The following is a response written by Erich Helmreich to Ian Manley’s article, Cold War Rematch: How the U.S. Can Win in Ukraine. Erich is a junior studying political science and is a research assistant at the Center on Law and Security at the NYU Law School.
I would like to thank Mr. Ian Manley of JPIA for for his cogent and well articulated analysis of the United States’ policy in Ukraine. However, there are significant points in which I diverge from Manley’s analysis and suggested course of action. His suggestion is one that is felt by many in the international security arena who focus on the “credibility” of the United States in deterring aggression. Rather than respond in the reactionary, knee-jerk method that has become almost requisite in today’s modern news cycle, the United States should use these next few weeks to craft and implement a long-term response to Russian adventurism in its near abroad.
Any analysis of an on-going crisis and a proposed response should first attempt to understand the aims of the aggressors of the situation. In my attempt to understand the decision by Vladimir Putin and the rest of the Russian government, I will conclude that the Russian Federation crossed its proverbial “Rubicon” for two reasons: the expansion of the “West” and the future loss of economic leverage due to declining oil and gas income.
The Russian Federation over the last two decades has seen a gradual encroachment of the West on its borders and its purported sphere of influence. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a supranational military alliance, is rightly seen as a direct threat to Russian regional hegemony as its purpose was to organize the nations of Western Europe and the United States to defend against a Soviet invasion of Europe. In 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, all former members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, joined NATO. Not five years later, more former Soviet Republics (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia among them) also joined the American-led military alliance. The Russian government, many of whom served in the upper echelons of the Soviet government clearly see this continued expansion of the West on its borders as a threat. Beyond the expansion of NATO, American military operations in Central Asia for the last decade, spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgzstan, have also heightened fears of the Russian military establishment. Despite Russo-American cooperation in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) through intelligence sharing on terrorist organizations in the Caucasus and the Northern Distribution Network, Russian officials have been consistently wary of NATO military cargo and soldiers transiting the region. Military activity by the United States or the international community in Ukraine could serve as just the excuse Russia needs to shut down the Northern Distribution Network, proving devastating to the drawdown of the GWOT in Afghanistan since the NDN supports 40% of the logistical needs of the U.S. military for the war. Since the NDN has routes through Kyrgzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, all countries with significant economic ties to Russia, Russia has clear leverage in this situation. Furthermore, it’s not just the formal expansion of NATO and U.S. military operations in Central Asia that Russia sees as invasive, many see the discussions of Ukraine joining not only the E.U., but continued involvement in the the United States’ Partnerships for Peace program, which involves extensive training and cooperation between member militaries, as another threatening move (for the Russians) in a region that is not only considered in their sphere of influence, but the home of the Russian nation. All of these reasons point to a clear incentive to Russia to move to strengthen its overt military influence in the region.
The second reason Russia has decided to embark on military adventurism in Crimea, and perhaps greater Ukraine, is the perception of a declining window of opportunity. Russia’s abundance of natural resources is key in influencing Eastern Europe, specifically Ukraine—and since those resources are diminishing, Russia is acting now. Gazprom and Rosneft, long seen as arms of the Russian government when it comes to oil and gas, have had incredible leverage over much of Europe the past decade. As the largest supplier of gas to Europe, Russia has often used this position to influence governments nearby and cause hardship on end users of its oil and gas. There are a few threats to Russian dominance of energy in the next decade, some of them already in motion. Increasing oil and gas exports from Iraq and Iran are near-term threats to Russian energy dominance. Despite the failure of the Nabucco or Trans-Anatolian pipeline to get off the ground, there exists strong support for pipelines from Central Asia that would bypass Russian territory. It goes without saying that the introduction of a competitor for European markets would drive down prices, which would would severely hurt Russian oil and gas income. The other threat to Russian energy dominance is the well reported American Shale Gas “revolution”. Should the United States open up its gas to export, many European markets would look to a secure and stable source of gas, further limiting Russia’s clout in the region. Now this isn’t to say that Russian seizure of Crimea or eastern Ukraine would solve this issue, but Russian designs on retaking Crimea and establishing a stronger perch alongside the Black Sea would be limited in a future with smaller profits from oil and gas and subsequently less influence on European gas markets.
Now that I’ve outlined two reasons that could explain Russia’s perspective on Ukraine in a broader geopolitical context, I will turn to addressing directly Manley’s analysis on what the United States should do to resolve the issue. While I too consider the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty a threat to the institutional world order, we must be appropriate when responding to such a violation to avoid creating a more direct threat. Without assessing how an international peacekeeping force would be assembled and supplied, and what its long term aims are, we cannot embark upon this strategy that Manley proposes. Knowing what we’ve outlined about the Russian perception of NATO, Manley’s suggestion to have the United States gather “an international coalition in the UN and among NATO to back Ukrainian sovereignty” seems more likely to escalate the situation, and confirm Russian fears about NATO. In fact, the exercise of NATO on such an endeavor might not be legal according to provisions of the treaty. Along that very same line, I would like to ask where in international law does it state that “a collective response to protect the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine” is required. It goes without saying that an operation directly against Russian forces in Crimea by NATO, or even perceived moves to indirectly counter Russian forces, would do more harm than good as Russian domestic politics would encourage or force Putin to double down on his position. This is not Libya, and this this is not a fight that NATO and the West wants or could win without significant losses and unclear aims.
I suppose I could be mischaracterizing Manley’s position—nowhere does he say that direct military confrontation is necessary or preferred in this situation. However, he dances around it by indicating that somehow an international peacekeeping force should secure the border after negotiations between the international community, the United States, and Russia. How does he suppose this will work? If people criticize Obama for turning too often to diplomacy and not seeming credible in his dealings with Russia, how will Manley’s suggestion play out? If the President still has time to organize an international peace-keeping coalition through the United Nations rather than utilizing a multilateral approach through it, the President should communicate that bilaterally with nations about Russia or former Soviet Republics. By increasing economic and military cooperation with these nations, the President will not orient the United Nations directly in opposition to Russia, but instead will create a policy that will be more successful in containing Russian adventurism in the long term. By keeping talks bilateral amongst Russian neighbors, the President can slow the perception that the United States is encircling Russia with the UN or NATO. In the short term, locking Russia out of the G-8, in addition to economic sanctions, might be the most strategic and symbolic way to approach this situation. While this strategy may have led to the Russian adventurism we see today, perhaps the problem is that the expansion of the West and it’s institutions was not fast enough.
But there is a far more pervasive argument that is at heart in Manley’s analysis, the reliance on credibility as a bulwark against military aggression. I remain unconvinced by this argument, despite the frequency it is bandied about by national security experts. Many argue that credibility is crucial for effective deterrence, but this forgets the second part of the argument. The second part focuses on the ability of credibility to prevent escalation to nuclear conflict between two nuclear powers, meaning that credibility is first and foremost essential to deterring through nuclear force. If the United States doesn’t have the ability or interest in pursuing a nuclear strike, credibility goes out the window. The United States still maintains a nuclear arsenal that could destroy the world multiple times over, and so does Russia. Both countries maintain credibility in their nuclear deterrent. While both countries have distinct national interests, Russia has clearer interests in its near abroad, and the United States has a weak interest in the Russian near abroad at best. How is this related to Crimea? In order for credible threats to be successful, the deterring force has to clarify that they will place a lot of effort (in this case blood and treasure) to rectify the violation if it is committed. I have yet to see an argument for credibility as a useful tool for examining the success and failure of military operations in areas that the United States has incredible national interest even against non-nuclear powers. After all, one could hardly argue that the United States threat against Saddam Hussein wasn’t credible, but Saddam invaded Kuwait anyways and the United States responded. What is important about this scenario is not the result, as the U.S. crushed the Iraqi army in a short time span, but the progression of events. If, as Manley argues, the United States will lose credibility by not pursuing a distinctly threatening military response, then a military response would lead to a supposed Russian withdrawal or the cessation of future Russian adventurism in Ukraine. But does anything about Putin or the importance that the Russian people have placed on their “brothers and sisters” in Crimea indicate that this situation will be resolved that easily? The argument is backward—in Ian’s analysis, and other members’ of the national security community, credibility approaches it the wrong way. Credibility comes after enacting a successful approach. It does not appear beforehand and is not the enabling force for a successful approach. That would be akin to saying that reputation alone allows Peyton Manning to be one the most successful quarterbacks. If Peyton uses “x” game plan, and that game plan is successful, he retains his reputation. If it’s not successful he can potentially lose his reputation. If Peyton discusses using “y” game plan, but “y” was not successful in the past, his reputation should only go down if “y” is again not successful. The picture that is painted is that the President has suggested “y” (or in this case economic sanctions and not an international peace-keeping force) and is therefore not credible. That assessment can only be made after the action takes place. The stronger the approach to blunt future Russian adventurism will come from weakening its already limited economic leverage and expanding existing military agreements between the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. While an international peacekeeping force would surely fulfill this need, the ability of this to make it through the UN unscathed (remember the Russian seat on the Security Council), and the escalation this would necessarily ensure is not strategically sound. Working through the very institutions that Russia finds threatening confirms their existing suspicions in an area that they would undoubtedly defend wholeheartedly.Let’s suppose that if credibility is this crucial as Manley argues, then what of it? If Russian action in Crimea is capable of diminishing American soft power and credibility so easily, does American soft power and influence have the staying power many argue it should have? Every act that the United States does not respond to with effective force would thus diminish American soft power and credibility. Is this response the equivalent of Vietnam? The failure for ten years to find Osama Bin Laden? The inability to resolve the Israel-Palestine peace process? I doubt anyone reading this would put Crimea anywhere in the same room as those failures of American foreign policy. At the end of Manley’s analysis he makes the claim that this will diminish our ability to deal with “real” national security threats. Short of military confrontation in Syria and Iran, the United States is making progress, albeit slow, on those fronts. What differentiates these situations from Crimea is the existence of another great power in the room. While many argue that Russian involvement in Syria has slowed the progress there, and it has, the United States ultimately has more leverage in garnering an international coalition in Syria, in which Russia is both ethnically and geographically removed, than it does in Crimea. If it hasn’t successfully pursued these ends in Syria (likely from American war weariness and financial factors) why would it make that play in Crimea? A greater threat to American credibility is not the President’s, but the American public. Outside of a few senators, I doubt Americans would go to war or spend money on a peacekeeping mission on the shores of the Black Sea.
Most importantly, the notion that Putin would risk or abide by referendums in Ukraine in order to “save face” is misguided. Even if he did, how would this abide by international norms of a nebulously defined “self-determination”? Does this not give Putin a way out of a confrontation that he should be punished for? After Manley’s solution we have a drawn and quartered Ukraine, a successful gamble by Russia who owns Crimea and likely other parts of Ukraine, and the rest of the international community who not only spent money to secure the border but gave other nation states a playbook for securing more land. First, walk into a country’s territory where you have ethnic majority, wait for the furor to die down and the long diplomatic process for an international coalition to be formed, then allow “elections” and all of a sudden you have new borders. Some would argue that not doing anything directly in Ukraine at this moment would be akin to Munich, and allow Russian adventurism, but a sanctions regime and shoring up of other alliances would prevent further Russian expansion without necessarily encouraging escalation. With this solution, Russia indeed still has Crimea, but has provided the impetus for the United States to aggressively pursue members of NATO in its near abroad. It might be argued that regardless whether or not the United States makes a play to other states in the Russian near abroad, those states will come closer to the United States out of fear of Russian aggression. But if nation states, especially ones with large Russian populations, see Putin walk away with the international community legitimizing his take over by elections, they will only believe that the situation can be repeated on their borders.
Relying on the Long-term Approach
The other day, a Russia Today anchor in America criticized Russian actions, and indicated that she felt sorry for the Ukrainian people as they were now chess pieces in a great game. I agree with this assessment. Other than an outright military response, the Ukrainian and Crimean people will likely be willingly let go by the West. However, Russia will realize that its aggression to secure Crimea, done out of fear of its own lessening economic leverage over Europe and the expansion of the West towards its near abroad, has accelerated both. The only way for this to be the case is through securing relationships with countries near Russia to indirectly weaken Russian influence and strengthen U.S influence in the area. Fracturing the international liberal order by drawing obvious distinctions between Russia and the international community will not save the liberal institutions. Likely it will indicate to Russia the importance to speed up its strengthening of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. By forcing Russia to choose immediately between it’s interests and the international organizations actions in Ukraine guarantees continued Russian distrust of these as purely Western tools.
Overall, the long-term approach should be taken. Noticing that escalation in Crimea by the West would not strengthen the liberal international order but in fact damage it, a strategic evaluation of the next 10-15 years of Eastern Europe and Central Asia should be conducted by the Obama administration with the goal of identifying future states that could be successfully courted into a Western organization. Once identified, efforts should be made to immediately encourage joint cooperation. Using the example of Ukraine’s non-inclusion in NATO or the E.U., the United States could effectively underscore the importance of maintaining formal ties with the West. Assuming complete effectiveness of both strategies, this strategy rather than Manley’s may not remove Russian troops from Crimea, but they may prevent Russian troops from occupying other former Soviet Republics and Central Asian states. In addition, a clear fracturing of the international order will not occur as the United Nations won’t be leveraged directly against Russia. Some may indicate that this fails to support the tenets of collective security, but Crimea is no Czechoslovakia, it does not command a strategic location to strike into the heart of Europe. Other than maintaining a Russian naval base on the Black Sea, it is not even close to being that important. If the conflict ends today, the United States would do well to recognize this clear difference and identify what is more important: the self-determination and territorial integrity of Ukraine, or an isolated, angry Russia that has no incentive to work with the United States on more pressing matters?
If Russia goes farther into Ukraine and to Kiev, then we might have a different story, as the national interests and effect on the liberal international order will have to be reexamined.
I thank the JPIA for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the discussion.
If you would like to respond to Erich’s argument, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for your comments to be featured on the blog.