James Miller and Pierre Vaux both write for The Interpreter, which specializes in translating and analyzing Russian media for the English audience. They’ve obviously got some Opinions about Ukraine, which generally slot into the “where’s my damn World War III already, Obama?” category, and so they took issue with what Obama had to say about Ukraine in his SOTU address:
On Tuesday night, in a State of the Union speech that was heavy on domestic policy, President Barack Obama heralded a list of American accomplishments abroad, none more dubious than his claim that America was demonstrating “strength” in its response to the Ukraine crisis. “We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies,” the president optimistically intoned, while dismissing those who had appraised Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea as “a masterful display of strategy and strength.” Rather, said Obama, “it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.”
For Obama to be right, and for America to be successfully leading the way to a free, peaceful, and democratic Ukraine, it stands to reason that Putin would have to be on the back foot and growing less belligerent by the day. Then why is he only ratcheting up his aggression?
Take the second paragraph out of context. Regardless of what you think about the current situation in Ukraine or this administration’s response to the crisis, it does not, in fact, “stand to reason” that a cornered leader in a crisis “would have to be on the back foot and growing less belligerent by the day.” The behavior of modern dictators (see Bashar al-Assad, Omar al-Bashir, or the Kim dynasty in North Korea) and historic tyrants (Nicholas II in Russia, Pol Pot, or Saddam Hussein) suggests that the opposite is true, that authoritarian rulers, when backed into a corner and at their weakest, tend to lash out, internally and externally, to act with greater belligerence, than when their grip on things is more stable.
Now get back into the Russian context, and for argument’s sake assume that Miller/Vaux are right that the Ukraine civil war is wholly the result of Russian aggression (it’s not, but go with it). If you were Vladimir Putin, whose continued reign depends on keeping the support of Russia’s wealthy elite, lashing out at a convenient foreign enemy is precisely the kind of thing you’d do if you thought that your collapsing economy was leaving you vulnerable politically.
The fact that this isn’t apparent to folks like Miller and Vaux illustrates pretty succinctly why the neocon mindset is both flawed and dangerous. There’s a simplistic idea that belligerence is always a sign of strength that leads to the bad analysis and the white-knuckled jonesing for war (which, after all, is the only way you can show strength, right?) that characterized the Bush foreign policy team and continues to characterize its remnants in government and the media today. The real world is considerably more nuanced than that.