Putin and the Architecture of Opposition
Putin’s increasing aggression presents a conundrum: his calculated recklessness is as difficult to counter as it is necessary for him to achieve his goals. Worse, in the post-Iraq American mind-set, aggression is considered an anathema; a dangerous prelude to armed engagement that must be avoided. While understandable, this position enables advances by Putin, who exploits it using Cold War strategies. These strategies, which leverage aggression into political gains cannot be matched except through equally resolute opposition.
We can illustrate this using an architecture metaphor. In the Greek temple, structural integrity emerges from the combined solidity of individual members stacked together: heavy foundations support lighter superstructures. As a result, the building’s stability derives from the cooperation of column, foundation and walls, each supporting the whole. If one considers Roman architecture, on the other hand, one observes the arch, which manipulates the stresses of its internal parts acting against each other to create stability. Far from each element of the structure cooperating to create stability, the two limbs of the arch attempt to pull apart, threatening destruction of the whole. These stresses are constrained through the keystone and the interdependence of their members, which force the competing forces to pull equally and thus stabilize.
The Obama model of foreign policy is like Greek architecture. It relies on the stolidity of cooperation in order to affect; it advances through consensus. As a result, policy functions when each member cooperates with the other: column must be arranged in correct alignment with wall, all of which rest on the same, solid foundation. When one of these falls out of line, threatens the structure. Likewise, an international policy based on cooperation functions only when each part maintains its fixed position, otherwise disorder is inevitable.
Here comes Putin’s strategy. Putin pushes against the bulwarks of the international community, stressing each until it breaks or strains sufficiently that Putin is no longer willing to test its mettle. This explains his increasing boldness: first ignoring internal stability by acting militarily in Chechnya, then moving internationally. Georgia was an initial test, which succeeded and signaled his ability to move into the Crimea. When he experience a tolerable stress level there, he intervened in Syria. Each time Putin pushes part of the system, he reaches a little farther, hoping that by moving the walls he will find the space more pleasing or easier to topple.
With this strategy, a cooperative international order is impossible because the pieces do not rest one upon another, but one essential part strains to overturn the whole. Consequently, rather than relying on static alignment for stability, one can turn to the arch: while Putin believes he can gain advantage by overthrowing the balance of international consensus, the US and her allies can not only force Putin back into new stability, but also maintain dominance by responding to aggression with equal force (but not necessarily equal kind) and thus curtail Putin’s actions within a narrow range that restabilizes international order, reasserting our position as the keystone of the whole.
In practical terms, it is clear that a policy of minimal direct action against Russian interests, such as sanctions, has not worked. Such a philosophy relies on having a cooperatively constructed international order that all parties want to access; only when a party conforms can threatening it with isolation be effective. In the case of Russia, sanctions merely pose an interesting challenge to overcome. Worse, if sanctions are over-used, powers like Russia can unite with other sanctioned or interested parties such as Iran, Venezuela or even China to create a counter-order and win other outlets for satisfying its needs.
Instead, Russian pressure must be met by counter-pressure. An example of counteractive pressure against Russian ambitions in the Crimea would have been to station anti-ballistic missiles in Poland with no warning, then suggesting to Putin fait accompli that their removal could be negotiated for withdraw from the Ukraine. The end-result would produce a status quo ante where Euro-American goals would be achieved while Russian goals thwarted and stability resumed. This solution mirrors the end-state of the Cuban Missile Crisis where missiles whose removal had previously been planned were withdrawn from Turkey in exchange for the removal of Cuban missiles, giving what seemed superficially to be a compromise or Soviet victory, but in fact was an American success.
Unfortunately, this solution alone is no longer possible. Not only has Russian involvement in the Crimea been too long established, but the Syrian campaign strengthens it. We can use counter-pressure to create strategies for Russian activity in Syria, though they require more investment than moving missiles into a friendly third-country. One tactic would be to beat Russia’s escalation, but do so in an area where the Russians have not yet entered and thus are not directly threatened. We could send combat controllers to direct air strikes supporting Kurdish and other forces operating against ISIS in Iraq. This has the advantage of committing ourselves to the Syrian fight deeper than the Russians, co-opting operational momentum while reinforcing our position with an Iraq that might otherwise drift toward the Russian camp. By moving the effort toward the Syrian border and engaging in the conflict directly, even at a low level, we force Putin to treat us more seriously and reconsider Russian commitments. Obama is currently trying to send these messages through military exercises in Europe, but a combination of overall draw-down of the US military presence there and Putin’s Cold War experiences, where such exercises were routine and not seriously threatening, renders them ineffective.
Stability derives from many sources. In foreign policy, like architecture, both cooperating and conflicting forces can be used to stabilize environments, creating useful structures. Playing a game of consensus alone removes a major tool from our foreign policy kit, however. It is unfortunate that we have forgotten the lessons of cooperative opposition learned in the Cold War, but the time is ripe to learn them again.