Crimea: Russia Is Harvesting the Seeds Sown in the 1990s

...and what it means for strategists

This week the Russian Federation, for all intents and purposes, invaded a sovereign country. As difficult as interpretations of the Budapest Memorandum, OSCE convention, and other aspects of international law and norm can be to define, there can be no mistake; Ukraine’s territorial integrity was unilaterally violated and there must be a response. Figuring out the suitable, feasible, and acceptable response must occur and it must occur quickly if it is to have the intended effect. But the decision making process in Washington, Brussels, Kiev, and Strasbourg must be tempered and not reactionary. It must not give in to the calls to conflate, unknowingly or intently, the Budapest Memorandum with NATO’s Article 5. It must not, as ADM(ret) Stavridis or current sitting members of the Obama administration would have it, lash out with punitive and largely unproductive measures or worse yet, counterproductive to longer term strategic interests. Primarily however, rational strategy, both diplomatic and military if need be, must understand history, both recent and older. We must understand what has brought us to the precipice again in Europe and what we can yet still do about it.

The hopefully not-pending Ukrainian-Russian war would be a quick, one-sided show of force ostensibly conceived and responded to by both belligerents in order to protect their own immediate national and regional interests. It would look a lot like the Georgia conflict of 2008. The reality however goes beyond the propaganda (heavy, on both sides) and mainstream media reporting and uncovers issues beyond the tactical and operational context. The causes for the conflict go far beyond early March 2014 and in fact have more to do with a Russia-US context than a Ukrainian one.

Unidentified armed men patrol outside of Simferopol airport, on February 28, 2014. (Source: AFP PHOTO / VIKTOR DRACHEV)

Moscow’s Ukrainian intervention did not happen in a Russian foreign policy vacuum, unaffected by events in Washington or Brussels. It also did not happen because the Russians are trying to regain the glory of the Soviet Union and making sinister and confrontational actions on a zero-sum grand chessboard. The truth, as it usually is, falls somewhere in between. They, as they would superficially have us believe, were not simply forced into dealing with Ukrainian instability. On the other hand, we are not seeing a resurgent Russia knocking over the second domino (after Georgia, 2008) towards a domination of Mackinder’s heartland. Yet without understanding Russian psyche and perceptions, the stream of history both recent and further afield, and finally, how the system of geopolitics is never linear and unitary, we will automatically be drawn into handling the situation poorly. We are being dragged into seeing the context as if it were the case of the former: that Russia has put back on its Soviet lens and is calculating how far they can push the West into a new ideological proxy war where, all things being equal, a territorial win for them equates to rolling back democracy and Western values for their benefit.

This complex and nuanced understanding must first come through the simplest of human emotions which sets us apart from the animal kingdom, yet which is critically important for the Strategist: empathy — the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. Without this perspective, any possible Western response to Russia will be equally as heavy-handed, blunt, and inappropriate as we superficially view their current actions. Without empathy, there is no possible way the Strategist or Diplomat can begin to see the entirety of the problem. Without seeing the entirety of the problem, how can we understand what Russia holds as important in this situation? If we don’t know what the other actor views as important, how then can we begin to develop flexible response options or even Center of Gravity analyses should it come to that? Without knowing why Russia is doing what she is doing we simply cannot formulate an appropriate response. The first step to gaining empathy for the current situation is to see the system as a whole, not a discrete set of actions and reactions. And of course we must open our aperture wider than simply Kiev and Moscow. There is more to the story as there always is. Doing so will enable us to productively deal with it in a manner that primarily protects our interests yet makes room for issues of equally vital national importance to Russia. Not doing so is simply bad diplomacy and bad strategy.

Mass demonstration against Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych during EuroMaidan 2013.

Events precipitating the 28 February 2014 invasion far predate the Euromaidan protests or the subsequent coup. Further back even than the EU versus Eurasian Economic Union debates between East and West. Even beyond the Tymoshenko/Yanukovych split. They start in back in the earliest days just after the fall of the Iron Curtain when, in February of 1990, then-President George Bush Sr. and the Secretary of State James Baker promised Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move eastward. Gorbachev says in his memoirs that Baker’s argument, which included the statement that the borders of NATO would not roll east, convinced him to agree that a united Germany could stay in NATO. This, therefore, was the key lynchpin to removing one of the last major issues in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Later on, this understanding was also maintained by Secretary of State Warren Christopher when he warned against moving too rapidly to bring new members into NATO.

As time went on following the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain, there continued to be less and less justification than there was in 1990 and 1991 for NATO expansion, specifically to the east. However, the Clinton administration did just that and started to push NATO right up to Russia’s borders. Gorbachev would later say, “the issue is not just whether Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles join NATO. The problem is more serious: the rejection of the strategy for a new common European system.”

Therein lies the key to the breakdown of US-Russian relations post-Cold War and an eventual ramp up to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. The shared “strategy” Gorbachev referred to was the understanding that, as the Cold War ended, Europe and Russia should be able to enter into a new period of partnership so that shared institutions and markets could be enjoyed. This would occur by both entities drawing closer together through a mutual and non-hostile understanding. That was the post-Soviet goal anyway.

US and NATO actions over the past two decades have, without question, led Russia to believe that it will not be a part of NATO and, as such, not part of “Europe.”

However, US and NATO actions over the past two decades have, without question, led Russia to believe that it will not be a part of NATO and, as such, not part of “Europe.” This is an important point to understand because any political or economic reform in Russia depends on the Russian polity feeling that they are a welcomed part of a larger European system. However, the growing perception was that Russia was to be not only left out, but also kept out of the European fold. The feelings of rejection and inferiority began to foment Soviet chauvinism and the suspicion that the US is extending its military and political influence at Russia’s expense and, in fact, into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. This pessimistic conspiracy theory mentality is a key aspect of the Russian psyche and, owing to Western actions, a fait accompli. This has the negative side affect of undermining the West’s ability to gain Russian cooperation even when it is in Russia’s interest (Afghanistan, terrorism, China, trade, etc.).

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of Communism, the US encouraged the Soviets to leave Eastern Europe, to allow Germany to be unified, and to allow a unified Germany to stay in NATO under the condition that NATO’s command would not be moved further eastward. Gorbachev would later say to the former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, “What are they doing? They are tearing down everything we built!” What he referred to as “being built” was a united and common Europe to include Russia. US policies toward Russia and NATO would continue to fail to support that understanding, but, what’s worse, they undermined it. The US went forward with policies that help NATO expansion over and above larger and longer term strategic benefit for which there was (and still is) no direct military or strategic need. This came at the expense of regional stability and transitioning Russia into the Europe fold. The results were plain to see. They were first shown to us in 2008 in Georgia; we ignored it as a one-off situation and, by stretching credulity to the Nth degree we could be excused for doing so. In 2014 the similar result simply owes from sheer geopolitical incompetence on our part.

NATO Expansion

After the Soviet Union fell, the US and its European partners deliberately took advantage of a weakened Russia to incorporate her former allies and even some former Soviet republics into the NATO alliance. The US even sought and was granted access to military bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. For the time being, Russia could not do anything about this perceived hostile action of moving the NATO alliance right up to its current borders. More recently, a stronger Russia, reacting to NATO’s encouragement to both Ukraine and Georgia for eventual alliance membership as well as plans for installing U.S. missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, caused Russia to tighten its grip on its near abroad, their traditional security buffer, and eventually invade Georgia and annex territory.

Another factor provoking this Russian reaction was the West’s recognition of Kosovo, the secessionist province of Serbia. This “sovereign state” has a staunch Russian-allied (Orthodox) population. Russia would rhetorically ask, ‘If the US supported self-determination for Kosovo Muslims, then why not for Georgia’s breakaway regions?’ The same psychology is obviously in play as they move to guarantee Crimean independence. In all cases, a smaller ethnic minority in one country is trying to rejoin a larger ethnic community across the border and out from an arguably artificial border. However, the US and European allies ignored Russia’s protests and recognized Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia anyway. This was done outside of a formal UN mandate and, therefore, technically, outside of international law. Despite Secretary of State Rice’s arguments that the Kosovo situation was unique, Russia had nonetheless leveraged the Kosovo precedent as justification for its actions in Georgia and now the Crimea.

In short time the ‘Kosovo precedent’ backfired on the West and stoked dangerous tensions between Russia and the West. The Serbians have always been traditional allies and partners with the Russians and it should not be forgotten that the Russian/Serbian Orthodox tie conflagrated into World War I by drawing the Russians into conflict against the Central Power alliances. Furthermore, with the Clinton administration bypassing the UN Security Council to launch anti-Serb military operations, the US further marginalized Russia’s concerns and interests and failed to recognize Russia’s position as a major regional, if not global power. The game was set.

Moscow clearly warned that Western actions in Kosovo would set a dangerous international precedent. Even more ominously, Russia specifically cited South Ossetia and Abkhazia as places where the US’s “Kosovo precedent” would apply. Regardless of the differences between Kosovo, Georgia, and now Crimea, Moscow has been trying to tell the West that it cannot provoke Russia without expecting Russia, at some point, to respond in kind. They have also warned the West that they have long ties to these regions which span religious, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural lines, and they will not lose them to NATO or the West. By all appearances, the West has disregarded these warnings. Up to now.

Ukraine is the cultural and ancestral heart of Russia, just as Kosovo is the cultural heart of Serbia.

Beyond the Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the same type of action taken to realign the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula should have been expected. To some it was, but not main stream ideologically-focused US politicians and military leaders. More specifically, we are seeing the next red line that Russia has tried to tell the West existed all along: that it will not allow NATO incorporation of the Ukraine. This goes beyond the fact that the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula or the fact that the Crimea is approximately 90% ethnic Russian who want to be part of Russia, not the Ukraine. This red line goes back to the earliest days of Russian history to the birth of the Russian nation. The original tribe and ethnic group that eventually gave rise to the Duchy of Muscovy and then to Imperial Russia originated in (what is today called) the Ukraine and known as the Kievan Rus. Ukraine is the cultural and ancestral heart of Russia, just as Kosovo is the cultural heart of Serbia. Russia will not let this go from its sphere of influence. The Russian people view the issue of the Ukrainian-owned Crimea as an artificial creation borne from political expediency when Khrushchev signed over ownership to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. In the 1950s this was of limited consequence; they were all part of the Soviet Union anyway. Now the situation is different. With the EU (and NATO not far behind) trying to assume control and influence over Kiev in place of Moscow, the situation has been forced. Furthermore, the strategic communication and propaganda campaign the Russian government is employing to retake the Crimea is a much easier sell to most Russians than the one used for South Ossetia. In any event Russia will use these frozen conflicts and NATO/Western narrow-mindedness to the same end; securing Russia’s near abroad despite NATO expansion in the face of (perceived) disdain and contempt of Russian concerns or interests. NATO expansion for expansion’s sake does not translate to the Russian psyche; it is and always was an existential issue to them. They see themselves having offered to change but not the West.

The original NATO construct had a clear purpose: protect Western Europe from Soviet aggression, which could result in open conflict with the Soviets and possibly a hostile power controlling much of the Eurasian land mass. This was the prevailing theory since Mackinder’s geographical “pivot point” paper in 1904. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, that logic trail disappeared. There was no longer any necessity for an American security guarantee for Western Europe. There was, and is, simply no valid reason to expand US defense commitments up to Russia’s border. 1991 should have forced a wholesale renegotiation of the European security architecture and posture but it did not. NATO and US largely ambled down purposelessly the same road it was used out of laziness, stubbornness, and narrow thinking.

Instead of seeing NATO contract after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, Russia has watched NATO expand. As such, and only in direct response to an expanding NATO, Russia is re-establishing their theory of ‘Defensive Expansionism.’ Now that Russia has built up its wealth and military to a point where it can project its will, Russia seeks to build and hold a buffer beyond their national borders from which their primary threats reside. This goes beyond the simple maintenance of traditional spheres of influence and connections to historical or cultural ties. It is a definite geopolitical/military response to a perceived existential threat to the Russian nation-state. Although President Putin and Medvedev before him acknowledged to some degree that they must liberalize their economy and markets and to some lesser extent the political process, the current sense in Russia is that it must protect its interests and influence from an increasingly hostile West. In order to accomplish this, Russia sought to garner political leverage by developing energy policies that increased EU dependence on Russian energy resources, buying foreign companies, blocking Georgian and Ukrainian NATO accession, and positioning themselves to counterbalance US regional influence.

Russian troops in South Ossetia

In Georgia and now Crimea, Russia has shown that it will not continue to bow to Western strategic goals within their perceived sphere of influence. After almost 20 years of hibernation, the Russian bear is finally awake. The West, after demonstrating little political or diplomatic forethought, intruded into the geopolitical spaces of dormant countries. They are no longer dormant, especially in the case of Russia.

As Mao Zedong stated in his philosophical essay of 1937, On Contradiction, China always had to deal with its “main contradiction” versus its “secondary antagonism.” The USSR became Mao’s main contradiction (and threat) so China settled their antagonistic relationship with the US to deal with the Soviets. The US and the West must use this same type of strategic pragmatism to focus on our main contradiction or threat. But first, we must define what it is. Not doing so has led us into counterproductive forays into both Iraq and Afghanistan and an unwinnable War on Terror. It ties us to ‘supposed’ allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It also hobbles rational decision making with respect to China. By events this week we can plainly see what it does to our European/Eurasian policy.

Russia is in no way close to becoming the primary threat the US faces. Even if it is technologically capable again, that is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. The real strategic choice is deciding what the true threat to US sovereignty and security comes from. Is it extremists armed with WMDs or a militarily and economically strong (and increasingly competitive) China? Is it the final episode of the Sunni-Shia schism playing out in Iran or Syria? This disparity shows that arguments as to basic concepts such as core threats, subsequent strategy, and resource expenditure plague the Departments of Defense and State as well as Executive and Legislative branches. Focus must be given to the study of and decision as to where the real long-term, primary threat is. In any case however, pragmatism is key and the US should immediately stop expanding needlessly into Russia’s restated sphere of influence; Russia could have been a partner to many of these US strategic aims.

For even the most basic student of history, events this past week in Sevastopol and larger Crimea were plain to see especially after the Georgian War of 2008. Yet they were seemingly all ignored. With the strategic distraction of Iraq and Afghanistan continuing to have us believe Russia doesn’t matter in our grand strategy, they have inconveniently reminded us that they in fact do. Now, however, that Afghanistan and the larger War on Terror are almost in our rearview mirror, we can begin again to devote the intellectual capital, diplomacy, and effort into managing one of the most critical relationships in the 21st century. To that end immediate, open, and honest discussion must begin with the Russians, not what we’ve seen so far or have any other indication of having occurred. They must be pragmatic, they must be based in realism, and they must account for the psychology and history laid out here. Russia does not want a war but they have already determined the calculus of our discussed response options (sanction, suspension from the G8/20, other diplomatic and economic consequence) to be a cost worth paying. The Crimean issue will not go away simply because we wish it to but neither will it because we throw out meaningless red lines in return or threaten cocksure shows of force. Since failing our way through the Georgian episode, we now have a requirement to use skillful diplomacy and military deterrence like we haven’t had to in a long, long time. It will be hard and it will involve compromises but we have to force ourselves to remember what that is like.

The way out of the Crimea issue is achievable considering the national interests of both the US and Russia. Negotiations can be made, back doors can be opened, and assurances can be given to Kiev and Europe. What is happening in 2014 does not necessarily entail a Cold War part deux, yet the path our policymakers are on make that more likely; simply because we forego history for expediency and bluster. Strategists and advisors to senior leaders are charged with not allowing themselves to enjoy that short-term luxury or trap of convenience, however. The situation in the Crimea requires all of us to do our part whether at an Army Service Component Command, Theater Special operations Command, Combatant Command, the State Department, Headquarters Army, or Office of the Secretary of Defense. For the failures we allowed to happen on our watches in Iraq and Afghanistan, we must do better now. A way out is now still achievable in Crimea only when fully understanding and empathizing with the situation and perceptions of the Russian position. This puts us on uncomfortable ground, but as Strategists it is required.

Jeremy Kotkin is a U.S. Army strategist and professional devil’s advocate. The views expressed in this piece are his alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev ()