American and Russian invasions

There is a discussion about Russian invasion to Ukraine also in the framework of previous actions of big powers e. g. Grenada Invasion or Iraq War. Some critics are saying that what the West did in the last decades is in some cases pretty similar to what Russia is doing right now so we are not in a real position to criticize Russia or at least we can not claim the moral high ground. Is it basically only a theoretical criticism or you perceive it also a real problem somehow, and if yes how to address this problem? Read few comments.

Kurk DorseyAssociate Professor of History, University of New Hampshire

While I think that the comparison is theoretical, leaders in the West have to treat it as a real question if they hope to convince people who are undecided that the West is not defending a position without thinking.

I think the comparison is theoretical because every situation is unique. The long, complex history between Russia and Ukraine, including the decision to transfer the Crimea to Ukraine 60 years ago, is unlike anything else in the world. The struggle about whether Ukraine will lean toward the EU or toward Moscow is a problem that only makes sense in a very small historical window.

Still, it is a good idea to think about the two examples you mentioned, Grenada and Iraq, to suggest why the comparison should be taken respectfully and, I think, dismissed.

The invasion of Grenada happened thirty years ago in the Cold War. At some point, we have to turn the page on past events and say that they no longer apply as direct examples because conditions have changed. I doubt that we would say, “well, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Afghanistan in 1979, and this is just like that.” Nor would we say, “the United States attacked Mexico in 1846, so it can’t complain.” Perhaps we could go back 25 years to what has happened since 1989 or 1992 as a cut-off for realistic comparisons or to find similar justifications, although even that feels like a long way.

In the run up to the Iraq War in 2003, which is hardly an example that another country should use to defend its policy, the United States did succeed in getting a wide range of countries to agree that Saddam Hussein had not complied with a UN mandate (to allow inspectors to certify that he had no weapons of mass destruction). A smaller, but still substantial range of countries agreed that force was a legitimate avenue to resolve the problem. No one thought that the United States might annex Iraq, and it is fair to say that the US does not even have a puppet government there or in Afghanistan. We can’t get Maliki or Karzai to do anything, it seems. There was and still is a vigorous debate in the United States and much of the rest of the West about the wisdom of that decision. Iraq also had a record of attacking or threatening other countries. I do not think any of that applies to the Ukraine situation.

I did not vote for George W. Bush (although I did vote for his father), but I have to say that if someone can’t tell the difference between Vladimir Putin and George Bush, then he or she probably should not be making foreign policy decisions. Now that I type that, I have to admit that Bush himself did not seem to see any difference!

David MislanAssistant Professor, School of International Service, American University

I tend to think that moral condemnation is as much for domestic consumption as it is for foreign consumption. By this, I mean that by framing a foreign policy position as a moral crusade, a leader can gain support from important constituencies at home.

So, when Barack Obama chastised Vladimir Putin for “being on the wrong side of history”, he was making a rhetorical argument that would be agreeable to American voters. There is a long history in the United States of our leaders framing foreign policy in strict moral terms, even when the situation doesn’t call for it. From the World Wars to the WTO and the expansion of NATO, American presidents have sold their visions to the American public by claiming that they were defending morality and spreading freedom. Even as far back as 1899, William McKinley claimed that the U.S. had not choice but to annex the Philippines because God wanted Americans to “civilize” Filipinos.

Think about the alternative to a moral stance. There are many amoral reasons for the U.S. to oppose Russia’s use of force in the Crimea. If unchecked, Russia’s aggressive behavior could set an example for other great powers to follow– such as China’s behavior towards disputed territories in the East China Sea. This would undermine global stability, which is America’s first priority. Another reason has to do with reputation. If the U.S. gives in on Ukraine, it will harm its reputation among other Eastern European countries that want closer relations with the U.S. and the West. A third reason is simply geo-strategic. If Russia expands its influence in the Black Sea region, it comes at the expense of the United States and its allies. None of these rationales for opposing Russia would be popular with the American public, which is more reluctant to engage the world than at any time since the 1930s.

An interesting question is whether or not other countries’ leaders frame their foreign policy decisions as moral crusades. It seems that they do, but not as often. Even Russia’s opposition to NATO action in Libya was described in moral and legal terms– Russia was standing up for sovereignty and self-determination by opposing Western air strikes there.

Janusz Bugajski, Senior Associate (Non-resident), Center for Strategic and International Studies

There are several fundamental differences between Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and US actions in Iraq.

In Iraq, Washington was seeking to overthrow a dictator who was believed to threaten regional stability.

In Ukraine, Moscow is seeking to deligitimize a provisional government, pending general elections, which replaced a growing dictatorship that was overthrown through a popular revolution.

In Iraq, Washington had no intention of partitioning the country and annexing any part of it.

In Ukraine, Moscow is intent on partitioning the country and preventing Ukraine from joining the Western structures that other Central European countries, including Slovakia, freely joined.

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