Russian advancement into Novorossyia (that is, the Southern half of Ukraine) will continue. This is not just idle speculation. With the Russian economy teetering on the brink of an extended recession with high inflation and no quick fix from oil prices, the West thinks that additional economic sanctions will be sufficient to dissuade Russian territorial ambition.
Sanctions miss the point on Russia. In the court of international and Western public opinion, sanctions are the appropriate level of counter-belligerence to offset Russia’s provocation in Crimea, Donestk, and Luhansk. Sanctions make complete sense to a Western market economy that is fueled by the flames of industry and private innovation. Leaders are ultimately judged on their effect on economic prosperity in the West. In effect, imposing sanctions is “doing unto others that which you would not want to have done unto you.” The problem with this perspective is that you are assuming that the “other” has the same, or at least similar, mindset regarding economics and power that you do.
The first of those benefits is self-explanatory. The nearly-regulation-free Russian energy business has buoyed the Russian economy as it grew out of the post-Soviet depression in the 1990s.
The second is more complex than the first. There are still billionaires in Russia. However, the consolidation of power behind Putin and the Kremlin has forced money to make a decision: fall in line or leave. The regular news of this-or-that tycoon calling out the Putin administration has been present for the past decade, but there remains a large majority of Russian business interests that remain both supportive of the hand that has allowed them to come to power, and the hand that has allowed them to retain a great deal of the wealth they have accumulated. That wealth, obviously, comes with the contingency of continued loyalty.
The final critical factor, the relenting of American containment of Russia, has been evident constantly in the past decade. Not only has the United States taken little, if any, action in the Second Chechen War, but its tepid response to the invasion of Georgia in 2008 was a boon to a resurgent Russian nationalism. The United States’ commitment to the Middle East and the emerging administrative and diplomatic “pivot” towards China and the Far East has left Russia alone, ostensibly as a failed backwater petrostate
However, Russia has not simply been content to be relegated to the dustbin of failed ideologies. Rather than cling to the Soviet mindset, the Kremlin has strenuously worked to reward “capitalism.” While the shady black market oligarchy is not the ideal of free-hand market economics, it has succeeded in bringing some degree of economic prosperity to a country that spent the 1990s on the geopolitical equivalent of the dole.
While Russia is not an economic powerhouse, its oil production has become a major source of concern with regards to its ability to frighten Western Europe. Especially in the winter, stories and opinion pieces across Europe regularly run speculating about what would happen to the European Union in the event the spigots of Russian oil stopped flowing.
On one hand, this speculation is ludicrous. Whereas cutting off oil supplies would cause a great deal of strain on Western Europe, the economic consequences of shutting down exportation would only hurt any kind of Russian economic recovery. Alternatively, the speculation belies the undercurrent of either fear or trepidation when it comes to the shady ambitions of the Kremlin.
History in this situation is a wise teacher. The median Russian age is about 37 years old. This “Median Russian” was born in 1978 and came of age during the decline and desperation of the fall of the Soviet Union and the embarrassment of the early Russian Federation. Our “Median Russian” understands that the boon of the past decade is an aberration to the norm of Russian subsistence. While embracing prosperity on one hand, the “Median Russian” expects the bust.
The bust has likely come. American oil production has caused a glut on the market and has reduced the price of oil on the world scale. While this is not going to be a permanent supply rush, it comes at a difficult time for the Russian state that is already the subject of Western sanctions and an escalating monetary crisis. Regardless of actions taken by the Kremlin to insulate Russian interests, structural damage to the Russian economy has already happened. While there is a chance that shrewd financial planning and a large amount of new investment could jump-start the Russian economy and put it back on its feet within a year or two, the reality is, Russia looks like it is in for severe economic difficulty for the near future.
Relating back to an earlier point, this economic downturn would cause most Western leaders to forego grand-scale foreign policy goals with the interest of quickly moving to sure up domestic popularity by focusing on the economy. Russia does not have the market capacity or the pull on world markets to be able to affect this type of change in its domestic sphere.
The commodity that is now dominating the Russian market is nationalism. Fueled by both the propaganda-mixed-with-truth of discrimination against ethnic Russians and the history of a glorious Russian past, the Russian people, already understanding that economic prosperity is fleeting, are willing to embrace the belligerent policies coming out of the Kremlin. While this statement is over-broad, the domestic support of Putin’s programs certainly would make any American president jealous. The conflict in Ukraine, starting with Crimea and now the East and Novorossiya, presents a fertile ground for anti-Western sentiments to take hold.
The West is playing directly into the Kremlin’s hands in Eastern and Southern Ukraine.
The West is playing directly into the Kremlin’s hands in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. Most startlingly, the fact that Germany has taken the lead in attempting to foster peace between Russia and Ukraine has bafflingly not been seen as poor optics by the West. While no one today would accuse Angela Merkel, or for that matter the government of Germany, of being complicit in the crimes of the mid-twentieth century, these distinctions ring hollow in the areas devastated by the German advance into Russia. Especially in light of the Russian propaganda machine accusing neo-fascist elements of seizing power in Kiev, the German spearhead to protect them seems like the inevitable confirmation for Russian speculation.
Ukraine was the obvious first choice in the Russian ambition to grow nationalism and expand its national borders. Border expansion, done under the auspices of protecting ethnically Russian peoples, rhetorically rings of the Anschluss of Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis in the last century. Nationalism honed and focused against external targets is a tried-and-true method of preventing the anger to boil over at home. While 2015 Russia is certainly not Germany of 1938, the modern territorial expansion of Russia is strikingly different than the policies pursued by any major power for the last thirty years.
The West’s consistent economic attack on Russia, likely to escalate if Russian regular forces continue to attack Ukraine, plays to the Kremlin’s consistent narrative that American aggression is against Russian interests. Moreover, in the event Western arms begin to back the Ukrainian military, the situation will, necessarily, escalate dramatically. Especially when young Russian soldiers are killed by American-made and American-financed weapons, the public outcry against the United States will be deafening.
The United States, which has remained tone-deaf in its foreign policy for the last five years since the “reset” button debacle, has proven itself incapable of reactions that match the aggression of Putin’s Kremlin. Whether it was being out-maneuvered in Syria, being slapped on the hand for the annexation of Crimea, having only “targeted” sanctions for the shooting down of a commercial airliner, the consistent invasion of Ukraine, or the continual violation of the airspace of its neighbors, the Russian government has been testing how far it can go before there is an effective check against its reassertion of its dominance in its sphere of influence.
Ukraine should be divided. This is a Cold War-era solution to a twenty-first century problem. Russia should be allowed to openly annex what it considers to be Novorossiya. While this would effectively also allow for the annexation of Moldova, Russian influence would stop at Romania, a member of NATO. The rump state of Ukraine should immediately be made a member of NATO. The solution is Alexandrian in origin: cut the damage now without political boons for a successful insurgency. The consequence would be that Russia’s western border is completely fenced-in by NATO (with the exception of Finland and Belarus). The statement would be that there will be no tolerated expansion into any NATO member unless Russia wanted war. Whereas the current system of annexation-by-slice allows for Russian insurgencies to develop in NATO countries, like the Baltic States, a clean divide now will prevent the spread of insurgency throughout Eastern Europe. Most importantly, however, it will only provide a momentary boost in political gain in Russia before it has to come to grips with the reality of its economic depression when nationalism fades.
This suggestion is neither “peace in our time” nor appeasement. NATO should be ready for an invasion of Poland if it comes. In the event the Kremlin’s plan is to move against NATO in Eastern Europe and actively take all of the territory over which the Soviet Union had control, it will bring such plans to bear regardless of what steps the West takes to prevent it. The murkiness of Putin’s “endgame” in Ukraine is disconcerting at the moment. Whereas it may be possible he is taking advantage of the Ukrainian instability in order to gain access to the lucrative industrial areas in Donestk and Luhansk, the shelling of Mariupol by Russian forces indicates that the plan for Ukraine is the political reunification of Novorossiya. While it certainly offends our sensibilities, if this is the only goal of the Kremlin, an independent state or a Russian vassal separate from an EU-and-NATO backed Ukraine could avert countless additional deaths in the short term.
However, if the goal of the Kremlin is to have a Russian flag flying in Warsaw, there is very little the West can do now, short of actual military intervention, to prevent itself from being caught off-guard by a Russian offensive.
Sanctions that would dissuade a Western nation will not work on Putin and arms sales to Ukraine will embolden Russian nationalism. Inaction is inappropriate and war is premature. The most appropriate step now would be to insulate Ukraine from future Russian aggression, contain the whole of Russia’s western front with NATO nations, and increase the combat readiness of all NATO troops.
Certainly this analysis will change over the coming months and years, but as we are right around the anniversary of the beginning of this conflict, there does not appear to be any end in sight and real solutions should be considered in light of the possibilities of future wars.