Drive a Wedge Between Russia and China

Dealing with Beijing will require occasional accommodation of Moscow.

There’s no question that Russia’s annexation of the Crimea is a blatant violation of international law. However, talk of a new Cold War and of “containing” Russia take our eyes off of more pressing threats and potential opportunities, namely cutting a deal with Iran and driving a wedge between a (potentially) revisionist Kremlin and a rising China.

The Obama White House should do three things. In the short-term, reach a settlement that Finlandizes Ukraine. Next, reassure NATO allies in Eastern Europe that Russia will be kept out of their backyards. Finally, reengage the Kremlin in order to prevent it from getting closer to Beijing.

Obama got it right when he said that Putin’s behavior is driven by weakness. Russia is in a state of relative economic, military and demographic decline, having squandered the nearly decade-long oil boom to reposition itself on the international stage. The best and brightest that aren’t Kremlin insiders already voted with their feet and moved to the West—and show little interest in returning home. In prospect theory-speak, states that are in the domain of losses tend to be more risk acceptant, and, therefore more aggressive, than rising powers that have time on their side.

First, reach a settlement that recognizes the proverbial “facts on the ground,” namely that Crimea is now part of Russia. While there has been much talk of a Finlandized Ukraine, Cold War Austria is the better model. Divided between the allies after World War Two, Soviet and Western withdrawal saw the restoration of the state’s independence in exchange for a declaration of neutrality. Ukraine should end its blockade of critical regions of the Russian-speaking portions of Moldova in exchange for new territorial guarantees.

Any Ukrainian government would be ill-advised to make amendments to the country’s constitution that provide additional protections to the country’s ethnic Russian minority. This would legitimate Putin’s claims that Russian speakers in the Near Abroad are being persecuted and would set a dangerous precedent. Ukraine would find itself in the same position as the Ottomans after the Crimean War, when Western states used protection of the country’s Christians as a pretext for future interventions.

Second, in order to reassure NATO’s Baltic and eastern European allies, the Atlantic alliance should abandon its agreement in the late nineties to not station forces in Eastern Europe. Instead, it should establish a set of tripwires along these states’ borders with Russia that are similar to the forces set along the DMZ separating North and South Korea, or the commitment once made to Berlin. This would not require an increase in troop strength. (During the Carter administration, the U.S. was able to drawn down on its commitment to the DMZ without abetting aggression from Pyongyang.) It would, however, signal the maintenance of America’s commitment to the eastern European members of NATO and guarantee U.S. involvement should Russia cross one of these Cold War–style “red lines.”

Third, engage and accommodate the Kremlin where possible. This does not mean toeing Putin’s line, but making concessions to Russia over issues of peripheral interest to the U.S. (e.g., Crimea), and cooperating where we have shared interests, from arms control to Iran.

The reason for this is simple: China.

Many prophesy that China’s rise will not be peaceful. If Beijing proves to be bent on unacceptably revising or overthrowing the prevailing international order, it would find a natural ally in a disgruntled Russia. Accommodating Russia in order to prevent it from getting closer to China is not a sign of weakness but, rather, one of prudence. Such a strategy was at the hallmark of Bismarck’s hub-and-spokes system of alliances that allowed him to unify Germany and keep the rest of Europe off balance for nearly two decades. Winston Churchill advocated pursuing a similar strategy towards Mussolini in order to isolate Nazi Germany.

Putin’s annexation of the Crimea is a flagrant a violation of international law. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait may be the only more blatant offense against state sovereignty in recent memory. However, the U.S. has more pressing threats to deal with—and fewer resources to handle them—than Russia’s attempt to regain a fraction of the status it lost with the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Albert B. Wolf is an affiliate with the Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He can be followed on Twitter @albertwolf82.

Flickr/Russian Constructivism. CC BY 2.0.