Prominent realist scholar John Mearsheimer offered his two cents on Russia’s actions in Crimea yesterday in the New York Times. Speaking from an offensive realist perch, Mearsheimer writes that the events transpiring in Crimea today are “motivated by the same geopolitical considerations that influence all great powers, including the United States.” He describes the United States’ and NATO’s policy of eastward expansion – knocking on Kiev and Tbilisi’s doors – that urged Russia to undertake its 2008 war with Georgia and its current foray into Crimea. Additionally, Mearsheimer points out the Obama administration’s support for pro-Western activists in Ukraine as a “fatal mistake.”
Although Mearsheimer doesn’t describe it this way, the best realist explanation for today’s outcome in Crimea would be the classical realist notion of states pursuing security at all costs. If we understand the geopolitical priorities of Russia, the EU, and the United States in terms of security maximization, the Russian response to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych being overthrown is textbook. Even if you don’t buy classical realist theory in its entirety (and there are of course very good reasons not to), evidence from Russia’s foreign relations in recent years suggests a growing sense of insecurity and, in particular, sensitivity to perceived Western encroachments on its sphere of influence both near and far.
The Russo-Georgian War of 2008 was perhaps the best indicator that Putin would take to military means to maintain at minimum a suppliant neutral buffer state on Russia’s doorstep, or at best, a Kremlin-friendly puppet state. The outcome that the Kremlin could not accept in Georgia was its potential accession into NATO. Contemporary events in Ukraine have nothing to do immediately with NATO membership, but Yanukovych’s deposition and replacement with a pro-Western government is arguably a more serious transgression in Putin’s eyes. In the early days of the crisis, the financial tug-of-war between Russia and the EU demonstrated that Russia was willing to seriously back up its interest in maintaining the political status quo in Ukraine.
The United States, for its part, has been remarkably successful at increasing Russian insecurity since the fall of the Soviet Union. Leaving aside national identity issues arising from the trauma of losing its superpower status in the early 1990s, the Kremlin – particularly Putin’s Kremlin – has had to deal with NATO’s expansion beyond East Germany. German unification came about partly as a result of a bargain between Mikhail Gorbachev and the Reagan administration; the understanding was that the Soviets would permit German reunification in exchange for a guarantee that NATO would not expand eastward.
In one of the fastest-broken geopolitical promises, the United States did exactly that (I suppose promises are easily broken when the state you made them to no longer exists). Today, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Croatia, and Albania are all members of the NATO 28 (all having acceded to the alliance following Soviet collapse). Additionally, glance at NATO’s Partnership for Peace program –a sort of light strategic partnership arrangement – and we see all of the Soviet Union’s former Central Asian satellites (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan).
In recent years, the Western effort in and after the Arab Spring has also spooked the Kremlin in a number of ways. The most egregious perhaps was Western intervention in Libya based on UN Security Council resolution 1973. Russia (and China) abstained on the vote, allowing Chapter 7 intervention to go forward. Ultimately, the law of unintended consequences took over and before you knew it Russia had lost an important partner and arms buyer in Muammar Gadhafi. This was a deeply embarrassing loss for the Kremlin and has since informed its diplomacy over the Syria issue (where the loss of Bashar al-Assad would be a similar blow to Russian strategic interests). Western diplomacy in the Middle East on Iran as well sends off the message (at times) that the U.S. and the EU are out to erode Russia’s power and influence in the region.
Not only does Putin have good reasons to believe that Western interests are out to contain and erode Russia’s influence internationally but he also has to wrangle with a series of endogenous factors that make Russia decreasingly competitive economically and set out a poor prospect for its future. Zachary Keck covered in some detail why all but one of “the pillars of Russian power” – population, energy, weaponry, and geography – are slowly falling. Geography, which has been Russia’s prime strategic advantage through the Romanovs, the Bolsheviks, and today’s Russian Federation, continues to be a reliable source of security. Crimea might be a small sliver of territory in the grand scheme of Russia’s total area, but its access to the warm water of the Black Sea is pivotal for Russia’s ability to project power into the Mediterranean (Russian strategists dreaded the loss of their now-evacuated port at Tartus on the Syrian coast in the early days of the Syrian conflict; losing Sevastopol on top of the risk of losing Syria would have been anathema).
So then, Mearsheimer’s assertion that the United States “has been unable to leave the Cold War behind, has treated Russia as a potential threat since the early 1990s and ignored its protests about NATO’s expansion and its objections to America’s plan to build missile defense systems in Eastern Europe” renders the Crimean situation unsurprising if not still unfortunate. Underestimating the need of countries – particularly great powers – to pursue security will lead to short-sighted foreign policy. In the Russian case, Crimea may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back on Western expansion. When Putin’s options were 1) lose Ukraine in its entirety to a Western-backed government, potentially losing Sevastopol and its warm-water access to the Black Sea, or 2) carving Crimea out, preserving Russia’s hard interests in Ukraine, in an attempt to salvage the situation, it isn’t hard to see why he went with the second option.
As policymakers continue to wrangle with Ukraine, the lessons of this episode are widely applicable to the Asia-Pacific. Part of the reason the rebalance to Asia is so important is because it reassures U.S. allies that they will be supported as China rises and grows increasingly assertive about its regional interests. Should the United States ever be perceived as failing to meet its stated security commitments in the region, insecurity could set in among its allies resulting in attempts at what realist scholars would term internal (building up arms and militarizing) and external (pursuing alliances and security agreements) balancing – both could potentially be destabilizing. There’s no immediate one-to-one mapping between what happened in Crimea and what could happen in Asia, but the salience of security and the balance of power are universal.