As I discussed last week, the fundamental problem that Ukraine poses for Russia, beyond a long-term geographical threat, is a crisis in internal legitimacy. Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent his time in power rebuilding the authority of the Russian state within Russia and the authority of Russia within the former Soviet Union. The events in Ukraine undermine the second strategy and potentially the first. If Putin cannot maintain at least Ukrainian neutrality, then the world’s perception of him as a master strategist is shattered, and the legitimacy and authority he has built for the Russian state is, at best, shaken.
Whatever the origins of the events in Ukraine, the United States is now engaged in a confrontation with Russia. The Russians believe that the United States was the prime mover behind regime change in Ukraine. At the very least, the Russians intend to reverse events in Ukraine. At most, the Russians have reached the conclusion that the United States intends to undermine Russia’s power. They will resist. The United States has the option of declining confrontation, engaging in meaningless sanctions against individuals and allowing events to take their course. Alternatively, the United States can choose to engage and confront the Russians.
A failure to engage at this point would cause countries around Russia’s periphery, from Estonia to Azerbaijan, to conclude that with the United States withdrawn and Europe fragmented, they must reach an accommodation with Russia. This will expand Russian power and open the door to Russian influence spreading on the European Peninsula itself. The United States has fought three wars (World War I, World War II and the Cold War) to prevent hegemonic domination of the region. Failure to engage would be a reversal of a century-old strategy.
The American dilemma is how to address the strategic context in a global setting in which it is less involved in the Middle East and is continuing to work toward a “pivot to Asia.” Nor can the United States simply allow events to take their course. The United States needs a strategy that is economical and coherent militarily, politically and financially. It has two advantages. Some of the countries on Russia’s periphery do not want to be dominated by her. Russia, in spite of some strengths, is inherently weak and does not require U.S. exertion on the order of the two World Wars, the Cold War or even the Middle East engagements of the past decade.
The Russian and U.S. Positions
I discussed Russian options on Ukraine last week. Putin is now in a position where, in order to retain with confidence his domestic authority, he must act decisively to reverse the outcome. The problem is there is no single decisive action that would reverse events. Eventually, the inherent divisions in Ukraine might reverse events. However, a direct invasion of eastern Ukraine would simply solidify opposition to Russia in Kiev and trigger responses internationally that he cannot predict. In the end, it would simply drive home that although the Russians once held a dominant position in all of Ukraine, they now hold it in less than half. In the long run, this option — like other short-term options — would not solve the Russian conundrum.
Whatever Putin does in Ukraine, he has two choices. One is simply to accept the reversal, which I would argue that he cannot do. The second is to take action in places where he might achieve rapid diplomatic and political victories against the West — the Baltics, Moldova or the Caucasus — while encouraging Ukraine’s government to collapse into gridlock and developing bilateral relations along the Estonia-Azerbaijan line. This would prevent a U.S. strategy of containment — a strategy that worked during the Cold War and one that the Europeans are incapable of implementing on their own. This comes down to the Americans.
The United States has been developing, almost by default, a strategy not of disengagement but of indirect engagement. Between 1989 and 2008, the U.S. strategy has been the use of U.S. troops as the default for dealing with foreign issues. From Panama to Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States followed a policy of direct and early involvement of U.S. military forces. However, this was not the U.S. strategy from 1914 to 1989. Then, the strategy was to provide political support to allies, followed by economic and military aid, followed by advisers and limited forces, and in some cases pre-positioned forces. The United States kept its main force in reserve for circumstances in which (as in 1917 and 1942 and, to a lesser degree, in Korea and Vietnam) allies could not contain the potential hegemon. Main force was the last resort.
This was primarily a strategy of maintaining the balance of power. The containment of the Soviet Union involved creating an alliance system comprising countries at risk of Soviet attack. Containment was a balance of power strategy that did not seek the capitulation of the Soviet Union as much as increasing the risks of offensive action using allied countries as the first barrier. The threat of full U.S. intervention, potentially including nuclear weapons, coupled with the alliance structure, constrained Soviet risk-taking.
Because the current Russian Federation is much weaker than the Soviet Union was at its height and because the general geographic principle in the region remains the same, a somewhat analogous balance of power strategy is likely to emerge after the events in Ukraine. Similar to the containment policy of 1945-1989, again in principle if not in detail, it would combine economy of force and finance and limit the development of Russia as a hegemonic power while exposing the United States to limited and controlled risk.
The coalescence of this strategy is a development I forecast in two books, The Next Decade and The Next 100 Years, as a concept I called the Intermarium. The Intermarium was a plan pursued after World War I by Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski for a federation, under Poland’s aegis, of Central and Eastern European countries. What is now emerging is not the Intermarium, but it is close. And it is now transforming from an abstract forecast to a concrete, if still emergent, reality.
Forces Leading to the Alliance’s Emergence
A direct military intervention by the United States in Ukraine is not possible. First, Ukraine is a large country, and the force required to protect it would outstrip U.S. capabilities. Second, supplying such a force would require a logistics system that does not exist and would take a long time to build. Finally, such an intervention would be inconceivable without a strong alliance system extending to the West and around the Black Sea. The United States can supply economic and political support, but Ukraine cannot counterbalance Russia and the United States cannot escalate to the point of using its own forces. Ukraine is a battleground on which Russian forces would have an advantage and a U.S. defeat would be possible.
If the United States chooses to confront Russia with a military component, it must be on a stable perimeter and on as broad a front as possible to extend Russian resources and decrease the probability of Russian attack at any one point out of fear of retaliation elsewhere. The ideal mechanism for such a strategy would be NATO, which contains almost