In wake of Vladimir Putin annexing Crimea into the Russian Federation and supporting Eastern separatists against a Ukrainian government it perhaps rightly views as illegitimate, U.S. policy hawks argued the entire crisis could have been prevented: had President Obama followed through on his August 2013 commitment to bomb the Syrian government in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, Russia would have been cowed by America’s resolve and therefore responded to subsequent events in neighboring Ukraine by more-or-less capitulating to Western demands.
These counterfactuals are empty, offered without any corroborating evidence that carrying out the strikes would have actually changed Putin’s calculus. In fact, the whole notion of deterrence has been greatly undermined by contemporary research in cognitive science and psychology. Unfortunately, beltway Washington hasn’t gotten the memo.
Russia’s response to Ukraine has nothing to do with Obama’s actions in Syria (something the critics would know that if they simply listened to Putin). If anything, the Ukrainian crisis was caused, not because Washington was too soft in Syria, but because it was far too aggressive everywhere else. Moscow was not responding to perceived American weakness, but instead attempting to defend its critical interests from what it viewed as Western expansionism.
Obama’s decision to back down from the precipice of another ill-fated direct military engagement in the Middle East was a rare and laudable moment of sanity. Following through on a threat simply because the president had previously committed to it doesn’t help U.S. credibility if the policies in question prove disastrous. Nonetheless, policy hawks insist that the Administration’s momentary pragmatism has undermined “U.S. credibility”—which, to their minds, is about the United States “standing by” its stated commitments (no matter what).
Succumbing to pressure from these critics, the White House has responded to Russia’s actions in Ukraine by striking an even more confrontational posture. A year into this new dynamic, the Obama Administration’s strategy has proven totally ineffective at changing Russia’s approach to Ukraine, and have been highly counterproductive in the broader geopolitical arena.
The current rift between the U.S. and Russia threatens critical initiatives, from the impending NATO drawdown from Afghanistan, to the ongoing negotiations with Iran and resolving the crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been aligning itself more closely with other emerging powers to act as a collective counterweight to Western hegemony—even as it enacts its own effective countermeasures to punish the Europeans who joined the U.S. efforts at isolating Moscow.
But instead of acknowledging its missteps and seeking reconciliation with the Kremlin, Washington is ramping up its provocative, irresponsible, and inaccurate rhetoric with regards to Russia (because, once again, backing down would supposedly jeopardize U.S. “credibility”). The hopefuls for the next U.S. administration are also jumping on board, with Hillary “reset-button” Clinton going so far as to compare Putin to Hitler. How these actions are supposed to promote American interests is totally unclear.
In fact, the critics have it precisely inverted: it wasn’t U.S. weakness in Syria that informed Putin’s thinking on Ukraine. Instead, the same pernicious psychology that the U.S. had brought to bear throughout the Syrian crisis also poisoned America’s response to Ukraine: doubling-down on strategies which were clearly failing in a misguided attempt to “preserve U.S. credibility.”