By any reasonable measure, Russia is getting the best of the West in the showdown over Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin's destabilization of that country continues apace while the United States and the Europeans are powerless to stop him, and all of this is happening despite the fact that by any reasonable measure Russia is weaker than the West. Its economy is much less developed and its armed forces are smaller, poorly equipped, and not as well trained.
In the grand scheme of things Putin should be cowering in his boots. Instead it is the West that is confused and divided. Why?
There are many familiar reasons, but put simply, Russia is different. It has a different culture and outlook and thus is willing to run risks that we in the West, with different values, are not willing to take. But that begs a larger question: Could it be that Putin has grasped the meaning of the strategic standoff with the West better than we have? Has he figured out an approach -- do we dare call it a strategy? -- that minimizes our strengths and his weaknesses to achieve his objectives?
I think he has. Whether it is written up in some grand strategy document, I seriously doubt. But whether playing the game by instinct or following some plan (in the end it really doesn't matter which), Putin is taking a page from the doctrine of asymmetrical warfare. He's minimizing his weaknesses while turning the strengths of his opponents against themselves. The aim is not merely to control Ukraine as much as possible but to force the West to accept new terms for the European order and for the international system at large.
There can be no doubt that, compared to the United States and Europe, Russia is a second rate power. It never developed an advanced economy. After 15 years of growth based on rising oil prices, annual economic growth has slowed to a rate of 0.2 percent, down from 1.3 percent last year. If anything the Ukrainian crisis has made the Russian economy worse. It's now in recession and is expected to lose at least $100 billion in investments partly because of all the uncertainty created by the Ukrainian crisis. The Micex Index is down more than 13 percent so far this year, and the Russian ruble has lost 8 percent of its value, the second-worst emerging-market performance in the world.
Russia's armed forces can't match the West's. Their equipment is outdated and their systems and organization are far inferior to those of the United States and even most NATO armies. The long slide of the old Soviet armed forces may have been reversed, but Russia's armed forces are far behind the West in advanced military technology, especially precision-guided weaponry. The difference in the quality of support for their troops (pay, housing, and social services) is simply enormous.
So why then is Putin winning the contest over Ukraine? Every day brings another town falling to his surrogates in eastern Ukraine. President Obama and his European allies brag of isolating Putin with sanctions, but he seems to not be overly worried. Despite Russia's comparative weaknesses, his Russia is succeeding while the West is failing.
Let's put aside the question of whether the Obama administration's day-to-day handling of the crisis has given Putin the upper hand. The actual cause is deeper. Putin cares more about what happens to Ukraine than does the West. That's why he's willing to take more risks. His interests are more directly engaged, not only because of the close proximity of Ukraine to Russia, but because parts of eastern Ukraine are important to Russia's economy and vital to supplying its army.
Putin has also figured out how to gain the spoils of war without actually having to fight the West for them. He knows full well the last thing the U.S. and Europe want is a war with Russia. Thus he can actually threaten war and use its methods of insurgency, and even support for terrorism and hostage taking, without fear of any reprisals in kind. The military balance between Russia and the West is utterly irrelevant because the United States and NATO have effectively neutralized themselves. The military contest is not between NATO and Russia at all, but between Ukraine and Russia. Not being a member of NATO Ukraine is on its own, and its armed forces are no match for Russia's -- that's the military balance equation that counts. The paper exercise of how many tanks America has deployed thousands of miles away from Ukraine doesn't much matter.
Putin has figured out how to turn the West's purported greatest strength -- its belief in democracy, peace, and a rules-based international system -- against itself. America and the Europeans are rightly proud of their values and see themselves as models for the world. But when challenged by someone like Putin who disavows these values, Westerners -- and Europeans in particular -- are forced to choose between their model approach, which means intentionally eschewing the hard methods of the opponent, and the strategic approach, which may require tougher methods.
Putin is driving a wedge right in the heart of that dilemma. He seems to understand full well that the Americans and Europeans will always hold themselves back from tough measures, not only because they care less than he does about Ukraine, but also because they don't seem to care as much as they claim about their celebrated values. In his mind if they really cared they would be forcefully defending them. After all that was what the West did during the Cold War when NATO even threatened nuclear war to defend freedom and democracy. Whatever you can say about NATO, that is definitely not the case today, and Putin knows it. He is effectively calling the West's bluff.
What's at stake here is more than the future of Ukraine. Putin's larger goal appears to be to change the nature of the international system, particularly with respect to Europe. If he's successful it will have exposed the hollowness of the Western model approach to international affairs. He also will have made the model of democracy appear morally corrupt. Ultimately what frightens Putin the most is the viability of that model for his rule at home. Striking a blow against its credibility is not only about international prestige and national pride but a cynical way to maintain his power base inside Russia.
If successful Putin will have succeeded in changing how Westerners view power and influence. The normal indices of national power -- military and economic, for example -- will have been shown to be far less important. Asymmetrical warfare will not be merely a thing waged by jihadists huddling in caves but by emerging great power leaders occupying palaces in Moscow and Beijing. That war will be fought at the strategic level, not to conquer one another's territory or to destroy each other's populations, but to alter the values and rules of the international system. All methods can and will be used (from cyber-warfare to "lawfare" to psychological warfare) in this type of conflict; the side that better understands the game will have the best chance of prevailing.
In an April 30, 2014, article in Foreign Policy, "It's Not a Russian Invasion of Ukraine We Should Be Worried About," Emile Simpson describes what's at stake: "Framing [the nature of the conflict] provides a lens that gives meaning to a story, so getting your opponent to accept your chosen frame gives you power over the meaning of events. Right now, Russia is winning that battle."
In other words, who controls the international narrative gets to shape its values and rules. So far in this contest despite all the rhetoric about isolating Russia internationally, Moscow seems to be winning this game on the ground. For a whole variety of reasons the West is being forced to accept Russia's annexation of Crimea and it appears powerless to stop the same thing happening in eastern Ukraine. How far Putin will press matters is anyone's guess, but after all the dust settles the European order will not be the same. The European Union's vaunted faith in the sanctity of transnational rules and democracy will be diminished. Their confidence in America's commitment will be weaker.
All this should be a wakeup call for the West. If Americans and Europeans truly believe in the superiority of their values, they must understand that they are not cost free. If Putin eventually stops his aggression at Ukraine, the Europeans may take comfort that gas prices didn't go through the ceiling and more is not asked of them to spend on defense. We Americans may make a sigh of relief that we were not, once again, asked to come to the defense of some far off besieged country.
But the ultimate question is whether Putin's bet on the decadence of the West is correct. He's assuming that we have lost faith in ourselves. He thinks that all our rhetoric about peace and democracy is hypocritical nonsense. He's banking that if he decides to go further he can count on us making a mockery of our stated principles once again.
It's time for the West to put its money where its mouth is. It needs not only tougher sanctions on Russia but to recommit itself to rebuilding the military defenses of the NATO alliance. It will take time to do this, and frankly NATO is now too weak to come directly to Ukraine's aid. But something must be done for the long run in order to end this one-sided affair where only one sides gets to play the military game.
- A former assistant secretary of state, Dr. Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in Foreign Policy