Five years ago this March, Vladimir Putin’s Russia succeeded in a daring and ultimately successful operation in Crimea. In one powerful stroke, Putin stopped his neighbor’s turn to the West and in doing so demonstrated the tenuous nature of treaties and international law. In approaching the anniversary of the beginning of the crisis, it is important for the United States and the international community to consider the objectives that Russia achieved and why this confrontation matters to the U.S.
The Frozen Road West
The destabilization of Eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea froze Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO and the European Union. There is little chance that NATO would accept an applicant involved in an active conflict. To do so would risk invocation of the North Atlantic Treaty’s mutual defense clause and a descent into war with Russia. Ukraine is thus blocked from the security net enjoyed by other former Soviet Republics and satellites. By triggering an armed conflict and subsequent economic disorder, Putin has found a way to use the West’s existing geopolitical systems against it. Some have argued that the U.S. has no interest in Ukraine, and America should abandon the issue of Ukrainian membership in NATO in the interest of détente with Russia. This position essentially gives Putin a green light to invade a neighboring country without consequence if their policies do not conform to Russian geopolitical strategy. Such an abdication of international influence by the United States would not only subject Russia’s neighbors to renewed tyranny from Moscow, but risks the collapse of the norm-based world order.
Historically, Russia has seen territorial expansion as the key to its security. The Soviets in particular accelerated this trend in the 20th century by establishing a ring of satellite nations that stretched from the Mongolian steppe to the mountains of Bohemia. These countries, whether the pseudo-sovereign Soviet Republics, or the captive countries of the Warsaw Pact, were subjugated by the presence of the Soviet Army and puppet governments loyal to Moscow. The economic cost of maintaining such intrusive control contributed directly to the economic collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin has learned from the mistakes of his predecessors. Encouraging domestic destabilization in Ukraine along ethnic lines has proven effective in the pursuit of Russian security. This approach, unlike the direct annexation strategy of the past, carries a far smaller price tag. Rather than annexing Ukraine and instituting direct rule from Moscow, Putin chose to keep the country bogged down in internal political and economic woes. By doing this, Russia can prevent Ukraine from advancing toward fulfillment of the political and economic criteria for accession to the European Union. To frustrate Ukraine’s NATO ambitions, Putin need only support the continuation of a low-level conflict on Ukrainian soil through a small but steady trickle of arms and cash to the rebellious Ukrainian regions known as the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, knowing that NATO cannot accept a fractured state at war with itself. The continuation of a conflict in Ukraine effectively blocks the expansion of the EU. By extension, this situation creates a long-term policy problem for EU leaders on how to conduct relations with Russia. The resultant divisions may exacerbate existing fractures within the bloc. A strong, stable, and united Europe is in the best interest of the U.S. as it acts as a counterweight to Russo-Chinese influence around the world.
Putin has brazenly exerted Russian control and influence over lands within a foreign territory while maintaining only the thinnest veneer of deniability. In doing so, he has undermined the West’s neo-liberal reliance on treaties and international law. Violating the UN Charter, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (in which Ukraine agreed to dismantle its nuclear arsenal in exchange for Russian guarantees of territorial integrity), and the Post-World War II consensus against aggressive war, Putin essentially put the world on notice that Moscow would no longer abide by the rules and dared the West to respond. The response of the West, from the Obama Administration’s hand-wringing vacillation, to Chancellor Merkel’s toothless condemnation (no doubt influenced by promise of Germany’s profit from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline) was an abdication of its historic position as the promoter of international norms and a counterweight to international aggression. With relatively minor costs from the American sanctions regime, Putin was able to determine how the West would react to his actions toward a neighboring state, and in doing so signaled to Moscow’s ideological allies, including China and Iran, that the global consensus that once stopped Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait had crumbled.
Sevastopol is the historic headquarters of the Tsarist and Soviet Black Sea Fleets, with a commanding position of the Black Sea and the straights leading into the Mediterranean. Annexation of the Crimea has satiated the enduring Russian obsession with occupying and operating a warm-water port. Now, Russia possesses a staging area for further operations in the Middle East, allowing it to fight pro-U.S. opposition groups and build its overseas image as an action-oriented power, all under the guise of a counter terrorist campaign. The recent kidnapping of Ukrainian sailors (who are imprisoned in Moscow awaiting trial as war criminals) signals a renewed sense of ownership over the Black Sea and an increased willingness to act on that sense. This behavior threatens U.S. maintenance of freedom of navigation, a principle that strongly influences U.S. policy in East Asia vis a vis China. Allowing Russia to turn the Black Sea into Lake Putin will convince China that it can take territory in the South China Sea without consequence. This in turn imperils U.S. partners such as Vietnam and the Philippines by demonstrating that the U.S. will respond only in words.
As the fifth anniversary of the Crimean Crisis approaches, it is critical that we as national security professionals remain cognizant of the consequences of Russia’s actions. The days of the Obama-Clinton Reset are long gone. Russia and its ideological cronies will continue to push against the boundaries of established international norms with increasing confidence. How will the U.S. respond?