Mar 24 2014

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A Post-Crimea Foreign Policy for the US

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How Far Will He Go...?

How Far Will He Go…?

Writing about Vladimir Putin’s “adventurism” in Sunday’s Washington Post, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated that a meaningful Western response should note that, “Putin’s view of the world is rooted in dangerous fictions.”

The irony of course, is that the former Secretary could have as easily been talking about American foreign policy under President Obama.

For more than five years now, the Obama administration has seen the world through illusions of their own construct; illusions that made possible the subordination of American leadership generally and a dangerous retreat of US power globally. The Obama foreign policy did not create the Crimean crisis, but the Administration’s failure to see the harsh realities beyond their reassuring constructs certainly contributed to the present Russian adventurism and other problems around the globe that have made today’s world more dangerous and unpredictable than that which Obama inherited in 2009.

No structure can long survive on a faulty foundation. And so it is with the Obama Russian outreach, which has come crashing down around the President as five years of investment in better relations have served only to abet Putin’s adventurism.  The Administration’s dream of a post-nation-state world of collective action has met the certainty and substance of power politics, and it’s vision has become a casualty.

The real situation.

Tactically, Putin’s Crimea venture makes sense from a Russian point of view.

Geographically, demographically and militarily, Russia held all the cards. Political instability in Kiev after the latest “revolution” – originally seen as a political rebuff for Putin – provided the gift of timing that was turned to Russia’s territorial advantage.

And from the Kremlin’s perspective, there was little the United States or Europe could do about the Crimea takeover.

 In Putin’s likely view, the US has been in full-fledged retreat since 2009, with the run for exits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US economy is hobbled by the Administration’s own policies and the President himself is committed to significant cuts in the size of the US military, even as it tries to pivot what is left to Asia. Without Russia, there would be no Iranian nuclear negotiations.  And Putin all but bailed out Obama and Kerry from their jaw-dropping ineptitude in dealing with Syria.

From Moscow’s perspective, Washington is weak, naïve, vacillating and in decline.

The situation regarding Europe is much the same. The EU has been in an existential economic crisis since 2009, that only now seems to be stabilizing. Horrific unemployment and feeble growth continue to plague the Union, particularly in the southern region. Budget cuts necessary to restore fiscal balance. have eviscerated defense spending that was already at a historic low. The Libyan conflict demonstrated the glaring weaknesses of European defense without US support for even the most basic tasks.

Even better, from Moscow’s view, Europe is dangerously reliant on Russian energy exports. 34 percent of all natural gas imports into the EU originate from Russia.  And in the strongest economy in Europe, 34 percent of all Germany energy use is fueled by Russia. That is roughly equivalent to the 38 percent of oil imports the US receives from the OPEC. Anyone 50 and older  remembers what happened to the US economy during the OPEC oil embargo in the 1970s. That represents similar Russian leverage in mitigating any meaningful impact of European outrage over the Crimea adventure.

What to do?

First, recognize that there are no quick fixes. Putin struck precisely where he has maximum advantage. Seizure of the Crimea, no matter how unlawful, will not be undone. Instead of focusing on overturning events where Russia is strongest, the US and Europe need to create a plan that emphasizes Western strengths and uses them to contain, isolate and eventual destabilize Putin’s regime as a consequence of his continued aggression.

Ukrainian Triage: the government in Kiev is new and untested. the economy is faltering, the government is broke and the people are restive and frightened. Covert, if not overt, Russian adventurism in Russian majority areas of Ukraine cannot be ruled out.

The West needs to go all in.


The biggest rebuke to Putin’s authoritarian revanchism in Russia’s “near abroad” is a free, democratic and economically prosperous Ukraine, with strong ties to the West. A Western aid package that patches the current system as Western technical expertise assists in building the Ukrainian economy with foreign direct investment is essential. If Russia persists with its provocative military behavior, the West should consider military-to-military training of Ukrainian units, and small arms exports.

Internalize NATO’s New Borders & the Consequences of Same: most Americans would probably be shocked to learn that since 1997, 10 countries – including seven countries that were part of the Warsaw Pact, as well as three former Soviet Republics – are now full members of NATO. Indeed, St. Petersburg is less than an hour’s drive from Tallinn, Estonia, a country which achieved full membership in 2004.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO has moved to incorporate Member states which has effectively moved the Alliance’s eastern border more than 900 miles to the very border of Russia. During that heady time period, political expansion of NATO was seen in Western capitals as a non-threatening security pillar, a companion to European economic integration through the EU. It was meant to include, not to threaten.

New Member states, with long histories, knew differently.

Whatever purpose Western leaders then envisioned for the NATO of the 21st century – and it was clear that founding Members saw Alliance moving into more of a global as opposed to regional or European role – NATO’s newbies were keenly aware that no change in purpose altered the guarantees of the founding pact, including the all important Article 5, which stipulates that an attack on any Member will be treated as an attack on all, including a US nuclear guarantee. They clearly sought membership to have American protection from the Russians, no matter what the prevailing wisdom was at the time.

The Russians saw it differently too, believing that they had verbal agreements from the West that reunification of Germany within NATO would be coupled with a pledge not to enlarge the Alliance east. However, 23 years later, NATO has 28 members and stands on Russia’s borders. It is not unreasonable for the Russians to have concluded that the West took advantage of Russia’s transition from the Soviet Union to expand its power and influence right into the heart of Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.

After the events in the Crimea, the world looks much more like that envisioned by the new states rather than that of the architects of NATO expansion. The idea that the new Members would ever have to invoke Article 5 – even more preposterously (at the time) in response to Russian aggression – now seem all too real. 35 percent of Latvia’s citizens are Russian speakers. 25 percent of Estonia’s citizens are of Russian descent. The rationale for the Russian annexation of the Crimea could easily be applied here – to NATO Members – with troubling consequences.

Having expanded the Alliance the US and Europe are now required to invigorate it. That means upgrading systems, increasing coordination, and modernizing weapons.  It will not be cheap and it will not be quick, but it is the only way to guarantee the credibility of an organization that preserved the West through the Cold War. It must again shoulder that burden.

Recognize that Russia is Not Ten Feet Tall: events in Crimea have outsized political implications, but they do not fundamentally change the strategic calculus with regard to Russia.

The Russian economy produces roughly $2 trillion in GDP per year, equal to about that of California.  That $2 trillion compares with a US GDP of nearly $14 trillion. Even a hobbled EU economy produces $16 trillion combined. That’s $30 trillion vs $2 trillion.

Economically, it’s no contest.

For all its bravado, Russian exports are limited to fossil fuels, minerals, chemicals and rogue billionaires. Outside of military equipment, Russia is not an innovator or leader in the products and services of the future. In many ways, it is little different from resource-rich countries in sub-Saharayn Africa, whose fortunes rise and fall on international commodities markets.

Take away the export markets for Russian extraction exports and you crater the Russian economy and the leadership that runs it.

For all the ink dedicated to the Crimean takeover, it bears pointing out that the Ukrainians didn’t resist.  Not a shot fired.  This is hardly the basis to judge Russian combat potential.

The truth is that while the Russian military is capable, it is only a shadow of itself compared to the former Soviet Union.  The fact that Russia poses such a threat to Ukraine says much more about the abysmal state of the Ukrainian military than it does about Russia’s. Russian performance in Georgia in 2008 was widely seen as a thuggish embarrassment from which Putin has tried to improve.

Which is to say that it is one thing to seize Crimea.  It is a much different story to begin an actual shooting war with the Ukraine, or to expand to involve NATO.

Economically, Russia does hold about $350 billion in US public debt – selling that off could cause a major fiscal and economic challenge. But that is nothing compared to the damage that can be inflicted on the Russian economy if Western European nations diversify their energy sources and corresponding dependence on Russian natural gas and oil.

Which informs the third Western requirement. A longer-term strategic pivot away from Russian energy. The US fracking boom offers the potential for US natural gas exports to Europe – whether that approach is economical has yet to be seen, but the very existence of credible, friendly alternate sources of energy is itself a positive sign in the strategic balance between Russia and the West.

In early 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor and serial American defeats across the Pacific, the Japanese empire was at its zenith, stretching from the Indian Ocean to the central Pacific. It appeared invincible.

But appearances can be deceiving.

The US economy was ten times as large as that of Japan. Sufficiently motivated by the sneak attack on Hawaii, America mobilized its vast industrial and economic capability to build a war machine that simply out-produced the Germans and Japanese combined.

Economic power, mobilized for military purposes, ended WWII in victory. Economic power, mobilized for economic purposes,  can have the same impact on Russian adventurism.

Russia skillfully played its tactical game in the Crimea, where it held all the cards. But the Wests owns the long game – the strategic game – – if only the Obama administration is willing to see the world for what it is and not what it want’s to see, and act accordingly.

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