RD Student Essay Contest finalist: By softening its rhetoric on Crimea, rolling back sanctions and accepting a compromise for eastern Ukraine, the U.S. can avoid a nightmare scenario of instability in Eurasia.
President Barack Obama with his communications advisors, Nov. 7, 2014. Source: The White House
Russia is hardly a challenger to U.S. global dominance. Its army and navy cannot project power across the planet. Russia is also not an economic powerhouse. It lags behind in advanced manufacturing, and its financial sector is fragile and dependent on foreign credit. Even the oil extracting machinery is, to a great extent, foreign-built. Thus, a desire to engage aggressively with Russia owes more to Cold War memories than rational deliberation.
There is remarkably little that America can gain from cooperating with Russia in the Middle East. It may seem that Russia can help put pressure on Iran, but, looking back at how Iran extorted S-300 missiles from Russia by threatening to look elsewhere for weapons, it is not clear who currently has the upper hand in Russo-Persian relations. Russians, as 2012 events showed, have some influence on Syrian President Bashar Assad, but it is unclear whether it is in the best interests of the U.S. to keep him and accept defeat or to oust him and let ISIS in.
Russia is of limited use to America in dealing with Chinese expansion. Militarily, Russia would not be able to contribute even if it wanted, because the conflict is likely to be seaborne and Russian has only a rudimentary naval force in the Pacific.
It is also highly irrational for Russia to act against the large and growing market for its natural resources. China is also hardly a threat to Russia’s security. Unlike Taiwan or Vietnam, Russia possesses a nuclear arsenal and a large land army.
When it comes to other broad international issues, like improved financial regulation, war on tax avoidance, new trade agreements or fighting Ebola, Russia is a minor player due to the size of its economy and limited logistical capabilities beyond its immediate surroundings.
In addition, Russia takes part in all working groups and routinely sends doctors and scientists on humanitarian missions anyway, despite the rapid deterioration of relations with the West over the last few years. So there is actually little room for more cooperation.
However, it makes no sense for the United States to invest political capital into removing Russia from the world scene completely. If Russia were to disintegrate or destabilize, that would create a power vacuum in Northern Eurasia.
Russia’s territories in the Far East may fall prey to China, as they were to Japan during the Russian Civil War in 1919-1922. A massive nuclear arsenal might end up in the hands of Islamic radicals. Thus, the threat of radical Islam would be greater than ever and China would be further strengthened.
The Ukrainian conflict and economic downturn caused by financial sanctions and trade disruption is already weakening Russia. A few weeks ago, Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechen warlord-turned politician, threatened to open fire on federal law enforcement officials if they came to Chechnya without his permission.
If Russia were to be forced to fold in Ukraine, it may well be seen as Putin’s weakness by the public, which overwhelmingly supports the annexation of Crimea.
There is also a threat that a weakening federal center in Moscow would encourage provincial elites to crave more resources and power. A subtle indication that Moscow may fear the latter is the removal of Alexander Tkachev – a powerful and independent Krasnodar Krai governor – from office. As President Vladimir Putin has no clear successor, the situation could turn dangerous for Russia’s stability.
Thus, a détente with Russia can be in America’s interest. In spirit, an agreement over Ukraine should be similar to the status quo that existed shortly before the events of February 2014, when U.S. advisors had influence over then-President Viktor Yanukovych and key Ukrainian oligarchs were also under U.S. supervision.
On the other hand, there were no barriers for large Russian investment and, perhaps, further economic integration with the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union.
To keep the economic integration option open, Russia showed willingness to bail out its neighbor. In December 2013, Putin offered the Yanukovych government a credit line worth more than $15 billion to keep the Ukrainian economy afloat.
Given that even now, during hostilities, Russia is happy to offer Ukraine a rebate on gas prices, restoration of peace is likely to see Russia saving Ukraine from total economic collapse.
That is perfect for America: U.S. policy makers will have full control over the political direction of Ukraine, while American taxpayers would not have to back credit-guarantees for a nation that is on the brink of defaulting on its bonds.
Unfortunately, we cannot travel back to 2013, so some small, but strategic changes will have to be made to American policy.
First, the U.S. will have to soften its rhetoric on Crimea. There is no need for formal recognition – keeping Ukrainian nationalists and militant premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk from severing electricity and water supply to the Crimean peninsula would suffice.
There is nothing new in such an arrangement – the U.S. government followed a similar course of action on the issue of the Baltic States from 1940-1990.
Second, Russia would appreciate a break from at least some sanctions. The U.S. doesn’t have to lift sanctions – that would only put further strain on relations between the President and the U.S. Congress. It would suffice to stop pressuring the EU and let them lift the sanctions, as quite a few of the member states want.
That would serve a further strategic purpose for the U.S. With renewed access to EU credit and EU energy markets, Russia would be less dependent on China and thus perhaps less likely to side with the People’s Republic in international disputes.
The third problem is the Donbas. The people there clearly don’t want back into Ukraine and rebel leaders are talking about expanding the insurgency to as far as Odessa. Here, a Transnistria-style quick fix might work until the situation is further stabilized.
Donbas is unlikely to become an aggressive failed state, because it has some industrial base and the Russians are making sure that the radicals are tamed. For instance, radical Russian nationalist leader Igor Strelkov was barred from entry to Donbas starting in August 2014.
Overall, the strategy proposed here would free up the president, diplomatic and military staff to deal with other issues and restore peace in Eastern Europe, but still keep America in control of Ukraine. As well as that, economic restoration of Ukraine would become Russia’s burden.
If Russian banks and companies get renewed access to EU’s financial markets, the Russian economy is more likely to get back on its feet. This is bound to strengthen the nation’s internal stability and thus make a nightmarish scenario of chaos in Northern Eurasia less likely.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.