Russian Aggression is a Predictable Result of Bad Western Policy
The US should revise its policy of expanding NATO to former Soviet countries. This is a clear red line for Russia upon which it feels obligated to act. With recent political maneuverings, the US is exacerbating the situation and setting up Ukraine and Moldova to suffer the same fate as Georgia.
Beyond the Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the same type of action taken to realign the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula should be expected. More specifically, the next red line that Russia will not allow NATO to cross is the incorporation of the Ukraine to the West….. Again, the Ukraine will be the next target of Russian national military power if the US continues to push for NATO incorporation.
The above wasn’t written recently or in hindsight to the actions this past week in Crimea. It was written in 2008. Well before a Russian incursion into Ukraine garnered any serious thought (unclassified background paper available upon request: “Strategic Context and Implication of the Georgian-Russian War of Aug 2008,” written by author, Oct 2008). Yet, this is almost exactly what has happened. For all the hand-wringing and talk over American “weakness” or “appeasement” that gets irresponsibly thrown around, we need to understand why our immediate reaction now is almost less important than the geopolitical environment that caused first the Georgia-Russia War in 2008 and the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Through this understanding can we develop the proper response and maintain the necessary relationship with Russia as we go forward. This isn’t about a simplistic view of cause and effect based on hindsight resulting in Crimea’s annexation, or being a Russian apologist. Quite simply put, what’s past is prologue and unless our foreign policy and single-tracked mind set on NATO expansion begins to understand this, Crimea won’t be the last inconvenience we have to suffer in the ramp-up to the perfectly avoidable cooling of Russian-US relations. Although nowhere near the severity or risk of the original Cold War, the situation in Ukraine need not nudge us back in that direction.
What is the cause of the current conflict? It’s a classic security dilemma. Again, this is not hindsight bias; this exact Crimean scenario could be predicted within the context of ongoing US and NATO policy back in 2008 when we seriously began considering a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Georgia. Considering the stream of recent history and the systemic nature of the European environment coupled with Russian perceptions of both, there could have been no conclusion other than what we saw occur over the past few weeks.
The Russians were never brought into the fold of the post-Soviet environment once they disbanded the Warsaw Pact. They were kept at arm’s length both economically and militarily. Yes, we allowed them to join a “partnership for peace,” as an unnecessary appendix of NATO utility and weight in the geopolitical and military decision making space. It was a token political bone and nothing more. And they knew it. What’s worse, after winning the Cold War, the US let them completely fail economically. While Russia was admitted into the WTO officially in 2013 after 19 years of negotiation, this is by any measure too little too late. Even considering the initial scope and processes of the IMF reforms of the 1990s, assistance in bringing Russia out of the Cold War was disconnected, mismanaged, and riddled with unrealistic political demands. This was precisely the time that the United States needed to holistically bring Russia towards the Western-based international system and, furthermore, sidelined or totally ceased NATO expansion. At the critical time when the Russians needed social, economic, stabilizing assistance to get back on their feet to the benefit of not only their own, but also wider Europe and American interests, we let them flounder, let their economy be raped and stolen away by the oligarchs (who we in part enabled, not much unlike the warlords in Afghanistan in the rebuilding of that country), and let them spiral down in failure as they looked for help. There was no follow-through after winning the Cold War; no “Phase Four” in military planners’ parlance.
For comparison of American and European misdirection over the past two decades, one needs to ask how has the billions spent in Afghanistan, a strategic insignificance compared to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the most critical relationship America has had to deal with since 1945, been money well spent in comparison? Has American policy and grand strategy become so atrophied that we judge nation building for counterinsurgency and limited counter terrorism as more important than seeing the world through the post Cold War space and security architecture? This is the American leadership the world longs for; not in rebuilding barely-existent nation-states. When the resources, policy, and planning efforts of the American response to a post-Soviet Russia is judged against the national energy spent in Afghanistan, it is an abortion of rational policy and strategy.
The lack of Western follow-through and disregard of post-Soviet Russian requirements towards stability is the Russian perspective and their reality. They’re aware that when they disbanded the Warsaw Pact it was not met in kind by the West. They’re aware they were left to fend largely for themselves with only lip service from the United States and Europe. They’re aware they can trust no one, as per the usual Russian chauvinism and paranoia, which we only helped to reinforce. They’re aware that the West seems to be intent on chipping away at existential security buffers they perceive must be maintained for historical reasons. The biggest existential threats to the Russian state were the invasions that occurred through Poland (Germany, both world wars) as well as its southern periphery (the Islamic Golden Horde and later Tatar Yoke)—all buffer areas now (Poland) or intended (Georgia) to be stripped away by NATO. The fact that American policymakers do not seem to have a grasp of recent, let alone far-reaching history, is obviously telling in why we cannot understand its impact to the current situation or craft a rational strategy going forward. This explains why our Russia policy is petty, counterproductive, and reactionary. But, that can be changed.
The preceding is the environment the Russians saw in the decade following the Cold War. They perceive that they were led to failure by the West after agreeing to dissolve the Iron Curtain, that they were ignored as the world moved past the Cold War, that they had to fend for themselves in the face of a growing European economic union who cut them off from closer relationships. That being said, we furthermore went back on our word about NATO expansion. Not only in addition to hamstringing them economically (from their perspective), we continued to encircle them militarily. For a long time Russia couldn’t do anything about it except offer weak protestations. Yet, we continued to expand, ultimately, right up to its borders. There is a very fine line between the perceptions and realities of what occurred to Russia in the post-Soviet time, but we cannot absolve ourselves of the various actions that we’ve taken and the interpretation of these actions and reactions by the Russian people and Putin.
Putin is anything but an irrational actor. I would doubt you could even define his actions as a result of greed or megalomaniacal, czarist intent. The actions he’s taken over time in Kaliningrad with SRBM deployments, then the Georgian invasion, and now Crimea are perfectly rational and I’d challenge anyone to say that they wouldn’t have done the same given the completeness of the context. Aside from all the cultural issues with Ukraine and Crimea that only reinforce his argument (in the Russian mind), there is absolutely no way he’d let Ukraine formally slip to the West. Yet, that was exactly what was happening; first because of the EU (that, not surprisingly, has helped create the situation then meekly walked away from the aftermath), then as a result of the NATO Membership Action Plan, which doubtlessly would have followed. Putin’s seen this story before; he knows how it would have ended. He made his stand about it in Crimea. If we were smart, not myopic, and not suffering from petty, reactive thinking, we’d have seen this coming a long way off. But, we didn’t because we still choose to look at his actions as if they occur in a vacuum, unaffected by history. At its most basic, it is simple cause and effect. He tried telegraphing his intent to us over the years; we just chose not to listen. We broke Kosovo away from Serbia, another Slavic/Orthodox red line, which we simply unilaterally blew past. We took former Warsaw Pact members and put them in NATO. We chipped away the Russian strategic security buffer and near abroad, constricting both from the east and south. How could we ever be so blind to assume Putin wouldn’t take a stand someplace? Crimea was that place when he felt Ukraine slipping into the EU, which would only then be a matter of time before full NATO accession. Russia would never let that occur, yet again we ignored it. That brings us to today with a fully annexed Crimea being fought over as if we can win it back through a legal argument (again, see Kosovo).
This isn’t undue simplicity; this is the reality of a perception we chose not to consider or validate. Our actions cause effects and we were dense enough to keep plodding along with NATO expansion for no geopolitical reason and expect it to go unanswered. I go back to the original statement made in 2008, which should have been a matter for serious debate back in the 1990s: the U.S. should revise its policies about not only NATO expansion, but the utility and even existence of NATO in a post-Warsaw Pact world. The West and certainly the U.S. glided past that debate because NATO had turned into something beyond its initial scope and its primary purpose turned into simply justifying its own existence in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The status quo was more monetarily beneficial to existing and prospective NATO members than seriously considering its place in a post-Soviet world.
So where do we go from here? The U.S. needs to ratchet back the overbearing talk of containing Russia, expanding NATO still, and certainly cease the renewed talk of MAPs for both Ukraine and Georgia. Crimea is, for all intents and purposes, the newest Russian oblast and the West should accept it. Just as with Kosovar independence, the Crimea issue is “illegal but legitimate”, at least in the eyes of the sponsor. And apparently that’s all that matters. Beyond that, Russia and the U.S. as world powers can negotiate terms of a new security environment between the two that maintains Russian sensitivities of encirclement and spheres of influence, yet at the same time, takes into account obviously valid concerns of Eastern European states who look to a resurgent Russia with trepidation. Europe should also take this as a sign to diversify its energy suppliers. However, now that the fait accompli of Crimean annexation is complete, the U.S. must demand that Russia withdraw its forces from the Ukrainian border and initiate the return of normalcy within Crimea. That must unfortunately entail Ukraine completing the immediate withdrawal of its forces from the peninsula as prior to that Russian troops have no reason to return to garrison. Until this occurs, there will be no stability and no path forward. This must, in time, be matched by NATO de-escalation of its show of force in the surrounding states upon verification of Russian intent. Russia has chewed off a lot of problems endemic to Crimea; there will be a big bill to pay to keep it solvent and overcome its problems. But, that’s Russia’s problem now and it has to put its rubles where its mouth is.
These aforementioned steps must be accomplished, however, because there are more interests that align Russia and the West than separate it. Between dealing with the spread of Islamic extremism, nuclear proliferation, Iranian and Syrian intransigence, failure of weak states and the resulting spread of terrorism, counter narcotics, opening and building Russian markets for a stagnating European economy, and even providing a geopolitical balance to the rise of China, there should be more that ties us to Russia than divides us. A stable and growing Russia is more of a U.S. (and European) national interest than a resurgent Soviet one. We’re leaning towards creating the latter (and all the lost opportunities that it entails) because we don’t know how to envisage the former. Although containment was good for the military industrial complex, it was good for little else. While it worked in a geopolitical sense for the context of the Cold War and a self-limiting Communist ideology, neither Russia nor the West can afford a return to that environment.
LTC Jeremy Kotkin is a U.S. Army Strategist, currently serving in the War Plans Division of HQDA 3/5 at the Pentagon. Between 2010 and 2013 he deployed twice to Kabul to work with the Afghan Office of the National Security Council in the Presidential Palace, Kabul. He has served in overseas assignments in Korea, Germany, Japan, and Italy and deployed for Operations Joint Forge and Enduring Freedom. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or the United States Army.