country was comfortable with U.S. aggressiveness in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Both countries shared the need to create new economic relationships in the face of the European economic crisis and the need to contain the United States. Hence, the apparent German shift was startling.
Although Germany’s move should not be dismissed, its meaning was not as clear as it seemed. In her cell phone call, Nuland is clearly dismissing the Germans, Klitschko and all their efforts in Ukraine. This could mean that the strategy was too feeble for American tastes (Berlin cannot, after all, risk too big a confrontation with Moscow). Or it could mean that when the Germans said they were planning to be more assertive, their new boldness was meant to head off U.S. efforts. Looking at this week’s events, it is not clear what the Germans meant.
What is clear is that the United States was not satisfied with Germany and the European Union. Logically, this meant that the United States intended to be more aggressive than the Germans in supporting opponents of the regime. This is a touchy issue for human rights advocates, or should be. Yanukovich is the elected president of Ukraine, winner of an election that is generally agreed to have been honest (even though his constitutional amendments and subsequent parliamentary elections may not have been). He was acting within his authority in rejecting the deal with the European Union. If demonstrators can unseat an elected president because they disagree with his actions, they have set a precedent that undermines constitutionalism. Even if he was rough in suppressing the demonstrators, it does not nullify his election.
From a balance of power strategy, however, it makes great sense. A pro-Western, even ambiguous, Ukraine poses a profound strategic problem for Russia. It would be as if Texas became pro-Russian, and the Mississippi River system, oil production, the Midwest and the Southwest became vulnerable. The Russian ability to engage in Iran or Syria suddenly contracts. Moscow’s focus must be on Ukraine.
Using the demonstrations to create a massive problem for Russia does two things. It creates a real strategic challenge for the Russians and forces them on the defensive. Second, it reminds Russia that Washington has capabilities and options that make challenging the United States difficult. And it can be framed in a way that human rights advocates will applaud in spite of the constitutional issues, enemies of the Iranian talks will appreciate and Central Europeans from Poland to Romania will see as a sign of U.S. commitment to the region. The United States will re-emerge as an alternative to Germany and Russia. It is a brilliant stroke.
Its one weakness, if we can call it that, is that it is hard to see how it can work. Russia has significant economic leverage in Ukraine, it is not clear that pro-Western demonstrators are in the majority, and Russian covert capabilities in Ukraine outstrip American capabilities. The Federal Security Service and Foreign Intelligence Service have been collecting files on Ukrainians for a long time. We would expect that after the Olympics in Sochi, the Russians could play their trump cards.
On the other hand, even if the play fails, the United States will have demonstrated that it is back in the game and that the Russians should look around their periphery and wonder where the United States will act next. Putting someone in a defensive crouch does not require that the first punch work. It is enough for the opponent to understand that the next punch will come when he is least expecting it. The mere willingness of the United States to engage will change the expectations of Central Europe, cause tensions between the Central Europeans and the Germans and create an opening for the United States.
The Pressure on Russia
Of course, the question is whether and where the Russians will answer the Americans, or even if they will consider the U.S. actions significant at all. In a sense, Syria was Moscow’s move and this is the countermove. The Russians can choose to call the game. They have many reasons to. Their economy is under pressure. The Germans may not rally to the United States, but they will not break from it. And if the United States ups the ante in Central Europe, Russian inroads there will dissolve.
If the Russians are now an American problem, which they are, and if the United States is not going to revert to a direct intervention mode, which it cannot, then this strategy makes sense. At the very least it gives the Russians a problem and a sense of insecurity that can curb their actions elsewhere. At best it could create a regime that might not counterbalance Russia but could make pipelines and ports vulnerable — especially with U.S. help.
The public interception of Nuland’s phone call was not all that embarrassing. It showed the world that the United States, not Germany, is leading the way in Ukraine. And it showed the Russians that the Americans care so little, they will express it on an open cell phone line. Nuland’s obscene dismissal of the European Union and treatment of Russia as a problem to deal with confirms a U.S. policy: The United States is not going to war, but passivity is over.
“Russia Beyond Sochi: New Dimensions of U.S. Foreign Policy is republished with permission of Stratfor.”