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A Playbook for Denying Putin Strategic Victory

March 21, 2014 Topic: Global Governance Region: RussiaUnited StatesEurasia

A Playbook for Denying Putin Strategic Victory

The U.S. is hardly out of reasonable options for pushing back against Russia.

With Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian crisis has entered a new phase that requires adjustments in U.S. and Western policy. Until now, the Obama administration has sought to defuse the situation by offering Putin a deal: Cancel or postpone the referendum in Crimea on joining Russia in exchange for a political formula to accommodate legitimate Russian interests. Diplomatic pressure, disengagement by the G-8 and OECD, and the threat of sanctions did not persuade Moscow to compromise on Crimea. These efforts failed to persuade Putin, who has put his signature to the annexation treaty.

The United States and its allies have responded to Putin's defiance by imposing minimal, targeted sanctions—mostly on those carrying out Putin's orders. The Russian stock market rallied at the news, as investors had anticipated more onerous and unified sanctions. In any case, stronger sanctions would not restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Broadly enforced international sanctions—even against weak regimes in the developing world—have mostly proven ineffective and unsustainable when authoritarian leaders deem important interests to be at stake. Given Europe’s dependence on Russian gas—a reality that will need to change in order to make a tougher transatlantic strategy more viable—Russia’s trade relationships and geopolitical position would likely give Moscow the leverage to thwart any U.S. push to impose a biting sanctions regime.

Concerns, however, that the United States is bereft of options in countering Russian aggression are overstated. While remaining attentive to the situation in Crimea, U.S. policy should focus on four objectives: deterring a Russian move against Eastern Ukraine; stabilizing Ukraine and anchor it in the West; reassuring other countries in the former Soviet space; and minimizing possible Russian retaliatory against U.S. interests. The achievement of these objectives would deny Putin a broader strategic victory from his Crimea gambit, while advancing core U.S. interests in the wider region.

1. Deter a Russian move against Eastern Ukraine

Putin's statement that Russia has no claim against other parts of Ukraine—if true—is a positive development. But Russia is destabilizing Eastern Ukraine by inciting civil strife and Putin may still order military forces to move to Eastern Ukraine to “protect Russian speaking populations.” Beyond enhanced sanctions, the United States, in coordination with its allies, must make it clear to Moscow that further aggression in Ukraine would risk a protracted and expensive conflict. Washington should be ready to respond to Russian moves against Eastern Ukraine by providing military assistance to the Ukrainian government and arming those willing to resist further Russian occupation.

2. Stabilize Ukraine and anchor it in the West

Russia’s invasion of Crimea has exposed the costs and unfeasibility to Ukrainian leaders of oscillating between Russia and the West. The Putin regime has inadvertently presented the West with the clearest opportunity in many years to let the results of the two different systems speak for themselves.

The United States should lead a broad a coalition to provide economic and political support for Ukraine as it pursues reform and internal reconciliation. NATO’s recent pledge of support to Ukraine is encouraging, but the overall success of Western policy is contingent on the United States and Europe delivering sufficient assistance. The amount of military, economic, and political assistance the West provides should be determined, for now, by a strategy that enables a “Finland” option for Ukraine—one in which Kiev remains unified and independent, engages in extensive cooperation with the West, but does not pose a military threat to Russia. The West should nonetheless preserve the option of bringing Ukraine closer to NATO if Russia proves unwilling to respect Ukrainian independence or wields the threat of force.

3. Reassure other countries in the former Soviet space that the West will help prevent Putin’s long-term goal of reestablishing Russian hegemony over the region

Countries on Russia’s periphery have been shaken by Putin’s move against Ukraine. The United States and its key allies can reassure these states through increased security cooperation. Granting Georgia, for example, the NATO Membership Action Plan and accelerating the delivery weapons in the pipeline would underscore Western resolve.

Reassuring Central Asian states will require a strategic dialogue with China and Turkey. China’s abstention in the UN Security Council on an anti-Russian resolution on Crimea is encouraging, but Beijing’s broader strategy toward the region is unclear. As it becomes more isolated, Moscow is likely to seek improved cooperation with China. But given that the United States, Turkey and China have a common interest in preventing Russia’s bid for regional hegemony in Central Asia, the three countries can cooperate in enforcing a security architecture that preserves a stable balance of power in Central Asia.

4. Minimize and manage retaliatory steps Russia might take against U.S. interests

A strategy to isolate Russia carries the risk of reinforcing hardline voices in a country that has been drifting from the West and could result in a more aggressive Russian policy in the Middle East, Central Asia, and beyond. U.S. pressure could lead Moscow to decrease cooperation on three main fronts: Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.

A nuclear Iran is not in Russia’s interest, but Moscow does not treat the Iran nuclear issue with the same level of urgency as the West. Russian support for Tehran’s position in nuclear talks could stymie efforts to negotiate a permanent agreement, and Moscow might complicate Western military options by providing enhanced capabilities to Iran (even if violating UNSC sanctions would further isolate Russia). Should Russia seek to undermine the negotiations with Iran, we should be prepared to work through alternative diplomatic mechanisms to test Iranian intentions on the nuclear front.

While U.S. hopes of gaining Russian cooperation for a political settlement in Syria were lagging well before the Ukraine crisis, Moscow could increase support for the Assad regime. This would oblige the United States and its allies to take significant steps to strengthen moderate opposition forces. Afghanistan is an area of mutual interest where Russia is unlikely to take drastic steps in scaling back cooperation. Moscow may, however, seek to extract a higher price from Washington to keep the Northern Distribution Network open. However, US dependence on the Northern network is not as important as it once was, because of the already reduced US forces on the ground and the availability of the Southern route. The United States currently depends on the Northern route to transport only approximately 6 percent of “retrograde”—cargo such as vehicles and military equipment that are being withdrawn from Afghanistan. The degree of dependence is higher for supplies such as food and fuel, but the U.S. military is confident that it has work-around options.

Putin’s gamble to retake Crimea provides the rare opportunity to rebuild and sustain a bipartisan foreign policy, which, with the exception of issues like terrorism and homeland security, has generally been lacking since the days of the Cold War. Opposition to Putin's Crimea move—which may be the first in a series of political and military moves to reestablish Moscow's regional hegemony—can be a defining issue. Such bipartisanship will be necessary for the United States and its allies to sustain and prevail in any long-term strategy.

Zalmay Khalilzad was the US Ambassador to the United Nations from 2007-2009.