Conservative republicans have started a campaign to call the Obama administration weak on foreign policy. Obama’s foreign policy, these republicans claim, is not aggressive enough in Eastern Europe and, as a result, Putin has the bravado to intervene in Crimea. In perfect timing for Hagel’s declaration that the United States defense budget would decrease to pre-WWII levels, conservatives are pointing to this as proof that a non-interventionist foreign policy would be folly to pursue. To quote the neoconservative Senator John McCain:
“This is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.”
This narrative of what is going on in Ukraine is completely misleading since it places what is unfolding in Ukraine outside of its historical context. This is far from the first Russian intervention into Eastern Europe and it is unlikely that it will be the last. To call the Obama administration “weak” for not automatically militarily intervening in Eastern Europe ignores the fact that several other presidents took the same approach. Secondly, it ignores the power of negotiation. Despite what republicans claim about the Russian Federation, we already have precedence for believing that dialog can handle the dispute.
How did past presidents respond to similar conflicts in Eastern Europe? Eisenhower did not intervene in Hungary in 1956, even though some 3000 civilians had died in the popular civil disobedience uprising against the Soviets. Raegan did not intervene in Poland in 1981, even though the country had declared martial law and the Soviets were threatening to invade. George H.W. Bush did not intervene in the Singing Revolution (Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania), even after the January Massacre. George W. Bush did not intervene Georgia, even though the Russian Federation had deployed troops into the country.
What is the case for negotiations in Ukraine? As mentioned in a previous article, the Baltics states represent the best precedence we have for dialog. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all experienced four qualifiers that make them useful for comparison. (1) A mass civil disobedience movement based on nationalism (2) Large ethnic Russian minority populations. (3) Russian/soviet security forces within their country. (4) Negotiation being used as a tool to handle the conflict. As mentioned in the last article, The Albert Einstein Institution has a wealth of information on these revolutions. Please see Nonviolent Resistance in Lithuania: A Story of Peaceful Liberation by Grazina Miniotaite, Civil Resistance in the East European and Soviet Revolutions by Adam Roberts and Nonviolent Action in the Liberation of Latvia by Olgerts Eglitis.
Selected quotes from Eglitis on Latvia:
On ethnic Russian minorities: “There are fears in Latvia that if the economic crisis in Russia is aggravated further, a dictatorial, openly aggressive, Nazi-like regime could come to power there. That would be an extremely dangerous development for the Baltic nations, and especially for Latvia, since its enormous Russian minority (34%) could easily be used as a pretext for a Russian attack.”
On the use of force by Russia: “On January 2, 1991, the Soviet ‘black berets’ captured the Press Building in Riga, where until then the principal newspapers and magazines of the Republic were edited and printed. The ‘black beret’ troops threatened, humiliated, and physically beat people working there, some of them severely.”
Selected quotes from Miniotaite on Lithuania:
On negotiation: “US President George Bush stated on March 23 that his country supported Lithuania’s right to self-determination: ‘We have repeatedly urged the Soviet Union—Soviet government—to enter into immediate negotiations with the Lithuanian government, which has itself called for those talks.’ President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia called for a political dialogue between Lithuania and the USSR and offered his good offices for the negotiations”
On intervention against draft resistant: “USSR Defense Minister Yazov ordered a special paratroop division from Pskov to enter Lithuania ostensibly to search for Lithuanian deserters. On January 10 Gorbachev threatened the introduction of direct presidential rule and demanded that the Supreme Council ‘immediately and completely reestablish the validity of the constitutions of the USSR and the Lithuanian SSR, and revoke the anti-constitutional acts which have been adopted.’”
On Ethnic Russian Minorities: “Reactionary and separatist opposition was predictable. The Soviet policy of mass settlement of Russians in the Baltic states created a large social stratum dependent on the Soviet economic structure, socialist ideology, and the secret police. The explosive growth of Lithuanian national consciousness explicitly challenged this stratum. Further, as the Lithuanian language became official, some Russians and Poles experienced the transition of their status to that of a national minority.”
“In the Baltic republics there was, naturally, a much stronger sense of external threat, including a well-founded fear that Soviet military units (either those already stationed there or new ones from outside) would intervene massively. Lithuania, which faced such threats most directly, partly because by March 1990 it had put itself at the forefront of the independence drive, was also the subject of a three-month economic blockade in 1990.”
Conservative criticisms of the supposed “weakness” of the Obama administration’s foreign policy are completely baseless in the case of Ukraine. The non-military approach taken so far is more or less the historic US response to similar situations. The controversy has more to do with finding arguments against Hagel’s call to skrink the armed forces to pre-WWII levels than anything.