To Encircle the Russian Bear

Russian Empire building in Eastern Europe once again poses a threat to US interests. How can this threat be mitigated with the greatest likelihood of success and the least likelihood of war?

It can be reasonably argued that the allied victory in World War I was sealed long before the first shots were fired that fateful August of 1914. The victory was largely accomplished by the efforts of King Edward VII (King of the United Kingdom, 1902-1910). He made great strides in diplomacy by developing the entente with France, and, by extension, with France’s ally: Russia. Through his travels and charm, he isolated Germany and its allies, isolating Germany’s expansionist ambitions. Nowhere could Germany seek new dominions without finding a powerful enemy in its path.

King Edward VII
King Edward VII

It can be argued that by so doing he increased the desperation of Wilhelm II (Emperor of Germany 1888-1918) and his imperial court, which certainly contributed to the conflict. Given France’s eagerness for a rematch of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, Germany’s insatiable appetite for expansion and military glory, Austria-Hungary’s imprudent designs on the Balkans, and Russia’s eagerness to insert itself into European affairs; it is clear that some form of conflict in the early 20th Century was quite inevitable. The lessons are valuable for us to consider today.

The Russian bear is once again baring its teeth and showing its claws. In 2008, Americans were surprised by the spectre of Russian troops once again on the move, this time in Georgia. Russia spent the late nineties and early aughts quelling a separatist movement in Chechnya, largely by means of ethnic cleansing. Having accomplished that goal, Russia’s new iron man, Vladimir Putin, proceeded to insert himself into the affairs of the Caucus states. These countries are too small to offer effective resistance to Russia even given foreign support. The Ukraine was next on Putin’s agenda. For years the Russian and Ukrainian ethnic and political groups struggled for power.

Eventually, the election of President Yanukovych seemed to indicate victory for pro-Russian factions. The protests against his regime ultimately led to his resignation and flight. That day I predicted a Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Many of my colleagues and friends scoffed that I was being hyperbolic and fatalistic. The next day reports of uniformed soldiers bearing no national insignia at the Crimean airport vindicated my prediction. Anyone who understands Putin and his motivations could have foreseen the incursion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Putin’s motivations are difficult to understand until one examines the full range of his challenges and concerns. Russia is suffering major demographic problems. With severely low birthrates and abysmal average life expectancy, the population of Russia will halve by 2050. Alcoholism is rampant, morale is low, and all of the trends that have exacerbated these problems are continuing to expotentiate. The coming decrease in population, and the resulting decreases in consumption and productivity, will have severe consequences for the economy and an untold impact on political stability. The Russian bear, it would seem, is cornered and on its last leg. It might be easy to ignore this dying beast in its final days, except that the Russian bear may actually be at its most dangerous, with very little to lose and everything to gain from expansion and empire building.

Putin is looking for a means to reinvigorate his people. He wants to give them something to be proud of, a reason to be optimistic, and the motivation to get Russia moving again. These are dangerous goals, and it is not the first time a country with these problems has lashed out at its neighbors. Putin is doing his best to promote traditional values and patriotism. Russia pays women to have children. The Orthodox Church is growing in power and influence in Russia. There are regular acts of violence against homosexuals, again in an effort to promote the traditional values that Putin thinks will bring his country back to life. So far, it is all for naught and little has changed in the demographic outlook. Empire building seems to be the only area where Russia is meeting with some success, largely due to the careless and weak foreign policy of the US.

Russia has successfully destabilized the Ukraine into what could be a long and bitter struggle. Russian soldiers and private citizens have flooded into the Ukraine en masse while Ukrainian government forces have struggled just to keep up an effective resistance. All is not lost, there is still some opportunity for the ultimate success of the Ukrainian people, but it will be a long struggle. For the US, a direct intervention in the Ukraine would be an atypical move. The United States prefers to sit back and wait until the conflict plays out before intervening. Perhaps the greatest help the US can be to the Ukraine today would be to begin quashing Putin’s larger ambitions and weaken the greater Russian initiative.

If this conflict were only a matter of the Ukraine, perhaps we might even “sit back and keep score” as a popular American song from the pre-Pearl Harbor days of World War II suggested. The song’s refrain, “rock-a-bye, my baby, there ain’t gonna be no war over here,” seems small comfort to those who later strove and sacrificed for victory. The Ukraine conflict threatens to spill over into Europe and reignite a smaller version of the Cold War. For how long can this prospect be ignored, and what are the possible consequences of such indifference? How long before “rock-a-bye my baby” changes to “the sun-of-a-gun who picks on uncle Sam” or the “boogie-woogie bugle boy of Company B.”

Europe, aside from cultural and historical links, is the consumer of a great many American products and it is an essential trading partner. Perhaps more critically, through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the US has guaranteed the defense and security of Europe. A European war today will immediately become America’s war. With several European countries, like Hungary, already bending to Russia’s axis (and chaffing under European “cooperation”), the US needs to take steps to secure a frontier or may face the very real prospect of a divided Europe once more.

Although, Russia ceased to be a world power with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it did inherit a Soviet legacy that forces it onto the stage of world powers: nuclear weapons. Russia’s nuclear arsenal is not what the Soviet arsenal was: the old submarines are rusty and unreliable and Soviet era bombers would be fortunate to reach the edges of Russian airspace let alone carry out their missions. Russia’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) are, however, still a serious danger and are undergoing modernization even now. Russia knows that its conventional military forces are no match for the far superior technology and capabilities of the US and NATO. It also knows that its nuclear arsenal can make this factor irrelevant, since any direct confrontation brings the danger of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). This is Putin’s primary means of holding his country up to the world as a military power.

Is the US ready for a new Cold War, complete with its proxy conflicts and costly deterrent? Europe relies heavily on Russia for energy, especially natural gas. Gas production is up, especially in the US, and with liquefied natural gas (LNG) infrastructure on the horizon, the prospect of large scale US exports of LNG overseas looms large. Europe could become a major consumer of American produced energy. Russia is already working to corner the market and exclude the US, making containment of Russia’s ambitions a matter of dollars and good sense to America.

How can the United States adequately curb Russia’s ambitions without instigating a renewed standoff? Encirclement would head off such a conflict by depriving the Russians of anywhere to play the game. The necessary encirclement must be accomplished without direct confrontation and must also be a policy that can easily withstand the changing winds of US politics. US strategy in Europe has always been one of “strategic patience,” that is, wait until the last possible minute to intervene. In World War I American troops arrived just in time to help drive back the last major offensive the Germans had in them, at Amien. American total casualties in the war as were fewer than the French casualties at the Verdun, but one battle in the long struggle.

In World War II the US arrived in time to drive the final nail in the coffin of Germany’s ill-fated North Africa campaign and collapse its only regional ally: Italy. The Soviet Union did much of the heavy lifting fighting the Germans on a front of thousands of miles against armies millions strong. The Normandy landings, when the US and the UK finally entered the land war in Europe, came just 11 months before the war’s end. In the past, the United States has wisely avoided direct long-term engagements in Europe as George Washington, with Alexander Hamilton’s quill, warned us to do in his farewell address. If the US wants to prevent another European war, however, it will need to take serious steps in Europe and soon. There is not time to wait until the last minute or a real war, cold or otherwise, might result.

Encirclement is both a political and geographic (one might say geopolitical?) construct. We must have clear boundaries to contain Russia politically and geographically. Essentially, we need an “iron curtain” around Russia.

To its east,` Russia faces the US in Alaska, then Japan, both a US ally and one with a substantial US military presence. China is busy with its own internal political and economic challenges as it endeavors to transition from a high growth economy to a more sustainable one without bringing total political collapse. China is in no position to confront anyone directly and has as much reason to look on Russia with suspicion and caution as has the United States. India is a close US ally and trade partner. While India’s military should be given greater support, materially and financially, from the US, India is already a significant power and is also in the club of nuclear powers.

For Russia, Iran is as strange a bedfellow as one can find: being perhaps a greater menace to prospective allies than to enemies. Iranian ambitions are focused on Middle Eastern regional domination and Russia has certainly assisted Iran in these efforts, yet Iran’s irrational and at times, insane leadership can be unpredictable. Russia is happy to help from a distance, but doing so also antagonizes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and Israel. These are states, several of whom at least, Russia needs to continue to cultivate in order to gain influence in the region. Here, Russia must tread carefully. I don’t think I need to mention that the Middle East is also the nexus of American military attentions at the moment. Iran’s efforts must be thwarted and the US and our allies are already at it.

Eastern Europe
Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe is thus the real battleground in this struggle. Poland has a long history with Russian imperialism and no intention of going back under Russia’s yoke. Poland provides a powerful northern ally for the US. This is a relationship the United States has already cultivated well. The missile defense system is just one example of prime cooperation between the US and Poland on the question of defense.

Hungary has allowed itself to be cultivated by Russia. Perhaps the US should become more involved. Hungary, like many European states, would like to have a special relationship with the US. If such a relationship were placed on the table, Hungary may leap at the opportunity. Would Hungary not prefer the backing of the world superpower over that of the regional bully? The ruling Fidesz SMC party has struggled with other European powers over many policy areas. Its leaders have scoffed at the notions of European governments and their leftist sensibilities. Meanwhile, some very real concerns have arisen within Hungary that the overwhelming power of Fidesz is weakening democracy. The US needs a reliable land army in central-eastern Europe to counter Russian ambitions. The Hungarian government needs an ally to help it stand apart from Europe. Hungarians themselves need of reassurance that their country will remain free and democratic; Fidesz’s talk of “post-democracy” is all too disconcerting for many. It would seem that an alliance can be reached here to the mutual benefit of all. The US will give Hungary greater military and political support in exchange for careful and democratic policies on the part of Hungary’s majority party.

A southern anchor will also be necessary. Situated on the shore of the Black Sea the United States has a prospective ally very close to the Ukrainian struggle, with everything to gain from US assistance, and much to lose from Russian regional hegemony: Romania. A relatively homogenous state wherein 90% of the population is ethnically Romanian and religiously Orthodox Christian, Romania enjoys a highly stable and civil society in a region known for its inter-ethnic conflict. Its Black Sea ports place Romania in a strategic position to be an immediate barrier to Russian expansion into Europe. Romania has seen significant economic growth and higher standards of living in the post-Cold War years; it is a key exporter of machinery and electricity to the rest of Europe.

The more prepared Poland, Hungary, and Romania are for a prospective conflict and the more confident of their special relationship with the US, the greater the deterrence they can provide against Russian expansion in the region, offering protection and political relief to their neighbors. Increased military aid and a build up of forces would be good for their respective economies. Thus, the US can do multiple good turns for these allies in the region if they will do but one for us: help us contain Russia, which happens to be in all of their best interests in any case.

Putin is struggling for control of the Ukraine, but as he perceives trenches already emplaced just beyond the Ukraine’s borders and a pessimistic future for Russia’s energy sales to Europe, it may take some of the wind from his sails. With no larger goals to be achieved or objectives to be taken, the Russian bear will be directed to enter hibernation quietly and without bloodshed.

Ethnic Political Division of Ukraine
Ethnic Political Division of Ukraine (Courtesy GeoCurrents)

Ultimately, some pragmatic political solution will have to be achieved in the Ukraine. In significant part due to Stalin’s ethnic cleansing in the region, much of eastern Ukraine is ethnically Russian while western Ukraine is more ethnically Ukrainian. It is unlikely that the Ukrainian government will be able to secure eastern Ukraine and the Crimea. It is nigh impossible that these two peoples will chose to live together peaceably in a country torn between to larger political spheres. In the end, eastern Ukraine and the Crimea are likely to become independent Russian satellites or will be annexed into Russia itself. Putin will spin this as a major military victory for Russia. The question is, when he looks up from the Ukraine what will he see? Open inroads to Eastern Europe or three strong military powers tightly knit to US? If Russia sees open gates, they will march through them.

About the Author
Isaac Kight earned his MBA at Bar-Ilan University in 2010. He served as a volunteer for the Knesset State Control Committee from 2009 to 2010. Isaac has a broad experience of Jewish community and religion in the US and Israel.