Eastern Ukraine now appears to be getting the Crimea treatment. Remarkably well-equipped “concerned citizens” are seizing police stations and the like in strategic crossroad towns in the Donets Basin. If the Crimean script is followed, a more overt Russian presence will appear in the coming days, to be ratified by a dubious referendum sometime before the new Ukrainian government’s elections on May 25.
Kiev might not be ready to repeat the shameful passivity that saw Crimea torn away. Some of the “concerned citizens” have already been repulsed. In response, Russia might have tougher going if it chooses to continue with the Crimea plan. The Swedish Defense Research Agency has prepared an extensive report on Russia’s military options in eastern Ukraine.
If it’s accurate, the report can’t be pleasant reading for Vladimir Putin. The Swedes see the Russian military stretched thin, tied down securing the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Chinese frontier. There are too few brigades to spare for, say, a march on Kiev, and even a limited campaign for eastern and southern Ukraine is a stretch. Russia’s “civilianized warfare” might alleviate that strain a bit. But an Anschluss of Ukraine’s east would still be a big reach — and even a little resistance could turn Russia’s conquests into one more drag on the Russian army’s strength.
The Swedish report warns that a Russia thus left with fewer conventional options might, in future crises, be forced to rely on proxies and nuclear deterrence:
The threshold for the use of non-conventional military means might […] be lowered. Additionally, in our assessment, the Russian concept of nuclear de-escalation, i.e. using a few tactical nuclear devices to deter an adversary from further escalation, is especially worrying in this context.
Needless to say, the United States has no interest in Russia being more willing to use “non-conventional military means” or tactical nuclear weapons. And, for that matter, Washington does not benefit from Russia conquering neighbors’ territory, unilaterally redrawing European borders by armed force, or using expatriate Russian communities as a pretext for intervention.
Yet the Swedish report offers hints of how the United States might make a Russian seizure of eastern Ukraine work in its favor. As the Russian military commits more force to Ukraine, “It would […] affect Russia’s balance of forces with NATO and perhaps even with China in the far east. […] Russian forces’ numerical inferiority to China’s People’s Liberation Army would be accentuated if ground-force units were to be deployed from there to the west.”
Russia is able to get away with this weakness because of a post-Cold War detente with China, which has tabled its border disputes in order to focus its gaze upon the Pacific Ocean. If China were to turn west, toward Central Asia, and perhaps also north, to a Russian far east that has a growing Chinese population, Russia would find itself overextended. And if the West were able to manage its relations with Russia properly, the risky behaviors provoked by that overextension would be directed toward the Chinese, rather than toward the United States and its allies. The main arena of great-power competition would now be the interior of Asia, rather than the high-value real estate of Europe or the crucial trade lanes of the China Seas. And, crucially, America would no longer have to worry about Moscow and Beijing cooperating against it. The parts of the world that are most important to U.S. interests would be more stable, and both Russia and China would have incentives to work with the U.S. more than they work against it.
To make this happy state of affairs a reality, America will have to modify both its Russia and its China policies. It will need to encourage China to turn west, while encouraging Russia to feel more secure in Europe.
Turning China west is a tough task. Beijing will need to be convinced that expanding into the Pacific is infeasible. Closer coordination between the states on China’s periphery—Korea, Japan, the ASEAN members, Taiwan, etc.—would be ideal. Yet that’s infamously hard to achieve in a region rife with nationalist resentments. The best alternative would be to support a major rearmament in Japan and Taiwan, which are more than capable of providing for their own defenses, while strengthening defense support for the Philippines, which is too weak and internally divided to offer much resistance to Beijing. And while it may be impossible to get China’s neighbors to openly work together against Chinese advances, tacit coordination might be sufficient. A quiet agreement among the region’s states that they will at a minimum not cooperate with China against one another could also be productive.
Calming Russia’s European worries will be harder. The enlargement of NATO to Russia’s borders has increased tension with Moscow without making the core NATO powers safer. A rank of buffer states between Russia and the West would have been preferable. Yet Russia taking eastern Ukraine would be a terrible occasion to reconsider NATO obligations to low-value allies on Russia’s borders. For now, we must ignore calls to answer Russia’s advances by offering NATO membership to Georgia or whatever will remain of free Ukraine. Straining Moscow further like this would only make the destructive compensatory behavior the Swedes warn about more likely. Neutrality for Ukraine’s remnants will be preferable. The Baltic states should be pushed to make themselves pricklier targets by raising their defense expenditures above their present pitiful levels (Latvia, which shares a border with Russia, spent less than 1 percent of gross domestic product on defense in 2012). Crucially, they should also prepare their populations for irregular resistance against invaders to make Moscow think twice about seizing them. In the longer term, the security value of a full alliance with these states should be reviewed.
But the real challenge in managing Russia will be the grip that the old Cold War mentality still has in Washington. Washington too often acts as though Russia (a fading power with serious internal difficulties) is the Soviet Union (a powerful empire with global influence and ideological appeal). This leads to a slight hysteria in dealing with Russia’s recent expansion. For example, the State Department has released two strange top-ten lists of false or misleading Russian claims about Ukraine. As Russia-watching blog The Interpreter noted, “It’s not clear how harsh rhetoric alone, or even a careful debunking of Kremlin lies, will impact Russia’s decisions.” And given that few around the world support Russia’s actions, it’s also not clear what the lists could have accomplished from a public-diplomacy perspective — or why ferreting out Russian propaganda could not be left to the media. It seems to have been nothing more than a high-handed gesture of frustration, one that will do little beyond pushing the two states further apart. This is not the right direction to be heading if the U.S. ultimately wants Russia to shift its focus toward China.
Of course, given Russia’s actions, U.S.-Russian relations shouldn’t be good right now. But Washington might have been wiser to save its breath and focus on reassuring its NATO allies. Ukraine is simply not important enough to be the axis around which U.S. foreign policy turns. If America takes a more global, strategic view, it can make lemonade out of the sour Ukrainian lemon. So far, U.S. leaders seem oblivious to this opportunity.
John Allen Gay is assistant managing editor of The National Interest.