It's hard to look on the bright side of the dismemberment of a sovereign state by force of arms. But because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing threat Vladimir Putin intends to pose to eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration must now face international reality free of one of its more cherished illusions: that Russia is a partner in the pursuit of commonly desired outcomes.
Obama scoffed mightily in his reelection debate with Mitt Romney when the GOP candidate described Russia as America’s biggest strategic challenge. Called out on the remark in light of Russia’s move on Crimea, Obama was once again dismissive of the Romney perspective. He referred to Russia as merely “a regional power,” implicitly rebuking his defeated opponent even in light of current circumstances for overstating the danger Russia poses. The president’s point dovetailed into broader Democratic criticism of hawkish Republicans for the supposed desire of the latter to revive a Cold War mentality in dealing with Russia.
It’s certainly true that Putin’s Russia isn’t Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. In a way, that’s Putin’s point: In its hour of dire weakness, the Soviet Union and then Russia lost an empire. There is no likelihood of a global resurgence of Russian influence and proxy contests between Moscow and Washington ranging from Central Asia to Africa to Latin America. The United States has no need to return to a Cold War footing.
Nevertheless, Obama’s “regional power” remark is telling. For what exactly is a regional power? Well, if the term means anything, it’s a state that wields considerable influence over its neighbors—and not influence of the “soft power” sort. A regional power gets its way with less powerful states in its region whether the other states like it or not. A regional power practices coercive diplomacy based on the preponderance of its power. It makes demands in the name of its “national interest” that impinge directly on the perceived national interests that neighboring states have—demands to which the others accede.
Russia’s regional power includes not just its manifestly revivified military capability but also its economic power, in the form of the reliance of its neighbors on Russia for energy resources. Moscow can turn out the lights and turn off the heat, and although this capability as such would mean little in the hands of a state just interested in enriching those lucky enough to be participants in its oil and gas sector, in the case of a state seeking to reassert its regional influence, the ability to exercise economic coercion is a serious asset as well.
True, its economic power is a double-edged sword: The Russian economy depends heavily on a market for its energy resources. But would anybody today rule out as unworthy of consideration the possibility that come winter 2014, Russia might credibly threaten to curtail exports in the absence of concessions?
Nor is the energy sector the totality of Russia’s economic power. Russia has considerable trade flows with Europe, and to the extent anyone in Europe has considered decisions about policy toward Russia in light of business interests, that too indicates the reality of Russian economic power. Such trade flows don’t amount to an element of power when the trading partners don’t see themselves as having serious conflicts over national interests. There’s no point in wasting analytical resources on consideration of the economic power of the United States over Canada. But Putin’s Russia, qua “regional power,” now demands exactly such analysis.
Moreover, it seems clear from Obama’s characterization that the American president understands and accepts that Russia is a regional power—with all the perks that regional power entails. The palpable disappointment in the White House and in Secretary of State John Kerry’s office over Russia’s decision to take a “19th-century” approach to international politics rather than embrace a cooperative “21st-century” perspective also entails acknowledgment that there is nothing the United States can do to prevent Russia asserting itself in this fashion. That’s what being a regional power does for you: It ensures that a much bigger but far-away power isn’t in a position to stop your exercise in self-assertion in your neighborhood.
Hence the initial reaction of the Obama administration to Putin’s incursion into Ukraine: to try to persuade Putin that the practice of 19th-century-style power politics, including conquest and the annexation of territory, is antithetical to Russia’s own long-term interests. In short, the United States tried to talk him out of it—and to make sure he had an “off-ramp” available should he come to his 21st-century senses. The United States also promised “consequences,” starting with economic sanctions, for Putin’s failure to adhere once more to 21st-century norms of international conduct.
When you are trying to talk somebody out of a course of action by purporting to explain to that individual where his true interests lie—which is to say, in aligning his behavior with your own interests, values, and preferences—you are mainly engaged in an indirect effort to restate your own commitment to your interests, values, and preferences. Our policy in light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its threat to eastern Ukraine has had very little to do with either Russia or Ukraine and a great deal to do with the reassertion of our preference for 21st-century international norms.
So we have accepted Russia as a regional power that can have its way in its neighborhood. We will collect those who agree with our norms and stand together in opposition to Russian action. Maybe the sanctions will exact a toll. But their purpose is to enforce a shared sense of how a state like Russia ought to behave. There is no policy challenging Russia’s assertion of itself as a regional power, nor (yet) a policy to contest the growth of Russia’s regional power.
I don’t think it’s wrong to see Russia as a regional power—far from it. Russia’s decision to send military forces into Georgia in 2008 demonstrated this power. It’s interesting that those seeking to deny that any perception of Obamian weakness contributed to Putin’s boldness frequently point to this incursion on George W. Bush’s watch: Does that mean Bush was weak, too?
In fact, yes, Bush was weak in August 2008. He was a lame-duck president whose Iraq war, in its sixth year, had barely emerged from its “debacle” phase and whose Afghanistan war, in its eighth, was perceived as failing. More directly to the point for Russia as a newly assertive regional power, earlier that year, Bush had thrown the weight of the United States behind inviting Georgia to begin the process of becoming a member of NATO. Germany and other allies rebuffed the effort at a NATO summit in April 2008, signaling deep division in the transatlantic security space over how far that space extends.
And yet the compromise language of the NATO communiqué envisioned Georgia and Ukraine both as eventual NATO members. Amid the conflicting signals, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili took the bait of Russian provocations in breakaway regions of Georgia by responding militarily, thus providing a pretext for the Russian intervention. The communiqué language may well also have suggested to Putin that there was no time like the present for a move on Georgia. So, yes, if it makes President Obama’s supporters feel better about their man’s weakness, Russia’s first serious reassertion of itself as a regional power occurred during Bush’s weakest period.
The real question is whether we are going to have a Russia policy worthy of Russia’s regional power. An effort to diminish Russian regional power is not a serious policy option. It would most likely overpromise and underdeliver—a dangerous combination, per the example of Georgia in 2008. A policy worthy of the challenge would be one that seeks to contain Russian regional power and to prevent it from growing. Such a policy would have to be organized not as a response to specific Russian actions—by which time it’s too late, as the now-uncontested annexation of Crimea indicates—but to raise in advance the cost to Russia of asserting its power over its neighbors.
It’s possible that the Obama administration will be able to find its way to such a policy. The most encouraging recent sign came in an apparently well-sourced New York Times article by Peter Baker describing Obama as having given up on Putin: “Mr. Obama has concluded that even if there is a resolution to the current standoff over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he will never have a constructive relationship with Mr. Putin, aides said.”
And that, in turn, may be the bright side. For this administration, a serious response to Russia as a regional power really must begin with disillusionment.
Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.