The Next European Flashpoints
The most pressing task for the West is to help Ukraine defend itself and survive economic catastrophe. But the West also needs a broader strategy to discourage future Russian coercion of neighbors, help them protect themselves, and counter President Vladimir Putin’s false narrative about Western intentions and lack of political will.
Undermining European security, Russian troops and irregular forces now occupy five regions in three neighboring countries—Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Russia uses several justifications for its occupations. It insists that its peacekeepers are essential to stability in Transnistria, in Moldova's east. Its 2008 invasion of Georgia was allegedly to protect South Ossetians from genocide and respond to an attack on Russian peacekeepers. Moscow declared Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be independent, but has signed treaties with both that hint at annexation. Last March Russia annexed Crimea after a flawed referendum.
Russia's end game in eastern Ukraine appears to be to create a new “frozen conflict,” but over how large a territory remains unclear. According to the “roadmap” agreed on February 12 at the Minsk summit of French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, fighting is to end on February 15. Russia likely foresaw that by this time its forces and rebels would have seized Debaltseve, a key transport hub between the two separatist ‘capitals’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, despite strong resistance by outgunned Ukrainian troops.
Moscow’s goals in these conflicts appear to include restoring hegemony in its neighborhood, preventing inroads by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, and buttressing support at home for the leadership. The Kremlin views Russia's security through the prism of diminished sovereignty for its neighbors. In a 2005 address to parliament, Putin called the Soviet collapse "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century. At a NATO summit in 2008, he reportedly told President George W. Bush, "Ukraine is not even a state!" Last August Putin claimed that “Kazakhs never had any statehood" prior to the rule of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In September Putin said to Poroshenko, "If I wanted, in two days I could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest.”
The crisis in Ukraine is now the crucible. How it turns out may influence Russia’s future stance toward its neighbors, and the extent to which the West will support them against any future Russian coercion. One lesson is that the West’s long-proclaimed support for the territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbors stops short of arming them. For example, America has provided advanced Javelin anti-tank missiles to Jordan and Oman, but declines to ship them to Georgia and Ukraine.
The crisis in Ukraine shows once again the vital role of aid to beleaguered neighbors of Russia. On February 12 the International Monetary Fund announced an additional $17.5 billion (€15.5 billion) in aid for Ukraine, supplementing other international resources. The aid is made possible by Ukraine’s reform efforts in fiscal, exchange rate, and energy policy.
Russia’s challenge is not solely military. There is no Soviet-style worldwide ideological offensive, but elements of it are familiar. The Kremlin accuses the West of being decadent and irresolute. Putin seems contemptuous of some Western leaders. He cultivates populist movements of the radical right and left by appealing to “conservative values,” nationalism, and opposition to supranational organizations. He posits that the West wants to weaken Russia, start a popular revolution, and depose him. According to a February 4 BBC report, Russian state television coverage “appears to employ techniques of psychological conditioning designed to excite extreme emotions of aggression and hatred in the viewer.”
So far, the Kremlin has managed to deflect most Russians from connecting sanctions and economic difficulties with aggression in Ukraine. A poll last August by the respected Levada Center found that 73 percent of respondents thought Crimea should be part of Russia, but only 4 percent, Ukraine. Another poll last November revealed that only 18 percent saw their country as responsible for the bloodshed and deaths in eastern Ukraine.
A comprehensive Western strategy to deal with Russia’s multi-layered challenge, especially to its neighbors, has yet to be developed. Sanctions have been at the center of the West’s response to aggression in Ukraine. As a result, and because of the sharp drop in oil prices and lack of reforms, Russia's economy is undergoing trauma. Putin holds out hope of higher oil prices and calls on Russians to tighten their belts. As the costs of occupying Crimea and waging war in the Donbas mount, budget resources grow scarce.
These pressures have not yet stopped Russia’s aggression, but their impact is widening. To beat rising inflation and the falling ruble, and prepare for leaner times, consumers have been seen buying up staples, as before World War II. The EU has extended and augmented its sanctions, but if the new cease-fire holds some members will press to relax them. A risk is that in a few years most Western sanctions will have faded but Russia will still be illegally occupying Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine.
New and more enduring elements must be added to the Western response. President Obama has said that if diplomacy on Ukraine fails, “the possibility of lethal defensive weapons” is an option. Such weaponry in Ukrainian hands might improve the chances that Russia will abide by the ceasefire, by enabling Ukraine to raise the cost of any further aggression.