In salons and seminars in Washington, Russia (and China) is routinely described as a “revisionist” power. This is usually accompanied by anguished commentary that the “postwar liberal international order” is being undermined—and calls for the United States to do “something” to demonstrate that it still has the capacity to lead in the global environment. Yet the revisions continue because, despite the steps taken by the United States and the European Union, the rewards of revision continue to outweigh the costs.
The old Greek proverb, “Bean by bean the sack is filled,” is apropos here. At some point, revisions create facts on the ground that become the new normal, the next “status quo.” Ever since taking office, Vladimir Putin has not hidden his desire and interest in revising the post–Cold War settlement. Over time, what has changed are his methods. In the early 2000s, he hoped for cooperative revisions with the United States and the European Union; since his 2007 address at the Munich Security Conference, he has opted to test the resilience of the West to uphold the status quo that emerged in the aftermath of the 1989–1991 collapse of the Soviet bloc.
In 2014, an important part of that Russian strategy—the effort to integrate Ukraine into Russia’s overall vision for Eurasia—failed in the wake of the Maidan revolution. The Kremlin shifted gears—adopting a geopolitical strategy of weakening the Ukrainian state as well as seizing direct control of the Crimean Peninsula—and a geoeconomic one of bypassing Ukraine as a keystone interconnector between Russia and Europe. The latter involves reshaping the economic geography of the region. With its separation from Ukrainian control, Crimea, for a time, became an island; the Kerch Strait Bridge is about reattaching Crimea, in this case, to the Russian mainland. The Nordstream II and Turkish Stream pipelines are about removing Russian dependence on Ukraine as a transit state for its energy while also removing the economic influence Ukraine has on key Russian partners like Turkey and Germany.
Years ago, I and others warned that the United States needed to have a strategy to respond to these developments. At that time, the general reaction was to reassure everyone that Russia lacked the financial wherewithal, the engineering capacity or the will to overcome the realities of Ukrainian geography. Now, with the Kerch Strait Bridge open, and pipe being laid on the seabeds of the Baltic and Black Seas, those comforting platitudes are no longer a reality.
At the same time, having developed these new geoeconomic facts on the ground, Russia has been pursuing the military capabilities needed to defend them from interruption. This was made abundantly clear in the clash in the Sea of Azov—how quickly the Russian naval and air units were able to respond, intercept, disable and capture Ukrainian vessels. What the incident also suggests is that the Russians are hyper-vigilant towards any action which might pose a threat to the bridge, which stands as the principal “fact-changer” for Crimea’s status. Additionally, rather blasé comments by Washington commentators that Ukraine ought to do something to damage that bridge as a way to reassert its claims have been picked up and read by Russian analysts. That type of advice could ensure that the government in Kyiv is holding the bag when things go wrong. Indeed, the speed and nature of Russian action has echoes of the Roki Tunnel bait used by Russia to lure Georgia into the ill-conceived clash a decade ago that resulted in a major setback for Tbilisi.
Moreover, what Russia has been doing in the Sea of Azov over the past few months is to push for the creation of a new normal. If, per the mugs and placards one can purchase in Moscow, the Russians insist that “Krym Nash” (Crimea is Ours), then they increasingly want others to recognize this fact de facto—even if they are unable to do so openly de jure. Having others treat the Sea of Azov as Russian waters rather than international ones is one part of that strategy. And what of the 2003 arrangement which guarantees shared access for both Russian and Ukrainian vessels? As another proverb makes clear, “Parchment burns in fire.” In other words, that is one of the older arrangements that Moscow is seeking to unilaterally revise.
Despite all of the public condemnation, the Russian government seems to expect that, over time, the furor will die down. After all, the Kerch Strait is not a vital international waterway; no critical supplies of energy or goods traverse its shores for important Asian and European states, as occurs via the Straits of Hormuz or Malacca. Russia continues to gamble that Crimea, over time, will become like North Cyprus: another occupied territory that is still considered to be part of the Republic of Cyprus but has been controlled by Turkey without any repercussions for the last forty-four years. Of course, Beijing has been watching Russia’s Crimea policy with intense interest for the past four years—learning lessons that it may seek to employ vis-à-vis the South and East China Seas or on Taiwan in the years to come.
Moscow may have recently had a bad day at the United Nations, but if this so far is the extent of the negative consequences, then the Russians can live with the results. The problem that the United States now faces is that the cost of opposing Russian revisionism has gone up. Germans of all political stripes—even the most pro-American and Atlanticist—have rallied around the Nordstream II project as a defense of German sovereignty. Now, with sunk costs in place, it is unlikely that Berlin will pull the plug on the project. Turkey’s commitment to contain Russia in the Black Sea, which was much stronger in 2015 when the shootdown of the Russian jet provided an opportunity to reassure Ankara that the Western alliance was firmly behind Turkey, has again weakened as Turkey mulls the attractiveness of a more condominium approach with Russia in the greater Black Sea area.
Russia has a strategy for creating a new normal in the Black Sea. The United States needs to decide how much of a threat Moscow’s revision is to U.S. interests. It must weigh the means and ways it wishes to employ to deter the Kremlin, raise costs for Russia, or incentivize a change in course. More than ever, a comprehensive, and realistic, strategy for the Black Sea is needed.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a contributing editor at the National Interest.