international analysis and commentary

The Crimea crisis and the Iraq precedent: Realpolitik and hypocrisy


As Russia commenced its conquest of Crimea in March, US Secretary of State John Kerry denounced Moscow for behaving in a “nineteenth century fashion by invading another country on a trumped up pretext.” This was surely true, but at the same time immediately raised memories of another invasion based upon trumped up pretexts – namely the war in Iraq. That inconsistency was quickly noted by Russian President Vladimir Putin and countless other observers. 

Contending with this point, President Obama recently dismissed the claim that the war in Iraq, which he opposed, ought to be compared with Crimea. America, he said, “sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory, nor did we grab its resources for our own gain.”

This was not one of the cerebral President’s most persuasive arguments. It is true that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a more blatant land grab than the Iraq adventure, but against this must be weighed the facts that Crimea is on Russia’s border, is the home of a majority Russian population, and was once part of that nation. What is more, the invasion resulted in infinitely less bloodshed than Iraq, did not cost trillions of dollars, and was surely not done in order to grab Crimean resources, which are minimal. 

It is also true that the United States sought approval from international institutions, most notably the UN Security Council, but the salient point is that when this approval was not given Washington went ahead anyway. Indeed, one could certainly argue that a war waged in open defiance of the international community does more damage than one that ignores it. 

The reality is that the legacy of the war in Iraq makes US (and British) criticism of the Crimean coup unavoidably hypocritical. The next question then is whether this really matters. One answer, unfortunately, is that hypocrisy is the official currency of international power politics and that it is better not to take seriously any moral claim uttered in that realm. That is not a bad rule of thumb, but over time hypocrisy can come back to bite you.  This might be happening now. Consider the following three likely effects of Iraq on Crimea diplomacy today.

First, it helps to explain the lukewarm response of third parties, in Europe and elsewhere, to calls for unified opposition to the coup. Why have many nations chosen effectively to accept the Russian conquest, even though it represents the most naked land grab in European history since World War Two? Certainly, European reliance upon Russian natural resources plays a role, as does a reluctance among many nations close to the Russian border to support a confrontation that could spur further Russian revanchisme. But it also must be remembered that many of these nations, especially Germany and France, still feel burned by Iraq. There is a lingering mistrust of the nations of George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

Second, the Iraq legacy gives Putin an easy means of parrying Western outrage. When finalizing his takeover of Crimea he made a point of denouncing Western duplicity and indifference to Russian sensibilities, a charge to which the Iraq war (as well as the intervention in Kosovo in the 1990s) gives resonance. While President Obama, and some other US officials, have tried to counter this charge, it is instructive that European leaders have been conspicuously quiet on the point. 

And third, it is quite clear that Putin has no qualms about his move in Crimea because he actually believes that the West cares no more about international law and order than he does. During the Soviet era one regularly witnessed denunciations of Western imperialism that, we now know, few in the Kremlin were still taking seriously. Leonid Brezhnev had to trot out the usual lines about rapacious capitalism, but he loved jetting off to summits and five-star hotels in the West. Putin’s hostile attitude is far more authentic. He believes in a world of harsh power politics, and wishes to situate Russia as the leader of nations that have had enough of Western imperialism, reject its decadence and secularism, and are ready to fight back by the old rules of Realpolitik. Western hypocrisy and double standards on a host of issues, from the sanctity of international borders, to the questions of nuclear non-proliferation and climate change, to the selective prosecution of war criminals and human rights violators, have given Putin ample reason to conclude that he would be a fool not to resort to these tough tactics. Max Weber famously argued a century ago that civilizations must at some point decide to let others dominate them or use all available means to defend themselves. There can be little doubt that no world leader believes in this Weberian principle more than Vladimir Putin.

We should not exaggerate Moscow’s clout in the longer term: a nation whose power rests on raw material exports and standing conscript armies is unlikely to inspire many to follow it. Russia is not offering a very attractive model to emerging powers in the 21st century, as Obama, in a more cogent statement, recently pointed out as well.

Yet that makes it even more important to avoid giving Putin reasons to conclude that the rest of the world is irredeemably out to get him. What we do not want is Russia to become a large North Korea. One way to prevent that unpleasant prospect is to demonstrate that the international system, as Obama defined it, is something more than just a tool of Western interests; that it can work for nations like Russia as well. Alas, by rejecting the obvious comparison between Iraq and Crimea, President Obama merely strengthened Russian suspicions that the West sets the rules but does not play by them. He would have served the cause of Western interests and peace in Europe more successfully had he acknowledged the similarities between the two wars, rather than putting forward a claim that few, including probably Obama himself, really believe.