The Next European Flashpoints

February 15, 2015 Topic: SecurityForeign Policy Region: RussiaUnited StatesEurope

The Next European Flashpoints

Ukraine is not the only bone of contention between Russia and the West.


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.

Georgia as well has long sought such weapons. Providing them would provoke a negative reaction from Moscow, but underscore the West’s determination to strengthen deterrence. In addition, Ukraine, Georgia, and some of Russia’s other neighbors need help with secure communications, intelligence, electronic warfare, and drone defenses – and with training of their forces, especially at senior levels.

The West should ramp up broad-based support for Russia’s neighbors. The EU ought to help Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine speed implementation of their association agreements. The agreement of Merkel and Hollande that the EU should discuss with Ukraine and Russia how to deal with Russia’s (entirely spurious) concerns about Ukraine’s free trade agreement with the EU is a bad sign, giving Putin the chance to delay its implementation still further. Recent flare-ups of violence around Nagorno-Karabakh are worrisome. Since Armenia and Azerbaijan are part of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, Brussels should give them more attention.

The EU is developing a more differentiated approach to the six states in the Partnership, reflecting a desire for closer integration by Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. More EU resources will be needed, as well as a country-by-country approach in which reforms are expected and the EU provides incentives. The United States should give higher priority to negotiating free trade agreements with reforming Russian neighbors.

The struggle for ideas and minds is critical. The best long-term investment the West can make in Russia and its neighbors is to expand information flows, encourage personal contacts, and offer educational opportunities. A dismaying proportion of young Russians, and Russian-speaking people in neighboring countries, are influenced by the Kremlin's anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian hate propaganda. While underlying strong support for the neighbors, Western leaders should also reiterate their hope that Russia becomes a prosperous democracy at peace with its neighbors.

Even though foreign influences in Russia are being severely curtailed, some avenues of contact with Westerners remain open. People-to-people ties should be nurtured and not become collateral damage to the sanctions regime. Over time they will help build stakeholder support in Russia for peaceful relations with others. The United States should reverse cuts in funding for Russian and Eurasian studies.

Finally, Western leaders, at the G-7 summit in June or before, ought to articulate a long-term strategy for addressing Russia's challenge, especially to its neighbors. They should reinforce the West’s resolve to oppose aggression and aid those facing external threat. At the same time, the door for dialogue with Russia must remain open, perhaps through a special contact group, even though Moscow’s diplomacy on Moldova, Abkhazia, and now Ukraine has shown no willingness to accept the full sovereignty of its neighbors. The new strategy should remain open to cooperation with Russia in areas of common interest, such as the Iran nuclear negotiations, Arctic arrangements, and civil space. The West should not, however, pay a price for Russia’s help in pursuing ends that are in it own interests.

There are no short-term magic bullets for dealing with Russia. Putin and his small circle of advisors have overreached in Ukraine, unwisely ignoring the long-term cost to Russia of alienating Ukraine and frightening other neighbors. Reducing future security risks in the countries around Russia will require sustained Western unity and political will at the highest levels, while keeping open the path of diplomacy. The alternative may be a longer and more difficult road with Moscow.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform in London, and a former British Ambassador to Latvia. Denis Corboy is a visiting senior research fellow at King's College London and was European Union ambassador to Armenia and Georgia. William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and former ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan. Kenneth Yalowitz is a Wilson Center global fellow and a former U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.