Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine reflects neither strategic wisdom nor military strength. In fact, it reflects just the opposite. Putin invested over $50 billion and significant personal capital in the Sochi Olympics and the upcoming G8 Summit. That has now been squandered. It was clearly humiliating for Putin to watch as the Ukrainian president he had strongly supported, if not hand-picked, was forced to flee Kiev. This was particularly true, given that President Yanukovych fled in response to a popular uprising driven by opposition to his efforts to establish closer Ukrainian relations with Russia at the expense of closer ties to Europe.
Putin assuaged this humiliation with a military invasion of Crimea on March 1. On March 20, the Russian Parliament overwhelmingly approved a treaty presented by Putin to formally annex the Black Sea peninsula. At this juncture, it seems impossible to envision Moscow backing down, withdrawing its forces, and returning Crimea to Ukrainian control. President Obama, as well as Western European leaders, have acknowledged this reality. The so-called “post-Cold War era” has now come to a close, and the West must now confront a new European security environment. What is the nature of the new threat? What is the general outline of a new strategy for the United States and its NATO allies?
It is important to realize that the longer-term threat posed by this new era does not herald a return to the Cold War. That “twilight struggle” had an ideological underpinning. It pitted Marxist-Leninist ideology against democracy and market economies. When Nikita Khrushchev made his famous threat, “We will bury you!” in 1956, he was not necessarily predicting imminent war so much as a belief that history was on the side of Communism. He believed that it was Communism, with its focus on a command oriented economy rather than the Soviet military, that would ultimately triumph.
Putin has no such ideological framework. He is not Khrushchev, nor Brezhnev for that matter, he more closely resembles one of the 19th century Russian Czars. Putin is motivated by a desire for autocracy and a xenophobic belief that Russia must return to its historical roots. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn have perhaps best described this as demonstrating aspects of “Eurasianism.” This philosophy is authoritarian, traditional, anti-America, and anti-European. Its supporters believe Russia is unique and can never be a European or Asian country. Consequently, Eurasianism or “Putinism” will have no appeal beyond Russia’s borders except potentially with the so-called “near abroad,” or those Russian populations living outside the borders of the Russian Federation.
The West’s collective realization of the new emerging security environment further demonstrates that assumptions made by American and European leaders following the collapse of the Soviet Union were incorrect. First, there was a belief that Russia was inextricably moving toward joining an international order which was largely created by the West. Second, despite the economic depression in Russia in the early-1990s and loss of their empire, the West believed that a democratic transition was underway and would continue. This would proceed unencumbered by any yearning for the order provided by Soviet authoritarianism or lingering animosity over the “terms” for the end of the Cold War. Third, many in the West appeared to believe that eventually Russia would accept NATO expansion as nonthreatening, despite Moscow’s continued objections for the past 2 decades.
President Putin provided a clear indication of his thinking in 2005 with his now famous comment that the “collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” But he clearly dispelled any final hope that these assumptions had a shred of validity during his remarks to the Russian political elite on March 18. He observed that the West “. . . cheated us again and again, made decisions behind our back, presenting us with completed facts. That’s the way it was with the expansion of NATO in the East, with the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders. They always told us the same thing: ‘Well, this does not involve you’.”
Consequently, Washington must devise a Western strategy that is both holistic and comprehensive. It must be realistically crafted so it can be sustained for an extended period of time. Consequently, this effort must include both bipartisan support in the United States as well as allied backing abroad. Four elements will be crucial: dealing with the Russians; deterring further aggression; assuring/assisting Ukraine; and, finally, reassuring friends and allies.
Dealing with Moscow will be difficult, but the United States cannot afford the “luxury” of ignoring Russia due to a number of critical issues. Any future cooperation must be approached realistically with a clear understanding that progress can only occur based on common interests. Where cooperation is not possible, Washington must now devise new strategies to deal with these challenges. Five issues must be examined in the context of this new environment. First, it is doubtful that an agreement can be reached with Iran to curtail its nuclear program without Russian participation and support. Many observers seem to ignore the fact that the ongoing negotiations with Tehran are a multilateral effort that involves not only the United States and Iran, but all of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (including Russia) as well as the Germans. Second, U.S. and Russian agreed efforts to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal must continue, and the deadline agreed to by the Assad regime is rapidly approaching. While Moscow has been a defender of the Syrian government throughout the civil war, it would still appear that the final destruction of this stockpile is in the best interests of both nations. Russian security experts remain concerned about the possibility of such weapons falling into the hands of extreme Islamic groups. The Obama administration clearly does not want to be forced to once again consider the possible use of military force against the regime in Damascus. Third, both the United States and Moscow are interested in an orderly American withdrawal from Afghanistan, while assuring some degree of stability in the aftermath. Fourth, North Korea has shown once again a willingness to heighten tensions on the Korean peninsula which is counter to the best interests of Moscow and Washington.
Finally, both nations must show willingness to complete implementation of the New START agreement. Even during the height of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow maintained an arms control dialogue, and this must now also continue. New START implementation must be accompanied by the ongoing compliance and verification of other existing agreements. The Obama administration must also demand answers to reported potential violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces or INF Treaty that requires not only the destruction of missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, but further prohibits testing such systems.
Deterring further aggression by Mr. Putin must include military, diplomatic, and economic measures. In military terms, the dispatch of American fighter aircraft to the Baltic and Poland, coupled with an American naval presence in the Black Sea, were important and may need to be sustained. It would now seem likely that congressional opposition to the modernization of American tactical nuclear weapons deployed to Europe will be significantly weakened. There will also be increased interest in the development and deployment of a NATO missile defense and the European phased adaptive approach. NATO members in Eastern Europe openly have shown a renewed interest in American military forces conducting more exercises on their territory, and this could include some permanent presence. Finally, NATO leaders will likely offer both Ukraine and Georgia participation in the Alliance Membership Action Plan (MAP) at their summit this fall. President George W. Bush proposed MAP for Georgia at the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008 but was unable to gain sufficient support from other European member states.
Still such military efforts should not be exaggerated but should be part of a properly balanced overall strategy. Some experts have been quick to point out that the presence of American military forces in Europe has dropped from a high of 400,000 troops at the height of the Cold War to roughly 65,000 today, and this served to encourage Putin’s adventurism. This is untrue and also ignores the fact that the Russian Army is a shadow of its Soviet predecessor. When the U.S. military presence was at its high point, the Soviet Union had 40 divisions in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, it was clear to any careful observer of Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 that the Russian Army was ill-prepared even for this very limited conflict. While there can be little doubt that Mr. Putin has sought to improve his army since then, it still does not pose a major threat to the combined power of the NATO alliance.
Diplomatic efforts have included policies by the Obama administration to isolate Moscow in the international community. For example, the agreement to remove Russia from the G8 is significant. But additional measures need to be taken, and the United States should continue to pursue diplomatic efforts in a number of international forums. Ongoing plans to deploy observers from the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to Eastern Ukraine to monitor possible future acts of violence against Russian minorities is an important step. In many ways, the challenges presented by this new environment could offer an opportunity for the OSCE to once again play a useful role in European security. This could include not only such monitors but also assistance with the upcoming Ukrainian elections, human rights issues, freedom of the press, treatment of minorities, etc.
On March 19, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that criticized its behavior in the Ukraine with China abstaining. A General Assembly resolution was later adopted “calling upon states not to recognize changes in the status of the Crimea region.” One hundred states voted in favor, with 58 abstentions and only 11 voting against it. While this might appear to be a diplomatic success for the West, the 58 states that abstained included all of the so-called BRICS countries (Brazil, [Russia vetoed], India, China, and South Africa). Furthermore, several of these states also refrained from any language critical of Russian actions. Overall, a quarter of all G20 countries did not cast a vote in support of this resolution, and Egypt (the most populous country in the Middle East) also abstained. Consequently, the United States and its European allies will need to continue their diplomatic efforts to sustain international opposition to Russia’s aggression.
Clearly, economic sanctions, both real and threatened, appear to be the strongest immediate response to the invasion. Some have argued that sanctions imposed against a handful of Russian oligarchs and a single bank are insufficient. Still, even these seemingly minimal efforts have rattled the Russian economy and resulted in: a drop in its stock market; lowered credit ratings; rising interest rates; and, some reduction in the value of the Ruble. Economists, however, have been quick to point out that the real impact is an aura of uncertainty that now surrounds a Russian economy that was showing at best anemic growth rates prior to the crisis. This is a threat to every profitable enterprise in Russia as well as any prospect for significant future foreign investment. It is more important than the immediate impact of any of the current sanctions.
Consequently, the essential question will be whether or not this threat to the country’s long-term prosperity can be sustained over time and serve as a true “deterrent” to future acts of Russian aggression. At this moment, it remains unclear. American imports from Russia only amounted to roughly $40 billion in 2013, while European Union states imported 10 times that amount. Western European states clearly depend on Russia for energy imports. Whether their leaders are willing to place at risk the modest economic recovery that began in their countries during 2013 remains to be seen. Mr. Putin is clearly betting that, over time, European leaders will be more interested in satisfying the domestic concerns of their population than the challenge he has posed to the existing European security order.
The focus on Crimea has also served to obscure what is perhaps the most important part of the drama now unfolding in Ukraine. It is imperative that the United States and the Western Europeans provide both assurance and assistance to the new government in Kiev. There is little doubt that Ukraine has been wracked by poor government, corruption, and economic stagnation since its independence in 1991. As a consequence, some estimates suggest that it will need over $25 billion just to sustain its economy for the next year or two. Consequently, the true measure of the success of any Western strategy must contain as a primary objective the creation of a successful market economy as well as a functioning democracy firmly in place in Ukraine. The fact that Ukraine has now signed a political association agreement with the European Union is important, and this has finally been coupled with congressional action offering Kiev $1 billion in loans. It appears likely that the International Monetary Fund will approve a loan package of $15 billion in the near future. But these are initial steps on a long road to economic recovery. Greater assistance will be required in the future to stabilize the Ukrainian economy and root out corruption. Furthermore, it is imperative that the United States and its European allies insure that the elections planned for May are conducted in as fair and transparent a manner as possible.
Finally, a new American strategy must also seek to reassure its allies and friends. Many European states as well as other American allies around the world were clearly concerned about the continued American commitment to their defense in light of the so-called American “pivot to the Pacific,” declining defense budgets, as well as Washington’s response to both the crisis in Ukraine and the ongoing civil war in Syria. Furthermore, the United States must clearly understand that its moral authority among even its closest allies has been damaged by the invasion of Iraq and the revelations about NSA eavesdropping on European leaders.
In the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Crimea, Vice President Biden criss-crossed Eastern Europe and the Baltic Republics to reassure those allies who felt the most exposed to any potential future Russian threat. This was followed by trips by both Secretary of Defense Hagel and Secretary of State Kerry. President Obama’s journey to Brussels, the Hague, and Rome was a further attempt to reaffirm America’s support. This was followed by a brief trip to Saudi Arabia and an impending trip to Korea and Japan.
In Europe, President Obama observed that “Europe is America’s closest partner. Europe, including the European Union, is the cornerstone of our engagement around the globe. We are more secure and we are more prosperous, the world is safer and more just when Europe and American stand as one.” At the same time, Mr. Obama coupled his efforts at reassurance with a pointed reminder that “if we have collective defense, it means everyone’s got to chip in.” He further noted the continuing decline in defense spending across NATO members which means very few meet the announced Alliance goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product for their respective national defense.
If a new strategy is to be successful, European leaders will need to take this most recent admonition to heart. They should recognize that this is hardly the first time an American leader has underscored the need for increased European “burdensharing” in recent years. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described this challenge unmistakably in his well-known valedictory address at NATO headquarters in June 2011. Gates observed, “. . . if current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders—those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me—may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”
In the last analysis, the key ingredients for a successful strategy include both time and sustainment. Ukraine must have time to stabilize its domestic situation, the West must have time to convince Putin that naked aggression against a sovereign state is unacceptable, and Putin must have time to conclude that further brazen steps will have great costs and few benefits. Putin’s ultimate goal is to avoid having a Ukraine that is a Western outpost on his border. That was the precise condition the deposed Ukrainian President was supposed to prevent with his pro-Russian policies. Putin needs to be shown that the policies he is now pursuing, if aggressively continued, will result in the very outcome he wants to avoid. With our allies, the United States must now create a strategy and sustain it over time. These steps can create conditions and provide time for Mr. Putin and those who may follow him to seriously consider the folly Russia has undertaken.
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