Ukraine, Russia, and The West: Ahead and Beyond

With the downing of Malaysian flight 17 over eastern Ukraine last week, politicians and policy makers have sensed that an opportunity to leverage the incident for distinct advantage has exposed itself. I addressed some of the issues surrounding the incident yesterday in an article published at ‘Action, Inaction, and Consequences for the Future of American Foreign Policy‘.

Throughout the weeks and months ahead, policy professionals will begin making the public case for policy and defense programs in the effort to lessen the impact of Russian influence in important regions around the world. As more incidents and events inevitably arise from the confrontation between the West and Russia in Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East, these same policy professionals and influencers will move to take full advantage of each event to further policy goals. As we examine the possibilities for changes in United States foreign policy that may lie ahead, we should keep at the forefront of our minds that American power can be both burgeoned and damaged by overreaction and timidity. It is compromise between these often competing ends of the political spectrum where the best interests of American long term strategic advantage will be found and solidified.

In the period lying ahead, it is likely that the public will bear witness to a reinvigorated effort by these same political leaders, public intellectuals, and policymakers to leverage these incidents and the escalating tensions between the United States and Russian in adjusting policies and strategies. Examining what lies ahead is an important part of a methodical, thoughtful, and well-researched effort to formulate strategy to ensure the successful implementation of adjusted U.S. foreign policy:

Missile defense. More interventionist-minded politicians and leaders will renew their push for a missile defense shield. European political leaders in countries to include Poland, Romania, and Ukraine will back the plan and will consequently move to ensure a solid base of public support. The threat that Russia poses to the nascent post-Soviet democracies of Eastern Europe will be highlighted and accentuated. Countries possibly moved from the middle to support U.S. missile defense facilities on their territory could include the Baltic nations (Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia), Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria.

A United Nations Security Council session could be convened for a vote on collective international action. As the push for international condemnation of Russian support for the insurgents of eastern Ukraine intensifies, the U.N. Security Council will convene a special session to vote upon sanctions and to censure the Russian government for its support of the Ukrainian insurgent contingents. The vote, ostensibly an effort to legitimize opposition to Russian interference in Ukrainian internal politics and to set the foundation for possible future international consensus for military action, will be scuttled by vetoes among the five permanent Security Council members. Russia will submit a veto vote while China will likely prevaricate and eventually vote to support Russia. Because the the U.N body lacks the collective will to form consensus for action, any military effort to confront the separatists in eastern Ukraine would likely take the form of a NATO force.

NATO enlargement. Talk of enlarging NATO to absorb countries such as Georgia will be revived with renewed vigor as U.S. policy makers assess a weakened Russian role in the international system. Recent efforts by Georgia to achieve member-state status in The Atlantic Alliance were scuttled by geopolitical posturing and the risk averse nature of many members of NATO. However, calls for the integration of the strategically valuable Caucasus state have been renewed as NATO seeks to strengthen its geostrategic advantages over Russian influence in its near abroad in the aftermath of the downing of Malaysian flight 17. A rational expectation in the weeks and months ahead will be to observe the intensifying of the public effort to influence the member-states of NATO to move to admit Georgia as a member of the Alliance. Georgia remains strategically valuable terrain along essential transportation routes for natural resources extracted from deposits in Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan. Additionally, Tbilisi has remained a steadfast opponent of Russian imperialistic assertiveness, having fought a war against Russia for control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the summer of 2008.

United States troop deployment. In recent weeks, allies such as Poland have expressed greater willingness to allow U.S. military force deployment on national territory. As the United States public opinion has vacillated from strong support for interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan last decade towards a neo-isolationist posture and aversion to military force application in the lean economic time period of later years, policy makers have found it progressively more difficult to galvanize public support for the deployment of U.S. military forces to foreign lands. In the wake of the escalating crisis in eastern Ukraine, the political winds may have shifted sufficiently in countries such as Poland and Romania to allow for stationing of U.S. military forces in the countries. This is likely due to a rising sense of distrust for Russian involvement in areas such as Ukraine and a historically-based fear of Russian imperialism in the region.

The public positions of presidential candidates will move sharply towards muscled foreign policies. Candidates who have previously expressed reticence to expand American intervention in places such as Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine will find themselves isolated from the American political mainstream. As the threat of Russian predominance over American interests in Eastern Europe and the Middle East is reinforced in American media, presidential candidates such as Rand Paul will burgeon their foreign policy credentials with pointed rhetoric and latent support of expanded American power throughout the world. Candidates such as Hillary Clinton, already supportive of projecting an image of American preeminence and global power, will further burgeon their images as potential Commanders in Chief with public testimonials on sustaining and expanding American influence. These candidates will level attacks upon previous administrations (those of George W. Bush and Barack Obama) on charges that they lacked foresight and vision while unnecessarily expending American soft and hard power.

Exacerbation of fracture points. Both The West and Russia will apply pressure and influence upon geostrategically valuable territories. Regions such as Abkhazia, Găgăuzia, the former Yugoslavia, and the Caucasus will once again be the subject of debate and prognostication. The Kremlin has also rekindled its historical ties with the government of Cuba in an effort to galvanize support in the western hemisphere and seeks a strategic balance to the encroachment of NATO into the Russian near abroad. In the near-term, it is likely that these points, which in many ways signify lines of demarcation both culturally and geopolitically between the West and Russia, will receive political and diplomatic pressure by both sides. Both the West and Russia will seek to take advantage of public opinion, de-legitimize unfriendly political regimes, and attempt to co-opt local economies. Important areas to watch include the aforementioned Caucasus (Abkhazia and Ossetia), the Baltics, the Balkans (especially Serbia), and Moldova (with special attention paid to the pro-Russian autonomous region of Găgăuzia.

Supported by key members of think tanks and policy institutions, interventionists will ratchet up public rhetoric, fueling the animus that exists in the geopolitical competition between the United States and Russia. In the Senate, supporters of American military involvement in places such as Syria and Ukraine will propose legislation that tightens sanctions in an effort to pressure the Obama administration to act more forcefully upon the governments of Russian President Vladamir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Led by John McCain(R-AZ), Lindsey Graham(R-SC), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and supported by Peter King (R-NY), those posturing for a more interventionist-focused U.S. foreign policy strategy will pressure the more pragmatic-minded members of Congress (to include Rand Paul {R-KY}) to support this legislation. Bound by the challenge of competing for the nomination of their parties in the presidential election of 2016, these same leaders (those previously espousing reticence to project American power abroad beyond interests of vital U.S. national security) will be forced to make a choice between ideological purity and political expedience. It is likely that these individuals will choose to add muscle to their public rhetoric, supporting calls for strengthened sanctions on Russia and Iran and pursuit of escalated defense budgets and funding of programs. Public intellectuals of previous administrations such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, those historically invested in more Realist-inspired foreign policy strategies, will make appearances on television talk shows, submit Op Eds to nationally recognized news organizations, and will make public speeches at assorted policy think tanks in order to influence debate and encourage pragmatism in U.S. policy.

The war will continue in eastern Ukraine… and escalate. The war for control over the oblasts of eastern Ukraine will intensify with Western powers likely lending significant clandestine support for the efforts of the government in Kiev to assert control over Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk. The insurgent rebel elements will likely seek to spread the proverbial battlefield, making the southern oblasts of Zaporizhia and Dnipropetrovsk susceptible to the spread of destabilizing conflict. Russian support for separatist elements around areas such as Sloviansk will continue as insurgents seek to assert control over vital infrastructure such as the contested airport in Donetsk. The conflict will further escalate, drawing in Western powers in the form of clandestine support for Ukrainian counterinsurgent efforts and/or collective action via NATO.

As the conflict in Ukraine has become representative of the wider, supra-regional geopolitical battle between the U.S. and Russia, public opinion will continue to tilt in favor of the West as Russian government efforts to support the rebel forces in Ukraine will be vilified both publicly in political rhetoric and officially via sanctions. U.N. Security Council sessions will be convened even as votes remain a foregone conclusion due to veto power of the five permanent members. It is possible that renewed calls for reform of the U.N. Security Council body itself will result, with rising powers such as Brazil, India, and Germany demand influence in the international decision-making apparatus. The power of the automatic veto among the five permanent members of the Security Council could be affected by the implied institutional bias towards the five permanent members.

The crisis in eastern Ukraine has far-reaching consequences for the international order. While the United States remains the predominant world power, a regional hegemon with global reach unmatched by any other state, the influence of rising powers such as Russia, especially along the potential fracture points in Eastern Europe, can catalyze instability, upend government control of key regions, and affect the capacity of U.S. policy to influence the governments in strategically vital areas. This is especially true for the former Yugoslav nations of the Balkans, the Russian near abroad Baltic states, and the southeastern European nations of Romania and Moldova. With enough incentive and the application of clandestine political and military force, it is rather easy to upend and destabilize governments all along the line of demarcation still being calcified between the West and Russia for control of Europe… and beyond.

(Featured photo and map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: