The Case for Gradualism Against Russia

April 7, 2014 Topic: Security Region: Russia

The Case for Gradualism Against Russia

Swift, open confrontation will not work to America's advantage.

Following Russia’s incorporation of Crimea, Europe’s strategic outlook has changed for the worse. The question of whether we are witnessing the beginning of a period of confrontation reminiscent of the Cold War is now inescapable for experts and policymakers alike.

In the U.S., senior politicians such as Senators John McCain and Robert Menendez have called for a hard line. Their call for confrontation has been echoed by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who has gone as far as to publicly call Russia a ‘global bully’.

In his Brussels speech on EU-U.S. relations, President Barack Obama has used similarly harsh terms. However, he has subtly shifted his criticism to focus more on Russia’s behavior than the nature of Russia’s leadership, left the door open for dialogue, and focused more on what the West will do if Russia moves farther into Ukraine than what the West is doing to punish its takeover of Crimea.

The difference between the two approaches can be summarized as follows: open confrontation vs. gradualism. The former is premised on the assumption that Russia only responds to pressure. Underlying the latter is a more downbeat assessment of what pressure can achieve and the conviction that diplomatic engagement remains of critical importance.

Advocates of open confrontation have good arguments. Russian president Vladimir Putin has consistently pursued a policy aimed at reasserting state control of national assets—from natural resources to the media—and reestablishing Russia’s influence in the former Soviet space. This two-pillar policy has been instrumental in consolidating his personal power, which is now rooted in a political system that lacks any credible checks and is built on cronyism and corruption. From this perspective, Putin’s fierce anti-Western narrative is above all a propaganda tool meant to invigorate popular support for the president himself. The need to keep the machine of Putin’s personal regime running will invariably lead him to new ventures into the former Soviet space. His recurring references to the imperative to protect ethnic Russians abroad are a way to prepare the domestic ground. Hence, by this line of reasoning, Russia must be confronted and constrained by all possible means.

In concrete terms, openly confronting Russia warrants a strategy unfolding on multiple levels. NATO would be recalibrated as an anti-Russian alliance. Cooperation would be suspended, contingency plans for a Russian attack in the Baltic area and the Arctic prioritized, and a robust military footprint in Poland created. Arms transfers to countries under threat of Russian invasion—Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova—would be authorized along with other forms of military assistance. The Alliance would increase military cooperation with these nations, and perhaps unfreeze Georgia’s membership bid.

The West would also mobilize massive resources to back up Ukraine’s troubled public finances and lay the groundwork for its (and Moldova’s and Georgia’s) eventual integration into the European Union (EU). In parallel, the U.S. and the EU would agree on far-reaching sanctions, with the Iran sanctions regime serving as a model. Critically, the U.S. would start working on a gas export policy aimed at gradually replacing Russia as Europe’s main gas supplier.

This strategy requires Western cohesion, which is a tall order. A number of EU member states—most notably Germany—have solid economic and energy ties with Russia, and public opinion support might be lacking.

Assuming that the West finds the necessary unity of purpose, it should reckon with other risks. Remilitarizing NATO-Russian relations would solidify the conflict. There is no guarantee that arming Ukraine and Georgia would deter Russian action, and neither would reviving their NATO bids (if it comes to that), as even advocates of open confrontation rule out a NATO intervention in defense of either country. What these moves would certainly achieve is to confirm to Russia that the West is bent on its encirclement. Would Putin not be tempted to take a further risk and invade its eastern part before Kiev revamps its military assets with Western arms and assistance?

Imposing further sanctions makes sense, but how far can the West go? As argued by Brookings Senior Fellow Suzanne Maloney, the ‘Iran model’ is hardly replicable in the case of Russia. Others have highlighted that the West does not have the financial assets to back Ukraine’s economy if Russia-Ukraine trade is severely reduced. The US capacity to export gas to Europe remains an open question. In addition, what links Russia and its main energy consumers in Western Europe, such as Germany and Italy, is the money generated by energy deals between companies. Would U.S. firms be able to compensate the losses that major EU companies would incur if EU-Russia energy relations were downgraded?

A strategy of outright confrontation with Russia also carries potential costs for other geostrategic interests. The West faces a number of global security challenges: enabling the peaceful rise of China, avoiding the full destabilization of the Middle East, countering nuclear proliferation, fighting Al Qaeda-inspired groups and enhancing cybersecurity. Turning Russia into an enemy would not only add one daunting task to the list, it would also hinder progress to tackle the other challenges as Moscow plays an important role in all of them.

The merits of a gradual approach shine through the flaws of the open confrontation strategy. Unity of purpose is likelier to be achieved if Russia further escalates the situation in Eastern Europe than if the U.S. or other countries push for it now. Given NATO’s unwillingness to go to war against Russia over Ukraine, it is better to avoid steps that could provoke, rather than reduce, Moscow’s aggressiveness. And diplomatic engagement should never be altogether forfeited, as Russia has no interest in a total collapse of its relations with the West.

Sanctions should be applied in an incremental and reversible manner. The goal is not to reverse Russia’s action in Crimea (which is unattainable), but to raise the costs for it. NATO should follow a similar pattern. It should reassure its Eastern member states (particularly those with large Russian minorities) with more contingency planning and other measures. But major initiatives such as the permanent redeployment of large forces closer to Russia’s borders, as well as the provision of military assistance to Ukraine and Georgia, should be linked to Russia’s further encroachment on their territories. While doing so, allies should also seek to engage Russia in a dialogue on de-escalating measures. NATO’s eastward enlargement should remain dormant and West-Russia cooperation on Iran, the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons and dialogue on Afghanistan continue. NATO should be ready to shelve its missile-defense system if the ongoing talks with Iran eliminate the threat of an Iranian nuclear ballistic attack.

Political and economic help to former Soviet countries should be provided in a way that deprives Russia of pretexts to intervene. Obama has struck the right chord when he has forcefully countered Putin’s allegations that Russian minorities abroad are being discriminated against. The West should keep on encouraging countries hosting those minorities, starting with Ukraine, to take measures aimed at their inclusion and participation in public life. Stabilization of Ukrainian-Russian relations on a platform involving bilateral trade (which is critical for Ukraine), treatment of Ukrainian nationals in Crimea, and other urgent matters, should be promoted.

As open confrontation with Russia entails risks not all Western allies may be willing to take, costs they could not afford, and requires assets even a united West might lack, a gradual approach seems a more realistic course of action. This will not give Crimea back to Ukraine. However, it could defuse the risk of conflict in Europe and leave the West and Russia some common ground to cooperate on in the overlap of their interests.

Riccardo Alcaro is a visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.

Image: Flickr/Bruce Guenter. CC BY 2.0.