Violence in Ukraine continued to escalate on Thursday. Recent reports are that the country's President, Viktor Yanukovych, has brokered a deal with opposition leaders and will allow early elections in response to the unrest. If things go awry, it is not inconceivable that Ukraine could slide into civil war.
On one level, this is a classic case of a violent crackdown by a heavy-handed leader on initially peaceful protests against his government. On a second level, the unrest is an expression of deep internal divisions within Ukraine. Both understandings tend to encourage a form of binary thinking within the liberal Western press: either we say and do more to support democracy in Ukraine for humanitarian reasons, or we stay out of it as cold-blooded realists who have no stake in this fight.
This is a flawed understanding of what is really at stake. On a third level, whether Americans like it or not, the struggle in Ukraine is one reflection of an ongoing, current, and widespread competition between Russia and the West for influence within Central-Eastern Europe and beyond. And there is, in fact, a compelling strategic and realist case for a considerably more muscular U.S. approach toward this competition — because one thing that's certain is that Barack Obama's approach hasn't worked.
Since 2009, the president has pursued a strategy of trying to accommodate Russia comprehensively, with little payoff in the end for distinctly American interests. For example, Obama entered the White House carrying a tremendous emphasis on nuclear arms control with Moscow — both for its own sake, and in the expectation that it might have spinoff effects with regard to nuclear non-proliferation in other countries.
Under a fresh U.S. policy known as the "reset," Obama set out to accommodate Russian concerns over a wide variety of issues. In September 2009, he scaled back planned NATO missile defenses for Poland and the Czech Republic. He toned down democratization and human rights as major issues in U.S.-Russian relations, delinking them from negotiations over security concerns. He eased Moscow's accession into the World Trade Organization in order to help encourage international trade and investment for Russia. He downplayed prospects for NATO's expansion into Georgia or Ukraine. Indeed, when Ukrainians elected a new, pro-Russian president in 2010 — the current troublemaker, Viktor Yanukovych — Obama made clear the U.S. had no objection.
More broadly, Obama refused to see the necessity of any intense — or, as he calls it, "zero-sum" — competition with Moscow for influence within former Soviet republics in Central Asia, the Caucasus, or Eastern Europe. The intended purpose of this more conciliatory American approach was not only to secure Russian cooperation on specific issues such as nuclear arms control, Iran, and Afghanistan, but to kick-start a broader process of cooperation between Washington and Moscow.
The White House still contends that the reset succeeded in accomplishing these goals, but, in fact, any direct payoff for U.S. national interests resulting from a more accommodating approach has been quite minimal. The more common pattern has been that Russia offers strictly limited cooperation in ways that suit its own interests, while simultaneously and aggressively pressing its advantages relative to the U.S. across the board.
In regard to the Afghan conflict, Moscow did agree to allow U.S. forces transit across Russian airspace on their way into Afghanistan. Yet this seems to have been mainly because of Russian fears of the Taliban, not because of U.S. concessions in other areas. On Iran's nuclear program, Moscow offered initial approval for certain limited UN Security Council sanctions. Over time, however, Russia resumed its more familiar role as a major obstacle to strengthened sanctions against Tehran.
The 2010 New START agreement is often held up as a tangible success of the Russia reset. But again, in practical terms, what New START accomplished was to lock in the number of American nuclear weapons on par with Moscow … at a slightly lower level, which the cash-strapped Russians could actually afford. This was naturally attractive to Russia, which seeks to bolster any lingering form of military equality with the United States. Why it was essential to American national security interests, however, is not entirely obvious.
U.S. satellite technology can provide some impressive verification of Russian nuclear capabilities, with or without a formal arms control treaty. Moreover, the Russians made Moscow's continuing opposition to U.S. missile defenses very clear in their preamble to New START, signaling that it was the implicit price to be paid for the agreement. Indeed, while running for reelection in 2012, Obama — amazingly — assured Russia's then-President Dmitri Medvedev that "on all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it's important for him [i.e. Putin] to give me space....This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility." It is difficult to avoid the impression that Obama either views missile defense as a chip to be traded for Russian approval or thinks little of its value in the first place. Perhaps both.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has laid out his vision of a new "Eurasian Union" — actually, an assortment of integrative military, economic, and diplomatic agreements — in an ongoing effort to tie former Soviet republics closer to Moscow rather than to the EU, China, or the United States. Several of Russia's neighbors in the "Near Abroad" of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe remain skeptical of any such association, or prefer to hedge their bets between the various major powers, but this is not for lack of effort on Putin's part. The Russian government utilizes an imaginative variety of sticks and carrots — including financial, commercial, and security incentives, covert action, outright bribery, implicit military pressure, economic sanctions, cultural diplomacy, information warfare, and the manipulation of oil and gas prices and supplies — to nudge a number of former Soviet republics into closer association with Moscow, or at least away from Western influence.
Belarus and Kazakhstan have joined the planned Eurasian Union; Armenia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan have indicated considerable interest; and Ukraine, the crown jewel of any such project, was successfully pressured by Russia last autumn away from economic and political agreement with Brussels. This last event was the catalyst for Ukraine's current political unrest, as millions of Ukrainians were and are disgusted by the implication that they must reject Europe in favor of Russia.
President Obama's hope was that U.S. concessions would win Putin's friendship and cooperation. Evidently, however, American accommodation of Moscow's self-described security concerns has not assuaged those concerns, because a striking pattern in Russian foreign policy for several years now has been its persistent and bilious assertiveness relative to the United States.
Under Putin — and in spite of any U.S. diplomatic reset — Moscow has continued to: work toward an exclusive Russian sphere of influence within the Near Abroad; object to virtually any existing U.S. missile defense plans whatsoever; occupy portions of Georgia militarily; build up and modernize the Russian armed forces; provide technical support for Iran's nuclear program while blocking further UN sanctions against it; actively work against U.S. military base negotiations in parts of Central Asia; and block any UN action against Syria's violent suppression of domestic opposition, while arming and supporting the Syrian government. Putin has also used this time to consolidate his authoritarian system at home, and to crack down on extensive political protests that began in 2011.
One key aspect of Putin's crackdown on dissent — ironically, given Obama's obvious desire to stay out of Russia's internal affairs — has been to essentially accuse the United States of plotting to overthrow Putin's government and dismantle the Russian nation through domestic political unrest. Late in 2012, Moscow expelled the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on these grounds — an organization that had given over $2.6 billion in aid to Russia since the 1990s. Nevertheless, last June in Berlin, Obama laid out his fervent hope for further progress in U.S.-Russian nuclear arms negotiations, a prospect that excites little enthusiasm in Moscow.
That very same month, when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed thousands of classified documents to the press and was indicted under the U.S. Espionage Act, Russia agreed to grant him asylum in defiance of the United States. The obvious breakdown of the U.S.-Russia reset by that point led Obama to cancel a planned summit with Putin, but beyond that Moscow has faced few true costs for its assertive intransigence. Indeed, one might say that Putin has secured what he could from the reset, and is prepared to move on without any pretense of friendly relations or even visible respect. The reset is dead, but no coherent U.S. strategy toward Russia has replaced it — and wherever American influence retreats, from Central Asia across the Caucasus to the Middle East, Putin is happy to fill the gap.
The stakes in Ukraine, therefore, are not simply humanitarian, important though such considerations are. It would be more accurate to say that the fate of democracy in Ukraine, and the fate of Russian as opposed to Western influence throughout the region, are bound up together in this case, and are of real strategic interest to the United States. Putin clearly understands all of this. He understands that Russia and the United States are engaged in a serious competition for influence around Russia's perimeter and beyond — and he is determined to succeed in that competition, as far as he can.
Yet Obama's main response to all of the above has been that we need to avoid "zero-sum" thinking.
The only thing that can be said in reply is that if you hope to succeed in a peaceful but important competition with a serious international rival, it helps to first know that you have one.