Despite the decline of the Russian economy and its world standing, the Kremlin under the helm of President Vladimir Putin continues to pursue an expansionist policy. The conflict in East Ukraine is but one piece of this policy which leaders in the West have so far failed to effectively confront, much less understand. A time will come when the Kremlin forced by economic circumstances realizes that its current agenda is unsustainable though that should not be a reason for inaction on the part of the West.
Since November 2013 when pro-Russia Ukrainian President Yanukovych rejected an EU association agreement, Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has been extensively covered in the news. This was followed by violence between pro-Europe Ukrainians and security force, the Euromaidan Revolution, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, and ultimately the conflict in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine. Despite repeated denials, Russia is actively supporting and fighting in East Ukraine and is working towards making the region a de facto state. Right now this conflict which has claimed the lives of thousands is in a lull, hanging on to a ceasefire that is frayed and which can snap at any time. Russia’s actions elsewhere though are not as well covered but just as important.
In Syria, the Kremlin is one of the few sources of international support that President Assad’s regime has. Russia continues to funnel arms into Syria including aircraft and advanced anti-air missiles that can serve to prevent interference by the West in Syria’s civil war. The Russian Navy has been working on expanding its naval base in Tartus, the only warm-water base it has worldwide. Just recently it has emerged that Russian troops and pilots might be fighting alongside Assad’s forces while Russia is upgrading the airfield at Latakia far beyond what is needed to handle humanitarian flights.
In Kaliningrad, Russia’s exclave in Europe that borders Lithuania and Poland, the Kremlin is bolstering its military presence at an alarming rate. It is feared that 400km range, nuclear-capable Iskander tactical missiles are being permanently stationed there. Recently, General Peter Pavel, the incoming chairman of NATO’s Defense Committee warned that Russia can occupy the Baltic NATO-member states of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia in two days. Already these states once occupied by Russia are clamoring for a greater U.S. and NATO presence in the region to deter Russia if the Kremlin decides to move against them. Russian-backed activities reminiscent of past actions in Georgia and Ukraine including distribution of passports and accusations of anti-Russian bias by the governments of those countries are occurring.
The situation in Belarus, the Kremlin’s only real “friend” in Eastern Europe seems to be changing. Ever since the conflict in Ukraine emerged, relations have thawed between Minsk and Moscow and Belarus’s authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has been increasingly defiant of Putin. The Kremlin is not pleased with this or with Lukashenko’s flirtations with the EU. Russia wants to construct an airbase in eastern Belarus though Lukashenko is actively opposing this, fearful of giving the Kremlin any more power in his country. Some analysts are already predicting that Russia is laying the groundwork to destabilize Belarus if Lukashenko continues to resist while the upcoming October 11th Belarussian presidential election provides the perfect opportunity to do so.
In the race for the Arctic and the mineral resources that lay beneath the ice, Russia is leading. Naval and aviation assets are being redeployed North to protect Russia’s claims while old northern Soviet bases are being reactivated to accommodate them. Despite the decline in commodity prices over the past year particularly crude oil, Russia is still striving to be in best position to take advantage of the Arctic. Moscow has even found a partner in Beijing in moving to secure the Arctic, an opportunity which China is happy to take advantage of.
The West and Russia’s Mutual Misunderstanding of Each Other
The Kremlin’s current policies cannot go on forever. The fall in commodity prices have seriously harmed the revenue stream of the Russian government. Sanctions imposed due to the conflict in Ukraine have sent prices of many products in Russia soaring while the ruble has fallen dramatically in value. These problems will eventually force the Russian leadership to at least pull back on some of its endeavors. Even without the sanctions and low energy prices, the Russian economy is not diversified enough and its infrastructure is decaying while the country is suffering from a brain drain. Truth be told, the situation is not promising.
The question though is when will this eventual forced pull back occur. Despite the economic down spiral brought on by the Ukraine crisis, Putin has stayed the course and has in fact upped the ante with his most recent actions. Undoubtedly, the lack of a clear policy from the West in countering Russia has encouraged Putin’s actions. The West has shown time and time again that it does not understand Russia and this is seen in its reactions to Russian provocations.
The Bush Administration after a brief dalliance with Putin realized that he was not to be trusted after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in late 2004 and early 2005. The hand of the Kremlin in the election fraud that occurred in Ukraine’s presidential election was clear as was its role in poisoning the eventual true victor of that election, President Yushchenko. Despite this the West failed to take any significant action; the EU for the most part did not want to risk incurring the Kremlin’s wrath through Russian natural gas cut-offs.
The 2008 invasion of Georgia came as a shock to many for a variety of reasons. To encourage separatism in a foreign sovereign country is one thing; to invade the same country is another. Russia’s actions in Chechnya no matter how horrific can be justified as they were internal conflicts; Georgia on the other hand was not. While Georgian President Saakashvili made a mistake in attempting to recapture South Ossetia, Putin pushed the envelope by deploying his forces and then going on the offensive into Georgian-controlled territory.
It can safely be said that the West was caught off guard by this conflict. Then U.S. President Bush assisted Georgia by airlifting its troops from Iraq and by providing humanitarian aid while imposing sanctions on Russia. The West was not prepared to go to war with Russia over Georgia despite the latter’s enthusiasm for the EU, U.S., and NATO. Regardless, the overall response to Russia’s invasion of its neighbor was completely inadequate. Some thought though that Georgia was an anomaly, a small country in the Caucasus without longstanding toes to the West, the Kremlin could not and would not attempt something similar in Eastern Europe. Six years later they would be proven wrong.
The Obama Administration attempted to reset relations with Russia in 2009 and failed miserably. The Kremlin never intended to work side-by-side with the U.S. or EU and instead took advantage of the idealistic naiveté of the Obama Administration while Russian diplomats have run circles around those of the U.S. and elsewhere. Furthermore the number of Russia experts in the U.S. military, intelligence community, and state department has been in decline in recent years, something which has seriously hampered the ability of the U.S. to understand and confront Russia.
The West cannot understand that Russia’s actions in the near abroad stem from a historical fear of encirclement. This encirclement is being brought on by increasing influence of China in the east and the expansion of NATO in the west. The West also fails to understand that its relations with Russia began to decline in the mid-2000s when Russia felt slighted by the West.
Hopes of close relations between the West and the new government of Putin fell as the Kremlin quickly realized that while positive relations could be built, Russia would never be treated as a true member of the West. Putin disliked being told of how political reforms were needed and the almost second-class treatment that Russia was receiving. The 2002 U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty (Anti-Ballistic Missile), 2004 NATO enlargement into Eastern Europe, and steps toward a missile defense shield all served to turn Russia away.
It must be said though that Russia is just as guilty of creating the current situation. Russia wanted to be treated as a great world power but was not deserving of it due to its political and economic situation. Russia wanted greater respect but was not deserving of it due to its global actions and rampant internal corruption. Yes the West failed to understand Russia but Russia is just as guilty. Now the West is faced with an incredibly popular and powerful strongman, Putin, who is governing a country that blames the West for its current situation rather than the policies of its own government.
What Must the West Do?
The West has a range of options to choose from in countering an expansionist Russia. Unfortunately any policies can only be effective if they have wide-reaching support and if backed up by meaningful action. The goal of the West should not be to isolate Russia or destroy the country through economic means, rather force the Kremlin to understand that its actions have lost it international support and that further expansionist activities will bring more isolation. Russia need not be beaten, rather it must be realized that this current path is unsustainable.
The West must reassure the countries of Eastern Europe that any military action brought upon them by Russia will be swiftly dealt with. Sure the Baltic states are NATO members and their defense is assured by treaty obligation though they are all too aware that there was an obligation for the U.S. and UK to protect Ukraine in the Budapest Memorandum which was never upheld. Currently the U.S. is adding additional military forces in Eastern Europe in the hopes of deterring Russia and this is good. U.S. military forces in the region though will not be enough if guarantees of protection are not assured. Each time the West has failed to take action has served as an encouragement for Putin to go one step further. The West must take a stand and act on it, prove that it has the resolve. If the Kremlin sees this, they will realize that they cannot act without impunity.
In Ukraine, serious steps must be taken to end the conflict. Each ceasefire has only served to solidify the hold the separatists have in the Donbass and right now East Ukraine is at the risk of turning into a frozen conflict. This will not be an easy process by any means. Russia continues to deny that it has power over the separatists while the legitimacy of the government in Kiev in the eyes of the Ukrainian people will be lost if anything less than a full return of territory is agreed upon. Serious negotiations need to take place with the offer of greater autonomy for Donbass though within a sovereign Ukraine state. The Russian offensive in Ukraine has slowed, now is the time for diplomacy.
In Syria, the West found a partner in Russia in dealing with Assad’s chemical weapons. The situation now is much more difficult as Putin does not want to lose one of his only Middle East partners nor the military foothold he has there. Regardless there are opportunities for collaboration to bring about a better situation and the same rings true for Iran.
Putin is an unpredictable and dangerous leader and the West must remain cognizant of this in dealing with him. For that same reason, the West must deal and confront him. There are those who will brush off the idea of Russian action in the Baltics but it must be remembered the same sentiment existed prior to the invasion of Georgia and Ukraine. Russia just like any power has every right to exercise its influence overseas but there is a limit and that is when its purpose is to destabilize other countries. The U.S. and other Western states are not innocent of this by any means. Regardless, Russia must stop interfering in the affairs of its neighbors by fomenting unrest and threatening peace.
Russia has and will continue to act unabated as long as its leadership believes it can do so without serious threat from the West. Now is the time for the West to act.