacy holds, so will Eastern Ukraine, parts of which now lean toward Russia.

The second fallacy is more subtle. It holds that Russia is purposefully destabilizing countries in its “near abroad” in the hope of drawing them into its orbit. In this view, Russia is using a strategy as old as Caesar: divide, weaken and conquer. The only difference is that Russia is trying to do so without overt war, through economic and political pressure, implied or open military threats, and propaganda.

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan sagely pointed out, everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. When opinions are based on inaccurate facts, or when they ignore the most salient facts, they cross the line from rational argument into propaganda.

What these two guests failed to recognize is that, among all these supposedly vulnerable lands—all now legally and politically foreign to Russia—Crimea is unique. It is so in three ways.

First, Crimea is the only legally recognized province or region in which Russian speakers have a clear majority. In Sevastopol—the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet—that majority is close the three-quarters. In Crimea as a whole, it’s somewhere between half and two-thirds. Not a single one of the now-recognized regions of Eastern Ukraine has a Russian-majority population.

Thus, if self-determination means majority rule (which it does to nearly all of us), there is and should be no rational fear that Eastern Ukraine will split off and become part of Russia or a separate Crimea. If Crimea splits off and rejects Ukrainian rule, individual Russians living in Eastern Ukraine will have the chance to move there. But they won’t have the chance to convert Eastern Ukraine into a Russian province without a real coup and perhaps a real civil war. Minority rule doesn’t work well, as in Syria and in our Senate.

Second, Crimea and its nominal capital Sevastopol have been settled, over the centuries, by Russian military families. Like military families everywhere, the Russians in Crimea are authoritarian, conservative and inflexible. They want to be part of Russia because they are Russian and speak Russian. They don’t think much beyond tribalism and military loyalty.

The best analogy here at home is San Diego. Like Sevastopol, it has a huge naval base. Like Sevastopol, it is populated largely by conservative military families and their progeny, although that may be changing. Like Sevastopol, San Diego has been a linchpin of military power at an important border. It has helped keep our long southern border with Mexico stable and peaceful since Pancho Villa crossed it briefly in 1916.

Do you think we would let San Diego go just because a substantial minority of legal Hispanic immigrants moved in and grew organically? even a majority? Of course not. That’s precisely how Putin and most Russians view Sevastopol and (to a lesser extent) Crimea.

The third aspect of Crimea’s uniqueness relates to the second. It has a long and bloody relationship to Russia. Ukraine’s relationship with Russia goes back over half a millennium; in some respects Ukraine is Mother Russia’s mother country. Crimea’s relationship with Russia goes back centuries; it has been Russia’s bulwark against the perpetual tribalism and insanity that is the Middle East.

With Europe at peace and the Middle East in chaos and getting worse, control of Sevastopol and Crimea are vital strategic interests of Russia’s. Russia has no such vital strategic interest in the Baltics, Moldova, Belarus or even Eastern Ukraine.

As for Russia purposefully destabilizing its near-abroad, that fallacy is plausible. In its Soviet guise, Russia made atrocious blunders in dealing with neighbors. In the early twentieth century, Stalin treated Poland and Ukraine so horribly that local populations later welcomed the Nazi blitzkrieg and fought against the Communists. They did so until they discovered that the Nazis were even worse and considered them all subhuman, just as the Nazis did Jews.

We Yanks have peaceful, friendly neighbors: Canada and Mexico. We do because we believe that strong, independent, democratic nations make better neighbors than weak, sullen, restive and unstable vassal states. There are no North Koreas, Syrias, or Zimbabwes in our hemisphere.

Is Russia learning that lesson? Possibly. The jury is still out.

But however much Russia may be learning from its last century’s absolutely catastrophic policy toward neighbors, two things are clear. First, Russia has no strategic interest, anywhere in its “near abroad,” like its strategic interest in Sevastopol and Crimea. Second, if Russia tried to annex any other region, including Eastern Ukraine, it would encounter far more resistance, both locally and internationally, than in Crimea.

So the cost-benefit analysis for other annexations is simply unfavorable to Russia. However much Putin may dream of restoring some small parts of the former Soviet Union’s territory, he is a rational man.

So what does all this mean for Western policy? It means we should keep our diplomatic and sanction powder dry.

This is not the time to apply full-bore sanctions. If we do, they will only fail, convincing Russians and the world that the West is weak. With strategic interests as strong as those in Crimea, Russia will call our bluff, and we will lose. We should save our big economic guns for the unlikely event of any additional attempts to expand Russia.

This does not mean no sanctions at all. We should certainly deny visas to, and freeze the foreign bank accounts of, Yanukovych and his cronies, as well as any oligarchs too slow to see the writing on the wall.

Yanukovych was an utterly despicable leader—corrupt, despotic, dismissive of his people, and wallowing in medieval luxury. Even Putin despises him, according to The Economist. Who wouldn’t?

The international community should hold Yanukovych personally responsible for making a mess of Ukraine and stealing its substance. And bank freezes should give Ukraine’s people a chance of getting their stolen money back.

But the international community should not isolate Russia, whatever becomes of Crimea. We did that with the Kaiser’s Germany after World War I, with catastrophic results.

We should keep our big sanctions in reserve. We should let the Russians know that we’re doing so, and that we intend to use them to discourage any further Russian expansionism, whether in Eastern Ukraine or beyond.

Knowing where to draw the line is vital in both diplomacy and war. If we draw it at Crimea, we will lose. We should draw it later, and recognize now that Crimea’s fate is virtually accomplis.

If we save big sanctions for a time when they are unambiguously necessary, we should win. For then we will have unambiguous right on our side and the complete and enthusiastic support of the entire global community.

P.S. There is an additional reason why we should not apply big sanctions now: Vietnam. Remember Robert S. McNamara’s “domino theory“? It held that if South Vietnam fell to the then Communists, so would all of Southeast Asia. It turned out to be nothing more than a paranoid fantasy, as every real expert on Vietnam and China had warned at the time.

As a result of that horrendous blunder, over 50,000 Americans died needlessly, along with countless Vietnamese and Cambodians. In addition, we poisoned huge swaths of Vietnam and Cambodia with mines and Agent Orange, which are still harming innocent people today.

That was not our finest hour.

So we should not make a similar blunder in Eastern Europe, even with diplomacy alone. Each nation and district of that huge region is unique, as is Crimea.

We should treat each case by case, on its facts, while making clear to Russia that further attempts to expand in contravention of local desires will have much more serious consequences. The nation that put men on the Moon, invented atomic weapons and energy, and gave the world the Internet has to be smart enough not to be spooked by paranoid fantasies.

Footnote 1: As noted in an earlier post, The Economist (March 1st through 7th, page 22) has published a helpful demographic map of ethnic proportions in all of Ukraine’s regions, except for Odessa. The facts stated in this essay derive from that map.

Footnote 2: From The Economist, March 1, 2014: “Mr Putin lost a lot of face when Mr Yanukovych was toppled; he despised the man, but placed great store in having a compliant Ukraine.”

Is Putin a Bad Judge of Character?

On this blog, I have made no secret of my general admiration for Vladimir Putin, despite his many warts. In my view he is the most effective Russian leader since Peter the Great. If I were Russian, I might resent his heavy hand but undoubtedly would support him, unless his heavy hand had touched me or my family personally.

That indeed is what most Russians appear to be doing. The vast majority of Russians appears to have gained, not suffered, under Putin. So they support him, whatever abstract misgivings they may have about authoritarian rule and the weakness of democracy and human rights in Russia. Compared to Stalin and Stalin’s successors—except perhaps for Khrushchev, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin—Putin has been a godsend to Russians.

We Yanks must recognize these facts if we ever hope to understand Russia and Russians.

But that’s just inside Russia. Put knows Russia well. He understands his culture and his people, far better than any foreigners. He knows from Russia’s history and his own long experience in the KGB that things could get out of hand in Russia, quickly, without strong and smart leadership.

But Putin’s record abroad, including Russia’s “near abroad,” shows none of the stunning success of his record in Russia.

Since the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia hasn’t had much of a foreign policy, besides letting the vassal states go and collecting their nuclear weapons. It didn’t need one, and it didn’t have time for one. It was too busy remaking Russia in the image of a modern nation.

Fortunately for Russia, no foreign power took advantage of the Soviet Union’s collapse or Russia’s subsequent navel gazing during this vulnerable time. So Russia could, and did, concentrate on reforming its economy, destroyed by Communism, and reconnecting with the rest of the world.

Now Russia is trying to develop a foreign policy for the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse. So far, it hasn’t been very successful.

In fact, its record on big issues is zero for two. It has utterly destroyed a country, Syria, which it hoped to keep stable and save from civil war. And it has all but lost a “near abroad” neighbor, Ukraine, by supporting an inept, despotic and corrupt tyrant (Yanukovych), whom all Ukrainians and many Russians (including Putin himself) despised. Russia is now trying to recover from its second foreign-policy disaster in five years by annexing Crimea, a key historic and current strategic interest.

What does this say about Putin? It says he is nowhere near as smart about the world outside Russia’s borders as he is about Russia itself. His choices of foreign leaders to ally Russia with have been not just execrable, but abysmal. A silovik himself, Putin tends to support what he views as “strong” leaders abroad, apparently without considering whether they have even a fraction of his own brains and political talent.

What’s strong and effective in foreign lands is apparently a complete mystery to both Putin and the apparatus (if any) upon which he depends for advice. And so we have the Ukrainian “crisis.”

The Chinese word for “crisis” contains the characters for both “danger” and “opportunity.” So far, the West has focused on danger, including the risk of Russia trying to push Europe and its former empire down a slippery slope.

But Putin is a smart man. He has to know how badly his foreign policy has failed so far. His move to annex Crimea is an act of desperation, an attempt to salvage something from an utterly failed policy.

That’s why he’s willing to risk sanctions and even war—not to mention unwinding all the peaceful integration with the West he has achieved under his leadership—just to maintain Russia’s key strategic interest in Sevastopol, Crimea and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. He can’t be happy with or proud of this result, let alone its humanity.

To say this state of affairs offers a diplomatic opportunity would be an understatement. But exploiting it would require diplomacy, on the part of the West, much more subtle than anything we have seen so far. It would require, first of all, some sympathy for Russia’s self-inflicted wounds, including making Syria a global magnet for all the Sunni terrorists that Russia fears most. (Recall Beslan and the Nord-Ost Theater in Moscow.)

But right now, the West is in high dudgeon. It’s in no mood for sympathy or helpful advice. It’s shocked, shocked to find that Russia is not going to suffer its Black Sea Fleet to live surrounded by (and presumably supplied by) a hostile nation—hostile because Russia once again has mistreated Ukraine, although not as badly as Stalin mistreated it a century ago.

What Russia needs now (although Putin may not know it) is some sympathy and good advice from the rest of the world. It needs foreigners to understand its plight and help provide solutions, not merely enmity.

Can the rest of the world dig deep into its emotional strength and provide that advice and sympathy? Or will it just lapse back into another Cold War, which may some day become a hot one?

The future of our species may or may not depend upon the answer, as it did in October 1962. But the immediate future of our global markets and the happiness of our children, both inside and outside Russia, almost certainly will.



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