The crisis in Ukraine has been building up not for months, as media accounts have it, but for years, especially if we recognize the original framing of Vladimir Putin’s Munich 2007 “declaration of intent” to reverse the damage to Russia’s power caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. So it is not premature to draw some preliminary conclusions as to how arguably the greatest crisis along Europe’s periphery since the end of the Cold War has shaped the Transatlantic security environment. Today Ukraine and all of Eastern Europe are covered by a blanket of uncertainty. But we can nevertheless discern the basic shapes of several “unknowns” beneath that blanket.There is no question that the principal culprit in the unfolding crisis is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and specifically its neo-imperial project. A lot of ink, too, has been spilled over Ukrainians’ complicity and culpability for what has befallen them from the east. But we also need to ask ourselves what role the strategic drought in Washington in relations with Europe has played in the current predicament. In particular, the Obama Administration’s conviction that Eastern Europe was a “done deal,” and that America needed to pivot unequivocally toward the Pacific and leave the perennially self-focused Europeans to take care of their own needs, has set the tone for Transatlantic relations, especially at the military level. While America’s expectations that Europe should spend more on defense are more than justified, those expectations cannot be met if they are seen as merely transactional in nature and not part of a larger strategic framework.Of course, Europe is also guilty of the sins of omission and commission that contributed to the drama unfolding on the continent’s periphery. For in its own way the traditional inertia and indecision of the European Union has played a key part. It is true that the “Eastern Partnership” led by Poland and Sweden offered a smidgen of hope to the pro-Western forces in Eastern Europe that they would not be left on the other side of the divide. But for the largest European powers, on the other hand, especially Germany, these prospects always belonged in the stratospheric layers of high theory. Add to this the EU bureaucracy’s traditional penchant for keeping things open (i.e., indecision), which pumped out conflicting messages to the region, contributing both to a sense of opportunity and to unease in Moscow. In the end, when Ukrainians in Maidan simply said “no” to their gangster government, the European Union’s efforts to have its cake in Ukraine and eat it too came to bite us all.We already know the obvious: Today Ukraine is the core geopolitical argument, not only between Russia and the West but also within the Transatlantic alliance. Its outcome will define how Russia relates to the West, especially to the United States, in the coming decade, on multiple levels, from the most basic economic relations to military competition. We can also glean today the general outline of the strategic objectives in Eastern Europe for both Russia and the West, with a clear indication of the mismatch between what the two sides are trying to accomplish.Russian propaganda notwithstanding, the European Union’s goal has never been to actually bring Ukraine into the fold as a full-fledged EU member down the line, and it is questionable whether it wanted to build a sustainable interim framework for association—the subsequent declarations and agreements are derivatives from the crisis, not initial strategic assumptions. At the same time, today Russia cannot bring Ukraine immediately into the Eurasian Union, for whatever imperial aspirations Vladimir Putin has, he understands the complexity of that country’s ethnic makeup. Having exploited it better than most, he cannot be under any illusions that Ukraine today would be ready to make such a decision forthwith. The reality is different: Putin’s goal for now is largely negative—that is, to ensure that Ukraine will never join either the European Union or NATO, leaving the pathway for his integrative project open for the future. Likewise, the United States and the European Union are more interested in foreclosing Ukraine’s full integration in the Russia sphere of influence than they are in peeling it away from Russia. Before the Maidan explosion last year, a possible solution to this dilemma could have been de facto or de jure neutrality for Ukraine, with the country still eventually drifting into Russia’s orbit. However, events on the ground have outpaced contingency planning. What’s more, such a resolution today is largely impossible not because the West would ultimately reject it, but because the Ukrainian public would veto it even more forcefully than Yanukovych’s initial deal.Today what divides the United States and Europe—or rather individual European capitals, for a consensus is simply not there—are the ends-in-view of our respective approaches: how much to give in to Moscow’s demands, and at what price. The added variable is the constant of Russia’s expectations, growing with each passing day, for since NATO has ruled out any military response, Ukraine is Putin’s crisis to escalate or de-escalate at will. In statement after statement, Moscow has made it abundantly clear that it will no longer accept a non-aligned Ukraine. It has come to see the country as a buffer state, one whose further partition seems all but inevitable. Russia demands the right not only to hold on to parts of Ukraine’s territory, but also, more dangerously, to determine the constitutional framework of its neighboring state.We know already that Russia sees Ukraine as a landmark event, the beginning of its return to superpower status in world politics. Still, the notion that Russia has the power potential comparable to what is represented by the collective West, or even China, seems more like wishful thinking. And yet Russia’s calculus in its confrontation with the West, especially the United States, is largely based on military indices of power, especially the strategic nuclear component and Russia’s conventional military forces relative to the region. Time and again Moscow has demonstrated its ability to equalize the power disparity through its continued nuclear parity with the United States, coupled with the sheer determination to act, including the willingness to use military force—something the West has ruled out.Next, the crisis in Ukraine should disabuse anyone still pining for the “reset” of the notion that Moscow will accept the model of cooperation with the United States proposed at the beginning of the Obama Administration, notwithstanding Washington’s concessions at the time and since, including the scrapping of the Bush-era missile defense program in Central Europe. It is clear that the dominant narrative in Russia today about the historical meaning of the fall of the Berlin Wall is very much like Germany’s Dolchstosslegende between the two world wars. The conviction is especially pronounced among the Russian military and intelligence services that the Soviet Union was never defeated but simply surrendered without a shot under treacherous leadership. President Putin’s $700 billion military modernization program for the next decade is intended to restore the Russian military to its former greatness, in the process putting to rest the image of Russia as the land of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, caught in periodic “times of trouble” (smutnoye vremya).Another known is that, notwithstanding the numerous columnists declaring that Ukraine has forced the West to confront the reality of Russia’s revisionism, the crisis has caused divisions within the West that are deeper today than at any point in recent memory. Western reactions continue to run behind the curve of Russia’s initiatives, whether on the ground in Ukraine or in various multinational fora, most recently during the framing of the so-called “Geneva compromise” which proved to be little more than a tactical move by Moscow to test Western cohesion before accelerating its Spetsnaz campaign in Donetsk. Thus far it appears that such tactics to preserve the current state of disarray among Western allies have vindicated Putin’s strategy of leveraging the United States’ determination to deescalate the crisis, and EU leaders’ determination to preserve its economic ties with Russia, ensuring that any Western-supported military response by Ukraine to Russian aggression is off the table.We also know that in the wake of the crisis, U.S. re-engagement in Europe is all but inevitable, but there is no consensus yet as to its form and scope. The Obama Administration’s Ukraine policy has been driven by an overarching desire to minimize the costs of re-Europeanizing U.S. security policy priorities. Although today in Washington only the most Pollyannaish would still believe that a “pivot to” Asia could be predicated on an implicit “pivot away” from Europe, budget realities remain what they have been, regardless of whether Mr. Putin stays at home or marches on. If there is a bit of good news for the collective West in the unfolding drama along Europe’s periphery, it is that, whether one likes it or not, the United States is back in European security affairs; the outstanding question is the depth of its renewed commitment.The most important “known” is that Europe’s key power will not support direct military assistance to Ukraine. Germany sent a clear message early in the crisis that it would oppose any effort to “militarize” the conflict, notwithstanding the fact that Ukraine has been the target of Russian military operations. The ongoing Western discord on economic sanctions against Russia, both within Europe and across the Atlantic, is proof positive that, several months into the crisis, Putin can still count on having a disunited and reluctant adversary. Here Germany remains the key variable; specifically, Berlin’s unwillingness thus far to redefine its Ostpolitik and abandon its allegedly modernizing engagement with Russia. In fairness, German economic interests remain too deeply embedded there to allow rapid movement in the opposite direction, and not just in the energy sector. Hence, lobbying from the German business community against Russian sanctions and statements from Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warning of military escalation and in opposition to NATO ground troops’ presence in Poland are but the tip of the iceberg in a deepening clinch on Russia policy that has emerged in the European Union in the wake of the crisis. To be fair, although Germany remains the driver of EU foreign policy, similar sentiments prevail in the business communities of other major powers in Western Europe, especially in the United Kingdom, Italy, and, to a lesser extent, France.NATO is another “known unknown” in this crisis. NATO is divided when it comes to its relations with Russia in a different way than the European Union, for in contrast to Western Europe, the north-central European and the Baltic members will always prioritize their security over their considerable economic interests in Russia. In practical terms this means that, unless the Obama Administration can articulate a proactive strategy towards Russia and generate sufficient support among West European allies around such a policy, it must largely deal with Moscow through bilateral initiatives. Because of the security imperative dominant along NATO’s northeastern flank, one aspect of the Transatlantic relationship that is functioning effectively now is America’s relationship with the states in the region, whose acute and justified sense of danger has translated into a series of efforts to bring U.S. military assets there. But even absent such a U.S.-led strategy for Eurasia, actions by key European allies—in particular Germany—have served as brakes on the pace of U.S. military deployments in the region, especially since the Obama Administration has yet to show much enthusiasm for such actions in the first place. Nonetheless, the United States has stepped up to reassure the northeastern flank states, in stark comparison to Western Europe’s inaction (save for four British Typhoons and four French Rafale jets dispatched to Lithuania and Poland, respectively, for Baltic duty). Although current U.S. deployments in Poland and the Baltics have been limited, they are nonetheless absolutely critical—especially the ground forces—for sending a message that the United States takes its Article V obligations seriously.This brings up a key “unknown unknown”: How will the United States ultimately define its presence in north-central Europe? One response to the drift in Western Europe would be for the United States to invest in those countries in NATO that have shown themselves willing and able to work across the Atlantic and to cooperate regionally to confront the rising Russian threat. Here Scandinavia, the so-called Visegrad 4 led by Poland, the Baltics, and possibly Romania could constitute the core foundation of such a reorientation. But a move to regionalize NATO’s response, if it were to leave out Western Europe over time, runs too high a risk of undercutting allied solidarity. Such an approach would also inevitably run counter to intra-EU pressure, making economic linkages by new NATO members to those of the “old core” all but impossible to overcome, especially during continued budgetary austerity. Hence, Washington should make its best effort to follow two tracks: expand U.S. military deployments in Poland and the Baltics, and also lead all NATO members to develop a strategy for the northeastern flank. For while it should work by building consensus around the new strategy and leading by example, the United States should also firmly demand that the time has come for the Transatlantic alliance to speak with one voice on Russia. Russia’s challenge is to NATO as a whole, and the alliance needs to respond collectively.But we know that Europe’s paralysis means that, on the Western side, the crisis is now firmly in the hands of the Obama Administration. It might (and in fact let’s hope it does) grate on EU sensibilities that, yet again, it has only a limited ability to shape its security environment so close to home. But even so, there should be no illusions after the fiasco of the so-called “Geneva deal,” that in the near term anything viable will be negotiated by John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov—in part because that is how Russia wants it.The key is this: We know today that the West will not militarily assist post-Soviet countries outside NATO threatened by Russia’s neo-imperial ambition. It is also clear that containment is the best option we can hope for, though in a number of Western states large portions of the public believe that Ukraine is a regional crisis and not part of Europe’s (and by extension America’s) vital national interests. Some commentators in the United States and Europe have gone so far as to claim that the West in effect has itself to blame for enlarging NATO to the east, in the process breaking its alleged promises to Mikhail Gorbachev. The fact that such arguments are even made—that is, that post-communist Europe would have been better off as a macro-Ukraine of sorts or a grey zone where a new Russian sphere of influence would be established by default—says a lot about what passes for “realism” in some Western policy debates.We already know that a new fault line running along the borders of the Baltics and the Bug River is now an undeniable reality, which, at least until Russia moves again to expand its sphere of privileged interest farther, is a baseline that will shape the NATO-Russia relationship. It therefore matters a great deal for the future of NATO whether the alliance will devise a new strategy and build contingency planning that can then be discussed and approved by the upcoming UK summit. Every decision taken between now and September, especially the critical ones concerning the deployment of U.S. and NATO troops in Poland and the Baltic States, will impact the direction of the unfolding drama in Eastern Europe. These decisions will also shape Russia’s choices going forward, potentially deterring it from moving into Moldova, Georgia, or Kazakhstan.The largest unknown is the lessons the Obama Administration will draw from this confrontation. To put it differently, it is about the extent to which Russia has linked and will continue to link other agenda items to its relationship with the United States: Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, nuclear arms control are but the most prominent among them. Thus far it seems after three months of spurious negotiations that Washington is not going to prioritize Eastern Europe over those agenda items, and that Putin’s linkage has held. The question is not whether the United States will honor its treaty obligation. That message has been unequivocal: It will. What is unknown at this point, however, is whether the Administration will continue to operate on the narrowly defined premise that its actions ought to be driven by its treaty obligations to other NATO members alone, rather than those core commitments serving as a baseline for a proactive strategy aimed at stabilizing Eurasia. It seems thus far that Washington will not risk losing its ability to work with Russia on a range of other issues. While this is ostensibly a rational position, to communicate this stance to Moscow at this juncture in the crisis will only encourage Putin to move forward with his neo-imperial project, raising the specter of a military confrontation down the line should Moscow move deeper into post-Soviet space, or even challenge one of the Baltic states.
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Published on: April 29, 2014
Crisis in UkraineKnown Unknowns
A fog of uncertainty has descended on Ukraine and Eastern Europe, but there are still a few things that we do know (as well as a few things that we know we don’t know).