July 20th, 2014
05:15 PM ET

How West should handle Russia

Watch"Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

By Fareed Zakaria

The actions of the pro-Russian forces, who it appears shot down a civilian airliner, might seem at first glance to be crude and unsophisticated. But in one sense they're on the cutting edge. They represent something we see all around us these days – the democratization of violence.

Let me explain.

For most of history, the side with the bigger army usually won a conflict. But over the past few decades a different pattern has been emerging – the power of asymmetrical warfare. Look at the pro-Russian separatists, or Hamas or Hezbollah or the insurgents in Afghanistan or Iraq, and you will see attacks that are cheap compared with the massive response then launched by traditional armies. 

In Moisés Naim's excellent book The End of Power, he calculates that for every dollar that al Qaeda spent planning and executing the 9/11 attacks the United States spent $7 million countering it or coping with the losses. That's a ratio of $1 to $7 million. Staggering, indeed. That is why Naim says never in the field of human conflict have so few had the potential to do so much to so many at so little cost.

Naim cites scholar Ivan Arreguin-Toft, who looked at asymmetrical conflicts in history and found that while 150 years ago the weaker party would win only about 12 percent of such wars, in the last 50 years it has prevailed 55 percent of the time.

But let's be clear about the current crisis in Ukraine. This is not really a story about a band of rebels who are up against the Ukrainian government. It is about little Ukraine up against Russia, a country that spends 35 times what Ukraine does on its armed forces. The Russian effort to turn this into an asymmetrical conflict by using Special Forces, rebels, and perhaps even mercenaries is a conscious strategy to take advantFage of the power of asymmetry.

Moscow is seeking to destabilize Ukraine at low cost, and perhaps most important with the ability to deny its involvement. The best way to counter Russia's strategy is to deny that advantage that it seeks. The world must make clear that it recognizes that Russia has had a conscious deliberate centrally directed policy to destabilize Ukraine, and to do so has sent into the battlefield heavy weapons including anti-aircraft weapons.

This is not a case where terrorists are operating without an address or a home base. It's called the Kremlin. If the world and the West hold Russia responsible for its actions in eastern Ukraine and insist that the government of Ukraine –  which Russia claims to recognize – be allowed to take control of all regions of its country and help the democratically elected leaders in Kiev, Mr. Putin's strategy of causing chaos on the cheap will not work.

After all, despite Russia's huge defense budget, despite its massive size, despite a United Nations Security Council veto, it is now watching its neighbor, historically part of Russia, move irretrievably from its grasp. And why? Because Russia has provoked the most important force in the modern world – nationalism.

Ukrainian public sentiment, and sentiment in Eastern Europe and perhaps beyond, has become deeply anti-Russian. That's an intangible force, but one that has proved to be very powerful in modern history. In that sense, it is the Kremlin that is on the wrong side of asymmetrical warfare.

Topics: Fareed's Take • Russia • Ukraine

soundoff (237 Responses)
  1. Rodger Olsen

    Actually no, Mr Fareed. This is not really a story about "little Ukraine up against Russia, a country that spends 35 times what Ukraine does on its armed forces." It's a story about an American sponsored regime change that installed a government so unacceptable to a third of the Ukraine that they refused to be governed by it.
    It's a story about the right of self determination, which America preaches but only believes in if everyone self-determines to do what we want. Its a story about people who never agreed to be part of the Ukraine, don't want to be part of the Ukraine and who are being killed because the last things the US believes in are self determination (if it doesn't go our way) or referendums (unless we win.)
    As we spent a lot of money, time, and influence to encourage the rioters to overthrow a legally elected government, so you can also add "Democracy" to the things we we don't believe in.

    July 24, 2014 at 9:10 pm |
  2. bribarian

    The reality is this "battle" is being fought between Russia and obama media. Americans arent interested.

    July 25, 2014 at 1:46 am |
    • Michael

      Maybe "you're" not interested but most educated Americans are. The world belongs to all including those that bury their head in the sand and wake up one day when all is destroyed. Adults set examples to our children and teach them to vote and partake in their country's affairs. It's your biggest privilege to participate "if" you feel any sense of pride or patriotism.

      July 25, 2014 at 5:35 pm |
      • Maurice

        I am an African, but I'm sick and tired of the avalanche of cruel and unjustified attacks on Russia by the US and her puppet EU. More sickening is the fact that journalists like Mr Fareed Zakaria have made themselves agents of propagating the American propaganda. America have destabilized more governments in the world than any other country. when they invaded Iraq with the twisted and deliberately manipulated "intelligence" that Sadam had massive cache of weapons of mass destruction, nobody even imagined cautioning them, let alone impose sanctions. Today because Russia is growing in power and ascendancy, America and the EU becomes scared. America is acting out of fear, and not strength. Go ahead and impose all the levels of sanctions you can on Russia, America can never be as strong as Russia.

        July 27, 2014 at 7:39 am |
      • Maryla

        For some reason I cannot respond to Maurice as there is no "reply" button there.
        The last sentence "America can never be as strong as Russia" looks so much like Putin's party slogan that Maurices' asserting us he's not Russian doesn't ring true at all.

        July 28, 2014 at 12:47 pm |
      • David

        Unfortunately only 23% of Americans benefit from higher education (even less if you factor in dropouts). Of those 23%, how many care? Put stats where your mouth is! Otherwise – STFU

        July 28, 2014 at 3:37 pm |
      • BigAl

        Maurice you took the words right out of my mouth. America you are not the power you once were, so stop meddling in other countries politics. The UK (Americas little lap dog) and Cameron are playing their little colonial games in this affair between the Ukraine and Russia.

        July 29, 2014 at 4:40 pm |
    • Igor

      Before Malasyan plane was shot down there was a prolonged intermission by CNN/BBC in reporting on Ukraine civil war. Zakaria was also quiet for a while. The fact that plane was directed through region of war where several planes were already shot down just underscores the fact that international community was largely ignorant of what is going on in Ukraine and did not take it seriously. The civil strife in Ukraine is not new. Ukraine region of Kiev is a starting point of Russia back in early middle ages. At the times of Ukraine/Russia origin both regions were ruled by same knights. Separation took place when rulers settled more towards northern areas. Whatever was called Ukraine in 17-th century voluntarily incorporated itself into Russia. Conflicts within Ukrainian population about disagreements on whether to be separate or part of Russia were going on and off from the time Ukraine/Russia can trace its history. One of the more notable episode was a war between Peter the Great and Ukranian insurgency at Poltava (early 18-th century, when Swedish king sided with insurgents). About 10 million ethnic Russians live in Ukraine; about 3-4 million Ukrainians live in Russia. Uncountable (millions of people) families have both Ukrainian and Russian sides. Ukraine never had an experience in independent statehood until 1991, when Soviet Union broke up. After revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks organized a republic of Ukraine as part of Soviet Union. In 1920’s large parts of land (present day Estern Ukraine where civil war is going on) were transferred administratively from Russian Federation to Ukraine. This resulted in major Russian population in Eastern Ukraine. In 1954 Crimea was transferred from Russian Federation to Ukraine.
      The present outburst of conflict was a result of many factors: 1. Mulfunctional state of Ukraine 2. Lack of agreement about degree of participation in European Union 3. Nationalistic riots 4. Concern of USA about Russia becoming stronger politically, economically and militarily over last 10 years, and therefore desire of US policy-makers to have leverages in the regions close to Russia. 5. Interference of the USA and support to Ukraine’s politicians who usurped the power in Kiev back in February 2014.
      What now? Airplne tragedy just provoked international attention. Thus, one should be aware that more than 1000 civilians were killed in Eastern Ukraine during this civil war by now. Ukrainian army continues firing on civil area in hope to intimidate and suppress resistance. The Ukrainian army sustains major casualties. There are protests in Kiev and Western Ukraine against sending soldiers to fight in the east. The economy is crumbling as Ukraine cannot sustain the costs of war on its own. Ukraine is asking USA for military and economic help. If this help comes Russia will upgrade its participation in defending revolting regions as Russia cannot afford to let Ukraine become a province of USA militarily and economically. The USA is trying to get Europe more tightly involved in economic sanctions. Interestingly, England who will suffer least (it does not import gas from Russia) is screaming the loudest tunes. Should US send military and financial help it will put enormous costs on US economy as Ukraine was collecting all sorts of help for last 25 years with most of it ending up in pockets of corrupt politicians. What can be done? First, do not assume that Putin is aggressor. So far, he responded to a situation as a leader who cares about national interests of his country. Crimea had referendum, and naturally Russian majority decided that it is time to have Crimea as part of Russia again. They live in peace now, unlike Russian-speaking population in Eastern Ukraine. The only way to end this conflict is for USA to start serious negotiations with Russia and Ukraine, and stop giving illusion to Ukraine’s politicians that USA and Western Europe will solve their problems.

      July 28, 2014 at 4:56 pm |
      • BigAl

        Exactly Igor, I have a lot of sympathy for the Russian stance. America unfortunately doesnt know what its like to be invaded and I have to wonder what America would do if Mexico become Communist, would they no play their little war games much like the Cuban crisis??

        July 29, 2014 at 4:44 pm |
  3. apartymember

    America reminds me of a rabid dog that seriously needs put down...her madness can be seen all over the world

    July 25, 2014 at 6:35 am |
    • Mani

      You are absolutely right but I thing it is America's foreign policy, not the American public.

      July 28, 2014 at 11:31 am |
      • BigAl

        Exactly Mani well said.

        July 29, 2014 at 4:45 pm |
  4. charlie

    The nationalism that has been triggered is pro_Russian nationalism on the part of Russians who were apparently reasonably content to be ukranian until the EU started its annexation process with is precursor (to full annexation) trade agreement. When the Ukranian government refused to sign, the where overthrown by western supported civil unrest. Those Ukrainian Russians now had no choice to remain Ukrainian but either fight or become part of the EU empire. They are resisting EU aggression since the EU refused to accept no for an answer. How much of the world will the EU/USA axis settle for? As with previous axis empire builders the answer may be that they will not stop until they are totally defeated.
    As a christian, caucasian male EU citizen, I am ashamed and frightened by western aggression in Ukraine, middle east and else where. Time and again these wars are being started in my name simply because leaders in Brussels and Washington do not have the patience or trust to let other countries develop their own future at there own pace.

    July 25, 2014 at 10:11 am |
    • jalek

      That's the story if you read Russia Today and listen to the other official government outlets from Russia.
      Kyiv news is different, as are things I hear from people I know in Eastern Ukraine. Where they used to visit Moscow frequently from Kharkov, they now never mention it. When the crisis hit and people were demanding their governor and mayor resign, they were angry. When their mayor was shot the same day these "insurgents" were driving around seizing villages, they were frightened. Now they just seem angry and don't talk about politics, though they have nothing good to say about Putin. I guess that's for Russians, Europeans, and US Republicans to do.

      July 27, 2014 at 6:08 am |
    • American


      July 28, 2014 at 8:16 pm |
    • BigAl

      charlie you are correct well said.

      July 29, 2014 at 4:47 pm |
  5. ciscokidd20

    Ukraine and the EU need to make up their minds. Ukraine needs to decide if it wants to be part of the EU or USSR and the EU need to decide rather or not to match sanctions the U.S. seeks. If they can not decide, then the U.S. should stay out and let the chips fall where they may. We're not the world's police. We have enough issues here at home with a do-nothing Congress that tries to blame President Obama for every fallacy. Once we can take of ourselves, then we can see what we can do for the rest of the world.

    July 25, 2014 at 9:23 pm |
  6. chri§§y

    @ uvac79, i know, right? It makes you wonder whos getting paid off here, doesnt it? Putin is the spawn of satan and really needs to be put down, like a rabid dog!

    July 25, 2014 at 11:09 pm |
  7. toofaraway

    Mr. Zakaria. Forgive me, but you have missed the point. The war in Ukraine is not about nationalism, it's about energy resources, as elsewhere in this world. Dig a bit deeper (if you're allowed) about petroleum and other energy type companies' interests and then make it public. Someone in Ukraine made a promise with the 'big company guys" and now its pay-back times. Check which company "has interest" to explore oil/gas in Ukraine and you'll get your answers. 'Till then, many of CNN readers will exercise "who's right and who's the bandit" without seeing the bigger picture "who and for what there is a conflict". Meanwhile the 250.000 refugees from East Ukraine will bu suffering their misery, without anyone knowing about it. And journalism is supposed to be informing about everything, right? Or, it should be informing only for those issues which can create public opinion (read "can be sold"). After all, it's all about the money. Have a good weekend.

    July 26, 2014 at 5:44 am |
  8. plagerist

    How bad must it suck to be stuck doing this job after being disgraced. It's not even worth the time to read to refute anymore. No one cares what he says.

    July 26, 2014 at 6:46 am |
  9. Maxine. K

    Unfortunately i read this piece and it was a complete waste of my time.
    "Fareeds take" is just jibberish filler – he has generated a few random snippets of info he got off a search engine and then tries to join some dots... the image he has just presented us is something that an untalented High school student would come up with.
    Imagine if you actually had to pay to read this rubbish?

    July 26, 2014 at 1:48 pm |
  10. John Smith

    You, americans, are really funny. You don't even know where is Ukraine or Malaysia on the world map.Keep listening your lying CNN and make naive silly comments 🙂

    July 26, 2014 at 7:03 pm |
  11. Fareed Zakaria Another Useful Idiot

    Read my name. Now you're owned.

    July 27, 2014 at 4:44 am |
  12. Shawn Irwin

    It is funny Zakaria says this . . . but let's look at the record. The USA interfered in Libya . . . . there is now civil war in Libya . . .
    In fact, you can say repeatedly "The USA interfered in X . . . . there is now civil war in X . . . " for many different countries . . . Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine . . . I'm missing a some, you could write a whole book on this subject, but the point is the USA is destabilizing the World, and then trying to blame others. It is kind of like Hitler blaming Poland for attacking Germany, when he himself arranged it to happen . . . . only the USA does it by supporting rouge elements in whatever country they are interfering in with huge amounts of cash. 5 Billion that we know of in Ukraine.
    I know they did in Syria too, CBS did an article on it before the civil war started there.
    The government we have here, they are warmongers destabilizing the World, and murdering many innocents. They have control of the press here, so the only information that gets to the public is what they want the public to hear.
    It is sickening.

    July 27, 2014 at 6:09 am |
  13. TeDudeNexDor

    You see this is why I do not watch lamestream media, let alone read it. A couple weeks ago I, who knows why, turned on the tv and look who has a whole lot of disinformation to help the free world western media spread it disinformation, Madame Clinton herself. Ten minutes in and I was done. At this point I am completely convinced that there are powerful people who want to destroy the US from within and out.

    July 27, 2014 at 7:24 am |
  14. Valerii

    US officials, and Fareed Zakaria repeats, that pro-Russian fighters shot down MH17. Do you have any evidence to prove your allegations, apart from some youtube videos from unknown sources?
    Russian Min. of Defence gave a briefing, in which they showed, minute by minute, the movements of Ukrainian air force & anti air systems, asked the US & Ukrainian government concrete questions, not one of which was answered. Why?
    The US has its 24 hour space surveillance over the Southeast of Ukraine since the day fighting took place. Where are the pictures & videos of this surveillance? Is the US hiding them just to protect their mad dogs in Kiev, who indeed shot down the aircraft?

    July 27, 2014 at 10:28 am |
  15. Xenia

    Mr Zakaria is unbelievable. Saying about russian nationalism and complitly ignoring araise of Ukrainian neo nazi
    Why you think Cremia was voting to join RF? why you think Donbass now fighting against Ukrainian army?

    July 27, 2014 at 11:40 pm |
  16. freeman911

    So what does Farid want? American army should do the thing rite like Jenghis Khan or Hulagu Khan to minimize cost?

    July 28, 2014 at 6:23 am |
  17. Alex

    Mr. Zakaria's opus is a clear example of anti-Russia hysteria unleashed in US by the signal of Obama's administration. The vaunted democratic american media have no enough interest and will to go thoroughly into details what's really happening in far Ukraine. It's much easier to follow the "main course" established by the administration. What Russian Special Forces Mr. Zakaria is talking about? Where are the facts, evidences? Why the author takes the right to state that it was rebels who shot down the MH17 plane without international investigation results published? As for the passage that the Kremlin supports terrorism it's beyond journalism, it's a yellow press trick. Mr. Zakaria will merely reach the level of legendary Helen Thomas, the golden pen of american journalism, the person who has been never afraid of asking pointed questions, raise acute problems in front of the authorities and was strong enough to have her own opinion.

    July 28, 2014 at 7:43 am |
  18. Vadim

    The problem with Putin is, that he will never back down. It is vital for russian security to be surrounded with vassal states. Putin will never allow Ukraine to host US and NATO military. Back down for Putin is domestic political suicide. He will ignore every sanction that US and EU can develop. The only way to stop Puting is to start a full scale war (up to nuclear).
    Is US and EU really ready for this?

    July 29, 2014 at 6:27 am |
  19. Nusret

    And He will be right. Big mistake of Ukraine is a decision to confront the biggest neibour with 5,6 thousand km border, same religion and mentality. With such a strategy she will repeat the story of Georgia (will be parted), Libiya or Iraq.

    July 30, 2014 at 6:58 am |
  20. David Johnson

    Melitopol Transit Point to Parts East

    President Putin wants everything that touches the Sea of Azov,
    including a wide corridor from Russia proper to Melitopol
    and surrounding territory. The New Russian Empire will
    require an extensive infrastructure, connecting the Russian Empire's
    Products to the sea, and to the International Markets.

    This is all about the economics of commercial trade
    and not being dependent on Western European markets.
    This all about transit points from the sea to inland Russia and partners.
    It may include possible petroleum wealth in the Sea of Azov.

    There! now, we can all see what is motivating Mr. Putin and business partners.
    He is not mad. He does not want a war, but he does want a direct Russian controlled
    corridor to Melitopol, apparently very much so.

    Kiev might consider a 99 year lease, and make some money out of
    a bad situation. It clearly suggests that he believes that Russia can
    replace the E.U. with other world wide markets. "The man has a dream"

    A skeptic would argue that Mr. Putin's Empire and trade partners will
    be the collision of the inefficient. Part of the dream must be a series
    of major sea ports and facilities for pumping natural gas into vessels.
    And of course the Pipe-LIne to the sea, and to international markets,
    unfettered by irritable neighbors.

    I am sure Mr. Putin is a fair chess player.

    August 31, 2014 at 4:44 pm |
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