Both Russia and China threaten the peace and prosperity of the transatlantic community. But the most acute problem now is coming not from Beijing but from Moscow—specifically, its relentless pressure on Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Unless the United States can organize a better response to this pressure, NATO’s eastern frontier will ultimately break.
Russian president Vladimir Putin is a geopolitical Michael Myers, obsessed with controlling a perimeter against external threats that don’t exist. His machinations to dominate Europe’s Eastern frontier are intended to undermine the collective security of NATO, and, without NATO, transatlantic security is a thing of the past.
The Death Spiral
Both Moscow and Beijing want to win the great power competition without fighting. Neither wants a cataclysmic shooting match with the West. The plan is to make incremental gains that, in the end, leave the transatlantic community irrevocably compromised. And that’s exactly what’s happening on Europe’s frontier.
Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova all sit on the frontier of Europe and NATO, but they are members of neither club. That makes them less risky targets for Moscow. They have something else in common: parts of each country are occupied by Russia. Moscow engineered the violent takeover of Moldova’s Transnistria in 1992, of Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, and of Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbas in 2014. In each case, the Russian occupation devolved into a frozen conflict prolonged less by ethnic divisions than by Moscow’s determination to hold these territories hostage.
Each of these countries has turned to the West, looking for military partnerships and economic integration as protection against further Russian aggression and leverage in eventually regaining lost territories. Both NATO and the European Union responded with positive signals: The beleaguered countries were told that if they would just make the reforms needed to achieve European integration and qualify for collective security, they would be welcomed into the clubs. In each of the republics, the popularity of Western powers skyrocketed.
Axiomatically, the Russians responded by making it clear that they would exert every effort to make European integration more difficult. Moreover, they vowed that the frozen conflicts would not be settled unless they are settled on Moscow’s terms.
Over time, the United States and Europe grew frustrated with the lack of progress. They were distracted by other priorities. They couldn’t see a practical way to break the logjam. They mostly settled into a habit of treading water. For example, President Joe Biden has lauded the election victory of Moldova’s corruption-fighting party. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin just completed a tour of the Black Sea region during which he declared that the door to NATO membership is still open to Ukraine and Georgia. But these expressions of support come off as little more than cheerleading from the sidelines. There’s no visible effort to move the ball down the field.
In turn, the people of these countries increasingly see the drive toward Western integration as fruitless. Some argue it would be better to turn back to Moscow. Others want to side with Beijing. The spiral down seems like it will never end.
Indeed, Putin will keep this cycle going till he gets what he wants.
It starts in Moldova. The occupation of Transnistria costs way more than its worth, but Putin is after more than just Transnistria. Putin hopes to force a deal on Moldova that topples the country’s independence once and for all. As the price for allowing Transnistria to reintegrate, Putin insists that Chișinău assume Transnistria’s debts (essentially demanding that Moldova pays the costs Moscow has incurred for occupying a piece of its country). It’s a multi-billion-dollar debt trap that would leave Russia running the country. Further, Putin wants full political rights for Transnistria, which has been cleansed of all but a pro-Russian population by Moscow. This would ensure that Moldova elected only pro-Russian governments from now to eternity.
After thus securing Moldova, Putin could turn to Ukraine and the international community, insisting that Transnistria be followed as a model for settling the Crimea issue. And he could turn to the Georgians and make the case they were all alone and friendless, with no option other than Moscow.
Even if Ukraine and Georgia did not agree to end their frozen conflicts on Putin’s terms, Moscow could use Moldova as a jumping-off point to destabilize Ukraine and Romania. It would swallow Georgia. By the time Putin was done, NATO’s southern flank would be completely exposed and vulnerable.
The Russians will continue to be patient and opportunistic in descending the staircase of chaos in Europe. They just need to keep things moving.
Stop the Descent
How can the West turn this around? Instead of looking for political formulas to unfreeze the frozen conflicts, the focus ought to be on helping these three resilient states that have the capacity to resist Russian influence. Combatting corruption, promoting good governance, and upholding the rule of law are important qualities in an ally. But so too are economic prosperity, political stability, and security assets—and not just physical security assets, but energy and infrastructure resources as well.
There are applicable lessons here, learned the hard way in Afghanistan. First, external nation-building is near impossible. Nations must rebuild themselves. Second, trying to rebuild your nation while under occupation and constantly threatened by enemies is no mean feat. Third, determined enemies can swiftly wipe away all progress made if the builders’ supporters simply walk off the job. We also learned that, when the United States walks away from foreign challenges that significantly impact our interests, the price is pretty steep.
There are no easy answers in the fight for freedom, security, and prosperity in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, but supporting these efforts with a complement of suitable, feasible, and acceptable programs is the best way to break the death spiral and show Russia and China that our determination to win the long-haul struggle for freedom is just as strong as their determination to oppress.
A Heritage Foundation vice president, James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research in matters of national security and foreign relations.