Countering Putin’s Grand Strategy.
By Robert D. Kaplan
President Putin, who is consumed by historical humiliations, knows that Russia was invaded not only by Napoleon and Hitler, but before that also by the Swedes, Poles and Lithuanians. And so the Russian president seeks a post-Warsaw Pact buffer zone in Central and Eastern Europe. The Kremlin play book: imperialism by way of forcing energy dependence, intelligence operations, criminal rackets, buying infrastructure and media through third parties, the bribing of local politicians and playing off the insecurities of ethnic minorities.
Mr. Putin may be an autocrat, but he finds weak democracies convenient to his purpose. Their frail institutional and rule-of-law regimes make his favored forms of subversion easier. Thus, Moldova, Bulgaria and Serbia are particularly at risk while Romania, a member of the European Union since 2007 and far more stable than Bulgaria, is less so.
Mr. Putin has a North European Plain strategy in the Baltic states and Poland, which emphasizes dependence on natural gas and the manipulation of Russian minorities in the Baltic states. He also has a Black Sea strategy, as seen in his annexation of Crimea last year, his desire for a land bridge between Crimea and separatist eastern Ukraine, his military pressure on Georgia, and his friendship with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—it all advances Russian influence in the adjacent Balkans, thus inside Europe.
Western sanctions against Russia and the weakening of the Russian currency (because of the fall in oil prices) may constrain Mr. Putin a bit, but Russian history reveals a strong tendency for hardship at home and adventurism abroad. Dialing up nationalism amid economic turmoil is the default option for autocrats.
Matching Russia’s multifaceted imperialism requires a multifaceted U.S. counterstrategy: the coordinated use of sufficient military aid, intelligence operations, electronic surveillance, economic sanctions, information and cyberwarfare, and legal steps. The Obama administration is already pursuing in part such a strategy, but without the intensity and commitment necessary for success. This isn’t about going to war, but about making Russia respect limits.
The Obama administration should intensify economic sanctions that further squeeze Russia’s ability to do business with U.S. banks; help allies build liquefied natural-gas terminals to reduce dependence on Russian energy; offer more tools to allies to help them defend against Russian cyberattacks; and launch a full-bore effort to get Ukraine to strengthen its military and other institutions—call it nation-building lite.
Other measures might include inviting recently elected Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and other deserving Central and Eastern European leaders on state visits to Washington, an increased tempo of bilateral military exercises with allies bordering Russia, and offering our friends more intelligence against Russian criminal organizations.
Above all, U.S. policy makers should understand that NATO’s Article 5—specifying that an armed attack against one member state will be considered an attack on all members—doesn’t protect members against Russian subversion from within. Thus supporting Ukraine militarily means first getting the Kiev government and its fighting forces to modernize by, among other things, embedding experts from NATO and other organizations inside Ukrainian ministries and army units. Only then will the Ukrainian military be able to absorb the extra arms its allies should want to give it. This is the narrative Washington needs to create. Ukraine’s best defense against Russia is to become more of a viable Westernized state itself.
But there is another problem: Europe. The EU bureaucracy doesn’t want to absorb the troubles of Ukraine’s 45 million people with their corrupt institutions, and neither do most NATO member states. The European appetite for helping Ukraine has not measured up to Russia’s appetite for destabilizing it. The problem cannot be decoupled from Europe’s own inability, despite its recently launched version of quantitative easing, to deal decisively with the EU’s flatlining economy. The bitter European truth is that not enough individual countries will sacrifice for each other. So why should they sacrifice for Ukraine?
Thus the U.S., in addition to dealing with an assertive yet economically crumbling Russia, must also cope with a spineless Europe. To defeat Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, U.S. strategy should concentrate on protecting and fortifying what the Polish general and patriot of the interwar era, Józef Pilsudsk i, called the Intermarium (Latin for “between the seas,” between the Baltic and Black seas, that is). Pilsudski envisioned a belt of independent states stretching from Estonia south to Bulgaria that could withstand Russian aggression from the east and German aggression from the west.
But because Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany is such a benign and conflicted power, even as Mr. Putin seeks to expand influence into the old Soviet Union, the Intermarium must now extend from the Baltics to the Caucasus, where the Russian strongman, in addition to putting military pressure on Georgia, has made Armenia a virtual satellite hosting thousands of Russian troops.
This means oil-rich Azerbaijan, its sorry human-rights record notwithstanding, is a pivot state, along with Poland in northeastern Europe and Romania in southeastern Europe. The recent flare-up in fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh provides Russia even greater opportunities for exerting influence, given that Moscow has armed both sides.
Meanwhile, Mr. Putin’s vision of an ever-enlarging separatist Ukraine corresponds with what he has already achieved in Russian-occupied Transnistria, a sliver of land virtually annexed from Moldova in the early 1990s, where he has fashioned a murky smugglers’ paradise; 2,500 Russian troops are stationed there. Transnistria could be the future of Ukraine if Mr. Obama doesn’t act. With Europe weak and distracted, and Mr. Putin stoking nationalism in the midst of an economic crisis at home, only the U.S. can be the organizing principle for strengthening the Intermarium.
Mr. Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, is the author of, among other books, “The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate” (Random House, 2012).