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would cause countries around Russia’s periphery, from Estonia to Azerbaijan, to conclude that with the United States withdrawn and Europe fragmented, they must reach an accommodation with Russia.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 all of the critical countries save Azerbaijan and Georgia. The problem is that NATO is not a functional alliance. It was designed to fight the Cold War on a line far to the west of the current line. More important, there was unity on the principle that the Soviet Union represented an existential threat to Western Europe.
That consensus is no longer there. Different countries have different perceptions of Russia and different concerns. For many, a replay of the Cold War, even in the face of Russian actions in Ukraine, is worse than accommodation. In addition, the end of the Cold War has led to a massive drawdown of forces in Europe. NATO simply lacks the force unless there is a massive and sudden buildup. That will not occur because of the financial crisis, among other reasons. NATO requires unanimity to act, and that unanimity is not there.
The countries that were at risk from 1945 to 1989 are not the same as those at risk today. Many of these countries were part of the Soviet Union then, and the rest were Soviet satellites. The old alliance system was not built for this confrontation. The Estonia-Azerbaijan line has as its primary interest retaining sovereignty in the face of Russian power. The rest of Europe is not in jeopardy, and these countries are not prepared to commit financial and military efforts to a problem they believe can be managed with little risk to them. Therefore, any American strategy must bypass NATO or at the very least create new structures to organize the region.
Characteristics of the Alliance
Each of the various countries involved is unique and has to be addressed that way. But these countries share the common danger that events in Ukraine could spread and directly affect their national security interests, including internal stability. As I observed, the Baltics, Moldova and the Caucasus are areas where the Russians could seek to compensate for their defeat. Because of this, and also because of their intrinsic importance, Poland, Romania and Azerbaijan must be the posts around which this alliance is built.
The Baltic salient, 145 kilometers (90 miles) from St. Petersburg in Estonia, would be a target for Russian destabilization. Poland borders the Baltics and is the leading figure in the Visegrad battlegroup, an organization within the European Union. Poland is eager for a closer military relationship with the United States, as its national strategy has long been based on third-power guarantees against aggressors. The Poles cannot defend themselves and the Baltics, given the combat capabilities necessary for the task.
The Dniester River is 80 kilometers from Odessa, the main port on the Black Sea for Ukraine and an important one for Russia. The Prut River is about 200 kilometers from Bucharest, the capital of Romania. Moldova is between these two rivers. It is a battleground region, at least of competing political factions. Romania must be armed and supported in protecting Moldova and in organizing southeastern Europe. In Western hands, Moldova threatens Odessa, Ukraine’s major port also used by Russia on the Black Sea. In Russian hands, Moldova threatens Bucharest.
At the far end of the alliance structure I am envisioning is Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea bordering Russia and Iran. Should Dagestan and Chechnya destabilize, Azerbaijan — which is Islamic and majority Shiite but secular — would become critical for limiting the regional spread of jihadists. Azerbaijan also would support the alliance’s position in the Black Sea by supporting Georgia and would serve as a bridge for relations (and energy) should Western relations with Iran continue to improve. To the southwest, the very pro-Russian Armenia — which has a Russian troop presence and a long-term treaty with Moscow — could escalate tensions with Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. Previously, this was not a pressing issue for the United States. Now it is. The security of Georgia and its ports on the Black Sea requires Azerbaijan’s inclusion in the alliance.
Azerbaijan serves a more strategic purpose. Most of the countries in the alliance are heavy importers of Russian energy; for instance, 91 percent of Poland’s energy imports and 86 percent of Hungary’s come from Russia. There is no short-term solution to this problem, but Russia needs the revenue from these exports as much as these countries need the energy. Developing European shale and importing U.S. energy is a long-term solution. A medium-term solution, depending on pipeline developments that Russia has tended to block in the past, is sending natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe. Until now, this has been a commercial issue, but it has become a strategically critical issue. The Caspian region, of which Azerbaijan is the lynchpin, is the only major alternative to Russia for energy. Therefore, rapid expansion of pipelines to the heart of Europe is as essential as providing Azerbaijan with the military capability to defend itself (a capability it is prepared to pay for and, unlike other allied countries, does not need to be underwritten).
The key to the pipeline will be Turkey’s willingness to permit transit. I have not included Turkey as a member of this alliance. Its internal politics, complex relations and heavy energy dependence on Russia make such participation difficult. I view Turkey in this alliance structure as France in the Cold War. It was aligned yet independent, militarily self-sufficient yet dependent on the effective functioning of others. Turkey, inside or outside of the formal structure, will play this role because the future of the Black Sea, the Caucasus and southeastern Europe is essential to Ankara.
These countries, diverse as they are, share a desire not to be dominated by the Russians. That commonality is a basis for forging them into a functional military alliance. This is not an offensive force but a force designed to deter Russian expansion. All of these countries need modern military equipment, particularly air defense, anti-tank and mobile infantry. In each case, the willingness of the United States to supply these weapons, for cash or credit as the situation requires, will strengthen pro-U.S. political forces in each country and create a wall behind which Western investment can take place. And it is an organization that others can join, which unlike NATO does not allow each member the right to veto.
The Practicality of the U.S. Strategy
There are those who would criticize this alliance for including members who do not share all the democratic values of the U.S. State Department. This may be true. It is also true that during the Cold War the United States was allied with the Shah’s Iran, Turkey and Greece under dictatorship and Mao’s China after 1971. Having encouraged Ukrainian independence, the United States — in trying to protect that independence and the independence of other countries in the region — is creating an alliance structure that will include countries, such as Azerbaijan, that have been criticized. However, if energy does not come from Azerbaijan, it will come from Russia, and then the Ukrainian events will dissolve into tragic farce. The State Department must grapple with the harsh forces its own policies have unleashed. This suggests that the high-mindedness borne of benign assumptions now proven to be illusions must make way for realpolitik calculations.
The balance of power strategy allows the United States to use the natural inclination of allies to bolster its own position and take various steps, of which military intervention is the last, not the first. It recognizes that the United States, as nearly 25 percent of the world’s economy and the global maritime hegemon, cannot evade involvement. Its very size and existence involves it. Nor can the United States confine itself to gestures like sanctions on 20 people. This is not seen as a sign of resolve as much as weakness. It does mean that as the United States engages in issues like Ukraine and must make strategic decisions, there are alternatives to intervention — such as alliances. In this case, a natural alliance structure presents itself — a descendant of NATO but shaped for this crisis, much like the alliance I forecast previously.
In my view, Russian power is limited and has flourished while the United States was distracted by its wars in the Middle East and while Europe struggled with its economic crisis. That does not mean Russia is not dangerous. It has short-term advantages, and its insecurity means that it will take risks. Weak and insecure states with temporary advantages are dangerous. The United States has an interest in acting early because early action is cheaper than acting in the last extremity. This is a case of anti-air missiles, attack helicopters, communications systems and training, among other things. These are things the United States has in abundance. It is not a case of deploying divisions, of which it has few. The Poles, Romanians, Azerbaijanis and certainly the Turks can defend themselves. They need weapons and training, and that will keep Russia contained within its cauldron as it plays out a last hand as a great power.
Editor’s Note: We invite subscribers to access the full text of the chapters that focused on Russia’s unsustainable revival in international affairs from George Friedman’s 2011 book, The Next Decade, and his 2009 book, The Next 100 Years, by clicking the links below. Excerpts reprinted with permission from Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.
The Next Decade
Chapter 8: The Return of Russia