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Andrew A. Michta

Countering Putin’s Push

Russia’s challenge to the West has been building for a long time, and has reached a crescendo with the crisis in Ukraine. The window is closing, but there is still time to act and tip the balance.

Geopolitics has returned to the periphery of the Old World with a vengeance, upending Brussels’ well-scrubbed public agendas.   Clearly, the depth of the Ukrainian crisis has caught politicians and analysts unawares, for not long ago, during the storied Vilnius Summit of the EU Eastern Partnership, all seemed on track for the EU to sign an association agreement with Ukraine.  Though some in the West doubted the Ukrainian government’s sincerity prior to Vilnius, nobody in power seemed to give a second thought to the likely scope of Russian pressure and the decisiveness of the Ukraine government’s pro-Russian shift. Europe’s politicians were also not prepared for the public outcry in Maidan square in Kiev after President Yanukovych scuttled the EU agreement, in the process inking a $15 billion dollar deal with Moscow.

And there are deeper issues at stake than the fate of Ukraine alone.  Russia has been coming back into NATO’s strategic field for several years now, determined to reassert its ability to shape the post-Soviet sphere.  The crisis in Ukraine is a defining moment for the future of Eastern Europe, and indirectly for NATO’s Nordic/Baltic/Central European periphery.  It does not fit into the mold of the “color revolutions,” nor will its greatest impact be whether it succeeds in making Ukraine’s shaky democracy gel.

At its core, Ukraine is a Russian story—a geopolitical test of Moscow’s ability to shape its immediate security environment at will by resorting directly to economic and political pressure, with threats and bribes in full view of the United States and Europe.  It has been Vladimir Putin’s gamble to link the outcome in Ukraine to Russia’s willingness to cooperate with the United States on nuclear arms control, Iran, or Syria so as to restore the traditional pattern of Russian leverage in its relations with the West. Simply put, today in Ukraine Russia has laid out its sphere of influence openly and unapologetically, demanding that “external meddling” and support for the opposition cease immediately.  In that sense Ukraine is a transformative moment, whose outcome will impact many trouble spots around the globe, and will reset—this time for real—the tenor of Russia’s relations with the United States.

Nobody can safely predict how the Ukrainian drama will play itself out.  The country has been caught in a vortex of unfolding change in Europe against the backdrop of a global power shift.  The last five years have witnessed a decline in U.S. influence in key regions of the globe, most poignantly in Asia Pacific, where U.S. allies have been directly challenged by the geostrategic and military assertiveness of China.  In the Middle East, the original policy of the Obama Administration, manifest in the President’s 2009 Cairo speech, has yielded to increasingly ad hoc crisis management efforts, as America’s ability to shape the environment there has been constrained by its withdrawal from Iraq and its policy gyrations towards Egypt.

America’s failed “reset” with Moscow and bungled response to Syria have persuaded the Kremlin that the United States has become a leveraged power, looking to reduce its commitments without a larger strategic design.  In Russia the so-called “pivot” to Asia has been interpreted as another symptom of U.S. retrenchment, and in Central Europe as a portent of America’s disengagement.  Responding to internal pressure in 2010, NATO drafted the New Strategic Context and put in place contingency planning for the defense of the region—a positive decision by the Obama Administration. However, the limited nature of America’s involvement in recent Steadfast Jazz exercises in Poland, with only 250 U.S. Army troops participating, has sent an ambiguous political message about its longer-term commitment.

Russia, for its part, has thrown its support behind the Eurasian Union project, and showed little interest in cooperating with the West.  A Eurasian Union that includes Ukraine, should Moscow succeed in forcing it in, would enhance Russia’s position vis-à-vis the European Union, and serve as a hedge against China.  The security component of Putin’s policy design is the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) at present with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

While some might think this is opportunism on Putin’s part—and one should never undermine Russia’s ability to gauge power balances at the most basic level and grasp an advantage—the realignment underway over Ukraine is by design rather than by accident.  In effect since 2007 Russia has firmly articulated what could be called a “privileged interest” in the Caucasus, similarly asserting its right to shape the near abroad in the European post-Soviet area.  In a speech he gave in Munich that year Vladimir Putin put the West on notice that Russia would confront it directly on NATO enlargement and missile defense.  Moscow would no longer cooperate with the West outside narrowly defined transactional relations where Russia’s interest was clear, such as in counterterrorism intelligence sharing.

The Russian-Georgian war of 2008 should have served as a wakeup call for the United States and Europe that Russia was determined to press its claim with military force if needed.  Western response has been tepid at best since then. It looked on as Russia shut off Ukraine’s gas supply in 2009, and it stayed mum during the Zapad/Ladoga joint anti-NATO exercises in 2009, and then again in 2013. Most recently, the West failed to respond when Moscow used its economic leverage to bring Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine to heel, in blatant contravention of WTO rules. And then there is the case of Russia’s testing a new ground-launched cruise missile, in violation of the 1987 medium-range ballistic missiles treaty with the United States: still no official protest from the White House.

Russia’s room to maneuver politically in Ukraine and elsewhere in the post-Soviet “near abroad” has been aided by shifts in defense spending that are rapidly reordering the geostrategic landscape both in Asia and in Europe, expanding Russia’s power to shape its security environment. In Asia, China’s defense budget rose 10.7 percent, officially up to $114 billion for the year, with a rate of growth averaging 9.7% between 2003 and 2012, though Defense Department estimates put it at close to twice the official figure. Russia has firmly taken the third spot after the United States and China, with a 16% defense spending increase in 2012 and a 26% increase in 2013.  The current ten-year $700 billion military modernization program Russia has put in place, taken in the context of the de facto demilitarization of Europe, has already shifted the balance of power along NATO’s periphery.  Ukraine is caught in that vortex.

The window for the West to act in Ukraine is closing, but there is still time.  Whatever plan is chosen will require the clear engagement of the United States in close cooperation with its key allies in Europe.  This means a visit by the Secretary of State to Kiev to engage at the senior level with the Ukrainian government, and to send a message that alternatives are available, if conditional, to pave the way for early elections. 

 The West needs to offer Ukraine a program of direct economic assistance, not unlike the Marshall Plan after World War II.  Such a Program for Ukraine would offer the Ukrainians assistance in exchange for conditionality, but give hope and present a clear, if for now still remote, path to membership in the European Union.  Most importantly, a workable response would require assurances from the current government and Ukraine’s president of an orderly transition, with guaranteed safeguards in exchange for accepting early monitored elections.

At one level Ukraine is most obviously and intensely about the future of 46 million people who are fed up with the corruption and the pro-Russian drift of the regime. At another it is about the security of the Nordic/Baltic/Central European region, which is fast being transformed into NATO’s new frontier.  And yet at another level it is about a resurgent Russia’s return to great power politics, a nation bent on re-asserting its claims to the post-Soviet “near abroad,” notwithstanding the problems it faces at home.

There is a lesson here both for the United States and Europe.  Despite their best efforts to look away it is only a matter of time before the changing northeastern frontier of Europe will force itself into NATO’s debate on strategy.  Today the current sloshing under the post-Cold War power balance bears the name of Ukraine; a year ago it was called Belarus; next time it may be Georgia. Perhaps it is ironic that today’s post-modern Europe is getting a lesson in geopolitics.  To paraphrase Leon Trotsky: You may not be interested in Russia, but Russia is interested in you.


February 5, 2014