An Opportunity to Respond

The United States must remember what it is like to win in its strategic competition with Russia.

Russia remembers that it lost the Cold War. The United States needs to be reminded that it won.

In the mid-1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall faded from immediate memory and talk of a “post-Cold War era” became prolific, the United States began to forget about Russia. Afghanistan and Iraq cemented our amnesia. A new generation of policymakers and thinkers became captivated with “emerging threats” and “global challenges” that required “international cooperation” and “collective solutions.”

When the United States did pay attention to Europe or Eurasia, it sought to expand NATO, bolster the European Union and extend democratic norms often against Russia’s wishes. When our strategic adversary was weak, we exploited the power vacuums that emerged and made sure that Russia became, in fact, a “regional power.” Most of this action was done without a nuanced understanding of Moscow’s goals or ambitions. Putin remembers all of this – along with most of the twentieth century – as follies that must be corrected.

So here we are, surprised by Russian actions in Ukraine. But we shouldn’t be. The Kremlin takes no notice of our “new eras.” Putin’s Crimea snatch reminds us that territory, power and influence still matter. Hence the Washington DC circuit has been reinvigorated in recent weeks by old men waving their long-ago written “I told you so” policy tracts. Listening to them is unbearable but serves us right.

What’s worse, though, is that Ukraine is the latest in six years of behavior that reflects a Russian grand strategy that is diametrically opposed to our foreign policy goals. Crimea’s forced referendum reinforces a trend, it doesn’t start one. Russia’s incursion into Georgia, its cyber experiments with Estonia, its games with turning off gas pipelines to negotiate rates, its annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and its position on Iran and Syria all prove that Russia does not act with us, it acts in direct opposition. Thus far successfully. And success emboldens.

If Russian flags, passports and troops didn’t make it clear, Russia made it abundantly audible via its ambassador to the United States that Crimea is “part of the Russian Federation.” It’s a done deal. But the crisis won’t stop there. Russia’s next demand is that Ukraine rewrite its constitution. Russian officials said that changes can’t be “cosmetic.” Ukraine needs a new constitution “that would include a mechanism where the [Russian-speaking] regions would be heard…” And Ukraine must become formally neutral. In effect, Russia wants to make Ukraine’s integration with the EU or NATO impossible, while empowering its agents inside the country to steer it toward Moscow.

Prior to this crisis, Washington has avoided diplomatic confrontation, attempting instead to forge consensus with Moscow through numerous international organizations. But the more international clubs Russia joined, often with our support, the more difficult it has become. More often using its new seat at the table to create barriers for American leadership.

Friday’s Putin-Obama call, regardless of what was actually said, gives the United States a chance to reassert itself. To seize this opportunity, we must hone a very clear understanding of Putin’s real strategic interests. Russia’s strategy is built on at least four pillars, which are diametrically opposed to our own:

  1. Restored territorial integrity: Russia seeks to regain influence, control and possession of territory it lost after 1991. To achieve this goal it has: manipulated gas supplies, supported ethnic Russian enclaves, bolstered strongmen of dubious background, carried out cyber attacks and of course now invaded multiple sovereign countries (Georgia and Ukraine) to annex territories. Some fear that Russian troops may secure independence for Transnistria, a Russian-speaking enclave of Moldova. The Kremlin’s “concern” for Russians in Estonia is equally worrying. Crimea was not the beginning for Moscow, neither is it the end.
  2. Weakened Europe: Moscow seeks to weaken Europe. It plays to Russia’s strength to distract Europe from being united – politically, economically and militarily. The Kremlin actively harasses Eastern European weaklings to cause panic and distraction in Brussels, Berlin and Paris. Moscow plays European leaders against one another and uses Russia’s abundant energy and commodity supplies as economic leverage. Russia’s insistence at negotiating with the United States over Ukraine only highlights its scorn for European “powers.”
  3. Neutered NATO: Putin seeks to weaken NATO. Fomenting strife on its periphery is a double win in this regard, because it makes it harder for troubled countries such as Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance while also exposing NATO’s inability to respond. The question on everyone’s mind in NATO should be: If Russia does invades country X, what do we do? Before 2014 ends, the Kremlin may seek a clear answer to that question. If NATO doesn’t fight, can it survive?
  4. Chaotic international cooperation: The Kremlin seeks to constrain multilateral action globally. Especially when it is “Western.” Wherever possible, Russia stands in the way of American and European efforts to resolve national and global security threats or catastrophic problems in regional hot spots. Iran’s nuclear program or the civil war in Syria are but the most visible manifestations of this policy. This is the “Dr No” policy: if it is Western, it is to be opposed prima facie, except in rare circumstances.

Then and now, Russia’s goals stand in direct conflict to American policy: ex-Soviet states free of Russian meddling, a strong Europe able to manage its own affairs and security, a robust NATO and a Western-led international system in which Washington, London, Paris and now Berlin, as well as select others, retain the ability to accomplish what they – what we – want around the world.

These realities must drive how we deal with Putin on Ukraine’s constitution, Ukraine overall and on most every other issue. They are the honest and proper bedrock of a new Russia strategy that is grounded in realpolitik and geopolitics – which is the game Russia is forcing us to play.

Co-authored by Gary Barnabo, president of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a global nonprofit that fosters the next generation of foreign-policy leaders. Mikhail Grinberg is a strategy consultant and student of the defense industry. This story first appeared at The Bridge, a national-security and strategy blog on Medium, April 1, 2014.