In the Crimea, we are seeing a chess master pitted against a superficial Hollywood want-a-bee. It is almost painful to watch a hapless Barack Obama being outmaneuvered at every step by a skilled strategist like Vladimir Putin. President Obama has opposed a democratic referendum in Crimea while he supported one in Kosovo, and he is siding with coup leaders in Kiev who overthrew a democratically elected government; none of which is consistent with American values. In an effort to shift the focus away from the Administration’s lackluster performance; poorly educated Administration officials have attempted to compare President Putin to Adolph Hitler (which is always a sign of desperation). The story has reached a point where the Obama Administration’s statements and actions have become a joke. When your adversary, your allies in the Ukraine and most of the rest of the world ridicule your efforts, it is time for some serious self-reflection. The best thing the U.S. Congress could do is purchase hundreds of chess sets and send them to senior Obama Administration officials with a note that reads, “Please learn how to play.”
The evidence points to a Russian strategy that may have begun almost a decade ago. The old Soviet Union fell apart due to a variety of factors, including a poor economy. The new Russia under Vladimir Putin has been slowly repairing that deficiency, while beneath the surface a resentment has been smoldering over the way that the United States and old Europe have treated Russia. Russia was ignored in the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, as the United States and NATO acted unilaterally, both in those crises and virtually every other over the past two decades. Russian objections were dismissed and its proposals sidelined.
Today, the world has shifted. Russian allies in Iran, Syria and Egypt are on the rise, while U.S. allies in Afghanistan, Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan struggle or decline. The current Iraqi and Afghan governments are openly hostile toward the United States, reflecting resentment within those two countries from at least a significant portion of the populations.
Russia is flush with money and resources and is largely independent of international influences, while the United States is broke, its military shrinking, and its economy dependent on China, Vietnam and Korea.
The Russian strategy is a long-term one, which is to break up NATO, pushing old Europe into neutrality. The NATO countries lack the resources to meet the 2% GDP goal for funding their militaries, therefore they cannot challenge Russia militarily. As Europe is struggling out of a recession, it must decide whether to take resources from Western Europe and invest them in Eastern Europe as a buttress against Russia. It is unlikely that such will occur. The Putin plan is for the citizens of Western Europe to tire of this economic arms race thereby pushing new governments office committed to an accommodation with Russia. It is an amazingly bold plan by a master tactician; and it might work. Barack Obama has little to counter this plan with.
The U.S. military is overextended abroad. It seeks to have influence everywhere, with the result being that it has insufficient influence anywhere. While Russian slowly builds, the U.S. slowly deteriorates. American allies in the developing world are increasingly authoritarian and therefore unstable. Target killings by U.S. drones, and the civilian casualties that result due to mistakes, are fueling opposition movements around the world. Shooting an unarmed Osama bin Laden, then finishing him off as he lay injured on the floor, and then dumping his body secretly in the ocean, were not the actions of a confident victor. While heralded in the U.S. press, the killing had no positive impact on America’s war. Al-Qaeda is stronger today than ever.
One of the many flaws in U.S. “strategy” (it really has none) is that al-Qaeda can be defeated by violence. President Obama and his mediocre national security staff fail to understand that al-Qaeda is not the enemy; it is merely a symptom of a larger problem. Communism was defeated in most of the developing world, but it too was simply a symptom of the dissatisfaction of a portion of the population. They feel disfranchised by the authoritarian governments that the U.S. has historically supported. Crushing local Communist party groups was a short-term tactic, not a long-term strategy because it merely shifted the population to more radical forms of protest, which is what we are faced with today. The U.S. needs to develop long term viable strategies that are consistent with American values. It needs to plan decades in advance. It needs to act boldly and it needs to take risks if it intends to prevail against President Putin and his successors. Learning chess can help.