Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in George Friedman’s recent series written during his journey from the Baltics, through Central and Eastern Europe and then east to Turkey and Azerbaijan.
I traveled between Poland and Azerbaijan during a rare period when the forces that shape Europe appear to be in flux, and most of the countries I visited are re-evaluating their positions. The overwhelming sense was anxiety. Observers from countries such as Poland make little effort to hide it. Those from places such as Turkey, which is larger and not directly in the line of fire, look at Ukraine as an undercurrent rather than the dominant theme. But from Poland to Azerbaijan, I heard two questions: Are the Russians on the move? And what can these countries do to protect themselves?
Moscow is anxious too, and some Russians I spoke to expressed this quite openly. From the Russian point of view, the Europeans and Americans did the one thing they knew Moscow could not live with: They installed a pro-Western government in Kiev. For them, the Western claims of a popular rising in Ukraine are belied by the Western-funded nongovernmental organizations that were critical to sustaining the movement to unseat the government. But that is hardly what matters most. A pro-Western government now controls Ukraine, and if that control holds, the Russian Federation is in danger.
The View to Russia’s West
When the Russians look at a map, this is what they see: The Baltic states are in NATO and Ukraine has aligned with the West. The anti-Western government in Belarus is at risk, and were Minsk to change its loyalties, Russia’s potential enemies will have penetrated almost as deeply toward the Russian core as the Nazis did. This is a comparison I heard Russians make several times. For them, the Great Patriotic War (World War II), which left more than 20 million Soviet dead, is a vivid, living memory, and so is Hitler’s treachery. Russians are not a trusting people and have no reason to be. The same is true of the Central Europeans, the Turks and the Caucasians. Nothing in their past permits them the luxury of assuming the best about anyone.
In recent weeks, three things have become obvious. The first is that the Russians will not invade Ukraine directly. You don’t occupy a country of almost 50 million people with the 50,000 troops Russia has mobilized, and you can never assume that an occupied population will welcome you. The Russians have postured as if they were an overwhelming force, but the threat of American munitions dumps and airstrikes against fuel depots — not something that the Russians can dismiss out of hand — as well as the threat of an insurgency leave the Russians wary.
Equally clear is that no European power can defend the line running from Poland to Romania with the decisive force needed to repel a Russian attack — or even support these countries against Russian pressure and potential subversion. Germany is the key country, and Berlin has made it clear that there are limits to what it is prepared to do in Ukraine and to the steps it is ready to take to defend the eastern flank of NATO and the European Union. Berlin does not want another Cold War. Germany depends on Russian energy and ultimately is satisfied with the status quo. The rest of Europe cannot intervene decisively.
Finally, this means that any support to Europe’s eastern flank must come from the United States. Washington spent the past few weeks indicating its commitment to two key countries: Poland and Romania. President Barack Obama went to Poland while Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Romania, and while both leaders stressed Washington’s absolute commitment to Poland’s and Romania’s national security, they were short on specifics. That lack of detail is not surprising — the United States is still taking stock of the situation. Washington is not ready to outline the nature and extent of its support, and from the American point of view, so long as the Russians are focused on Ukraine, there is still time to do so.
The primary concern for the United States would logically be Poland, the most vulnerable country on the North European Plain. But for now, distance and logistics limit the Russians’ ability to threaten Poland. The stability of the Baltic states is the greatest fear in the region, and the threat there is not Russian invasion, but Russian subversion — a threat that armored divisions cannot address.
More important, a primary commitment to Poland forces any alliance into a defensive posture. That made sense during the Cold War, when Soviet conventional military forces were much larger and better deployed. But Russia today is far weaker, and a more assertive strategy — one that presents Russia with risks while also defending key assets — is more appropriate.
The Emerging Black Sea Strategy
For these reasons, we see the United States beginning to adopt a Black Sea strategy centered on Romania. The Russians held on to Sevastopol because naval capability in the Black Sea is critical. A strategy that enhances Romania’s naval capability and places U.S. aircraft in the region would pose a threat to the Russian fleet. It would also extend defensive capabilities to Georgia and protect the indispensible route for any pipelines running from Azerbaijan. Put simply, a competent rival Black Sea fleet would create problems for Russia, particularly if the Ukrainian regime survives and Crimea is isolated. The visit by U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to Romania indicates the importance U.S. strategic thinkers place on that country.
It is important to note the extensive diplomacy ongoing between the United States and Turkey, as well as meetings between Turkish, Romanian and Polish leaders. The Turks are obviously vulnerable to energy cutoffs, and Ankara does not want to see the Black Sea used as a battleground. At the same time, Turkey would want to be a part of any alliance structure the United States is constructing in the region. In the long run, the Turks have a deep interest in Iraqi and Iranian energy and little trust in Russian intentions.
What we are seeing is regional players toying with new alliance structures. The process is in its infancy, but it is already forcing the Russians to consider their future. An added dimension to this is of course energy. The Russians would appear to have the advantage here: Many of the nations that fear Moscow also depend on it for natural gas. But there is a Russian weakness here as well. Natural gas is a powerful lever, but it is not particularly profitable. Russia’s national budget — indeed, its economy — is built around oil. The chief danger Moscow faces is that it doesn’t control the price of oil. A radical decline in that benchmark would cause the Russian economy to stagger at the very least. While in Poland, Obama deliberately pointed out Russia’s economic problems. He wanted Russian President Vladimir Putin to know that he understands Russia’s weakness.
Deployment of military force, while necessary, is therefore not the core element of the developing Western strategy. Rather, the key move is to take steps to flood the world market with oil — even knowing that implementing this strategy is extremely difficult.