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The Resolve Fairy and the Precedent Fairy


I mention it below, but it’s worth reiterating how facile the “resolve” argument is with respect to Russia’s incursion into Crimea.  The causal argument runs thus: Putin believed, because of Obama’s unwillingness to launch military strikes on Syria, that the United States would not interfere with Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Because the United States had refrained from using military force in a case where Obama had made a (relatively) clear commitment to the use of force, the US would not use force to defend an area it had no (serious) legal obligation to defend.

Phrased in these terms, the argument is very nearly self-refuting.  Essentially, partisans of the Resolve Fairy are demanding that Obama create in Putin’s mind the belief that a Russian invasion will be met with US military force, despite the fact that there is nearly zero chance that any administration, in a similar position, would use force.  Say what you will about Vladimir Putin, but he is not a stupid man.  If the most hawkish administration in recent history failed to counter a Russian invasion of a US client in 2008, what are the chances that the United States will do so now?  Any threat to use force in defense of Crimea (or Georgia, for that matter), is a bluff, and not a particularly strong one. The notion that even a wildly successful military campaign against Assad would have convinced Putin that the US would intervene in Crimea is very nearly absurd.

And it gets worse, of course.  Let’s imagine a world in which cruise missiles, a no fly zone, and a few airstrikes had managed to topple Assad (just work with me).  It is widely believed that the destruction of a Russian client in Libya at the hands of NATO added to Putin’s conviction to support Syria at all costs. There’s every reason to believe that the US induced collapse of the Assad regime would have made Putin more, not less, risk acceptant; prospect theory is a thing.  The same people whining about Obama’s “indecisiveness” about Syria would, in this case, have drawn a clear line between the Russian setback in the Middle East and Russian aggression in Ukraine.

And while we’re here, a moment about the Precedent Fairy.  Partisans of the Precedent Fairy (generally associated with either the realist school or the left), argue for the causal power of US precedent on Russian behavior.  The most common argument runs thus; because the United States intervened on behalf of an ethnic enclave in the Kosovo War, the Russians feel secure in making similar interventions on behalf of their own preferred enclaves.  It’s worth emphasizing that the Precedent Fairy isn’t as wrong as the Resolve Fairy, or as dangerous; international society is a complex ideational system of laws, norms, and understandings, and the behavior of major powers does often affect how other states interpret the parameters of the possible. But it’s almost certainly wrong, in this case, to try to draw a direct line between Kosovo and South Ossetia, or Kosovo and Crimea.  For one, Russia began intervening on behalf of favored enclaves before the Soviet Union formally collapsed, so precedent wasn’t particularly necessary.  For another, Russia cares a lot more about Crimea than the US will ever care about Kosovo.  It would have ample reason to intervene even without the precedent set by NATO.

What partisans of the Resolve Fairy and the Precedent Fairy do share is a substantial over-estimation of the importance of US behavior in Russian decision-making.  The US is big and important, but stuff happens in the world that doesn’t have much to do with the attitudes or behavior of the United States. Russia has a rich foreign policy history to draw on, and assuming that Russia’s behavior depends on the last three things that Obama said is almost always going to be wrong.

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