Putin, Merkel and Cold War Lessons

Putin, Merkel and Cold War Lessons
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel often appears to be the steadiest and most clear-eyed European leader, especially when it comes to reining in the fiscal profligacy of EU members. So the argument she made at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month in defense of her position regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was somewhat surprising.

Not that her opposition to providing defensive arms and training to Ukraine was a surprise. Merkel had previously made clear worries about Vladimir Putin’s reaction to such a move. Nor was her negotiation with Russia of another sham cease-fire unexpected. President Obama had, for all practical purposes, ceded leadership of the West’s response to Russian aggression to Germany.

The latest incursion of Russian armor and artillery into Eastern Ukraine in support of the siege of Debaltseve was feeding a growing consensus in the U.S. foreign policy establishment among Democrats and Republicans alike that the time has come to arm Ukraine. That consensus appears to include Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, Secretary of State John Kerry and NATO Supreme Commander General Philip Breedlove.

So Merkel’s urgent diplomacy seemed more about reasserting her leadership than it was about arranging a genuine cessation of hostilities. The outcome of the cease-fire -- the fall of Debaltseve and yet another round of Obama administration dithering about how to respond -- seems to support that interpretation of her motives.

Rather, it was a seemingly improvised reflection Merkel offered in Munich that astonished many American listeners as I suspect it did other observers who, like Merkel, grew up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

The term of art used by German and American policymakers trying to elevate inaction into something that appears more statesmanlike than timorous, is “strategic patience,” as in, we must have the strategic patience to wait for sanctions to work and for Putin to come to his senses. While it seems clear Putin has interpreted the West’s patience as weakness, and weakness is always more provocative to bullies than force, it was in defense of patience that Merkel made a rare reference to her own history.

Merkel reminded the audience that she was a little girl living in East Germany when the Soviets built the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the West had responded appropriately by patiently waiting 28 years for it to come down. That a leader of Merkel’s intelligence and ability could be that clueless was the surprise of the conference.

The Wall, vile physical and symbolic impediment to human liberty that it was, did not violate the sovereignty of any nation other than East Germany or seize additional territory for the Soviet bloc. The presence of American tanks made certain of that, just as U.S. and British aircraft had made certain the Berlin blockade didn’t claim West Germany’s sovereignty.

Nevertheless, the West’s policy in the years after the Wall was built involved much more than strategic patience. The West advanced by political and physical courage and strategic resolve, a quality considerably more action oriented than patience. We advanced by the expenditure of blood and treasure in proxy wars and arms races and by the persistent public and private defense of every captive nation’s and every oppressed person’s right to self-determination. We advanced with diplomatic initiatives that made us safer without capitulating the advantage to our adversary.  We advanced by arming the Afghanistan resistance to Soviet occupation; by the politically unpopular decision to deploy intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe; by the Strategic Defense Initiative, just to name the last big Western initiatives of the Cold War.

In short, we pressed the outcome of the Cold War -- we didn’t just hope for it to end of its own accord. We most certainly did not leave the initiative to Moscow. We exerted will and wealth and lives to the liberation of Europe, to the unification of Germany, and, not to put too fine a point on it, to the freedom of one Angela Merkel, who now leads the West in response to Putin’s challenge.

Her shockingly ahistorical view of how the Cold War was won suggests she isn’t up to the job. Neither, apparently, is our chronically confused president. Someone had best step up to the job, and soon. More than Ukraine’s sovereignty is at stake.

Again and again, Merkel, Obama and other Western leaders insist there isn’t a military solution to the conflict. But that’s not what Vladimir Putin thinks. It’s the very solution Russia is pursuing successfully as it dominates its neighbor by force of arms, and which the West is not effectively opposing. Putin might or might not react with more force if we give Ukrainians weapons that will at least raise the cost to Moscow for its continued aggression. But it’s certain that he will use more force if we do not. And his aggression might not be limited to unfortunate Ukraine or to other former Soviet republics that are not members of NATO. 

There are Russian-speaking enclaves in new NATO member states. Should our strategic patience encourage Putin to claim them as his protectorates, it would lead either to the shooting war in Europe we avoided in the half-century-long Cold War or to a new Iron Curtain. That is not an outcome you would think a leader who suffered for years behind the last one, waiting to be liberated by the West, would choose to be complicit in. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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