April 9, 2014
With the benefit of hindsight, the Russian annexation of Crimea shouldn’t have been a great surprise: it has been obvious to those who chose to look that for most of the last twenty years, that Russian president Vladimir Putin never fully accepted the USSR’s demise. Now, as the West agonizes over another possible irredentist feint—possibly in Ukraine proper or in Transnistria—the United States and its allies need to take a deep breath and consider the long game.

By the end of March, some accouterments of post-Soviet sovereignty had changed. The peninsula in dispute switched flags and currencies. But despite epochal foreboding, few lives had been lost; with Russian pride assuaged, the remainder of Ukraine was lurching into the European Union’s embrace—barring a Putin effort to destabilize it. The issue kicking off the crisis in the first place—Ukraine’s edging towards the EU—had now given Eurasia another tilt towards Mother Europe.

Is it possible that over the long run, much of this might come out better than feared? Putin’s Ukraine gambit may yet prove a tactical success, but a strategic failure. Even there, if Putin seeks to dismantle Ukraine, he may yet face a Ukrainian military response. The shock annexation of Crimea, itself a product of a 1954 intra-Soviet land transfer, has had another salutary effect—jolting us into reluctant awareness of the downside cost of our intrusions into the Russian periphery over two decades.

If we can accept that we too often behaved as if Russia didn’t matter, we stand a better chance of preserving Eurasian stability in the post-Crimean era.

The answer lies in playing a long game, with our secret weapon being a nuclear deal and gradual rapprochement with Iran. With this in our pocket, we could eliminate much of the risk premium—$15-$20 a barrel—in current oil prices. As electric cars become common and global oil demand peaks, the likely per-barrel price lies in the $70-$95 range—very bad news for Putin, whose domestic budget rests on oil set at around $110. Consider the many unintended consequences of Putin’s folly:

  • Crimean pensions and budget subsidies totaling between $30-40 billion annually are now Russia’s responsibility. As rah-rah nationalism fades, reality will sink in.
  • The days of Soviet economic autarchy are long gone. Before the Ukraine affair, the Russian economy was projected to grow nearly two percent in 2014. Now, targeted sanctions, a weak ruble and declining domestic and foreign investment all add up to weaker growth and the danger of recession. Capital flight has accelerated, with an estimated $70 billion in the first quarter of 2014, by comparison to net outflows of $63 billion during all of 2013. Foreign investment funds are offloading Russian assets. And if you were an oligarch, why would you keep your money in rubles?
  • Russia’s Crimea gambit is uniting most of the remaining Ukraine against him. A serious US/EU/IMF financial package (with effective conditionality to force reforms) of some $30 billion over a multi-year period could dislodge Ukrainian corruption and bring it on track to EU associate status.
  • Putin has put European security back on the table and breathed new life into a more Eurocentric, post-Afghanistan NATO. After Crimea, its members want a tighter security embrace; on both sides of the pond, many now expect an uptick in ‘old style’ defense spending—e.g., tanks, theater-delivery systems, etc. Sweden, now a key NATO “partner,” and Finland are mulling full membership. Deploying NATO assets in the Baltics and Poland may also be in the cards.
  • Putin’s Crimea action has led Ms. Merkel and the rest of Germany to rethink tolerance of, and reliance on, Russia. German firms have been a major source of investment capital for Russia, but are now repatriating profits.
  • Putin has sparked new determination within the EU to reduce dependence on Russian gas. The Europeans are rapidly rethinking homegrown opposition to developing their own shale resources. Putin’s action is also boosting support and sense of urgency for US natural-gas exports;
  • By landing a body blow to the post–Cold War order that Russia had signed up to Putin has reduced his country’s freedom of maneuver.

The downside of Putin’s Crimea gambit—economic, diplomatic, commercial—therefore make a long, countervailing list of damaging consequence, a dubious “victory” even now. But consider some other uncomfortable truths, also thrown into sharp relief by Ukraine and other trouble spots in recent months:

Spheres of Influence—for Us but Not for Them. Just look at the reportage: With us, it’s the ‘International Community’ but for the Russians it’s just a ‘naked power grab’ or, at best, ‘irredentism’. But isn’t there a disconnect here? Why is maintaining a sphere of influence acceptable for us, but repellent if sought by Russia (or China)? Not to minimize Russian bloody-mindedness, but try imagining a world in which we had lost the Cold War, and then found the Russians in a military alliance with Mexico and Canada. How would that go down?

History and Memory. We must disentangle sentiment from power-balancing reality while showing respect for historical memory. Consider Iraq, Grenada or Panama as our own ‘Crimeas’ remembering that we also have hypernationalist opinions in this country just as we find in Russia. We suffer no shortage of strident opinion in this country, with both ends of our political spectrum justifying external interventions.

Silence is golden. This administration’s inability to shut up when it has nothing useful to say continues to amaze. Why does the administration publicly the details of every phone call with Putin, when they have nothing to show for it? It only projects incompetence and lends credence to a narrative of U.S. weakness and retreat which Republicans have successfully spun.

A Crimean Pandora’s Box. The Ukraine mess transcends the local place and this specific time. It’s not a ‘with us/against us’ moment, and the Russian moves have consequences which suit no one. What if the Crimea precedent were applied around the world? In Asia they see Crimea and think of a precedent for Chinese irredentism in the South China Sea. But it may go beyond that: For China (Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang), for India (Kashmir), for Indonesia (Aceh), for Thailand (Pattani area), for Argentina (the Falklands) and so on, ad infinitum, Mr. Putin has set the cat amid the pigeons. Ukraine and Crimea are an issue of world order.

So, does Russia now reject the entire post-Cold War order, or is Crimea just “payback” for post-Soviet humiliations? And will it continue to intimidate its weaker neighbors, with backing from its oil wealth and nuclear weapons? This is the issue that must take center stage. For real or just for effect, the Russians at one point hinted that they now question the legality of the Belavezha Accords, which dissolved the Soviet Union.

This could even mean questioning Ukraine’s independence altogether. In the 1994 Budapest memorandum, the EU, Russia and the United States gave vague “assurances” to safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for Kiev surrendering its nuclear weapons and delivery systems. If—and only ‘if’—the pattern of Russian behavior after this month shows an intention to upend the post–Cold War order should Washington treat the recent events as heralding a new era of confrontation.

Statecraft isn’t about liking or approving an adversary’s culture. It’s about finding a way to live with differences, and preserving the interests that really matter. Much of what we do in response to the forcible incorporation of Crimea into the Russian homeland will have to be done in tandem, with security-buttressing moves and confidence-building among our allies coupled to very direct overtures between US and Russian leaderships.

However unjustifiable, Putin demonstrates that you ignore his interests at your peril. It scarcely matters to Putin if the Russian justification for incorporating Crimea stands at odds with Moscow’s approach to the many national separatist movements within its own borders.

As we’ve noted, focusing harshly on what’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ will narrow and inflame discussions of the implications of Russia's power grab on geostrategic competitions and relationships, key geopolitical and security concepts and constructs, and for critical players in the crisis.

We may also want to suggest that the trade off for stabilizing Ukraine lies in the path of neutrality. This means constitutional guarantees for substantial autonomy for Russian-speaking areas in eastern Ukraine, with EU associate membership—but only if Kiev can make necessary reforms.

The US/EU/IMF package —$30-$35 billion—with a multiyear trough and tough conditionality to force reforms is correctly understood in Kiev as Ukraine’s last chance. The West should offer Putin the assurance that Ukraine will not receive NATO membership, and nothing beyond its current partnership—if he agrees to halt current and any future aggressive actions. At the end of the day, we need to acknowledge that Russia does indeed have a geographical sphere of interest along its borders and legitimate concerns—and we can only push a nuclear-weapons state so far.

What’s left out of the equation? Looking ahead, U.S.-Russian policy post-Crimea needs a respectful recalibration, one that doesn’t abandon the free and liberal economic structures achieved in Europe since 1991, but one that is illusion-free and expects no more than transactional relations. We cannot treat Russia as a single-issue country. We have overlapping interests in the Middle East, in Southwest Asia, and in the Far East. They can play an effective spoiler role.

Yes, the ‘tyranny of geography’ works to make Ukraine vital to the Russians but essentially secondary to us. And yes, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” but this can—or should be—allayed by wider, convergent interests which can intermediate the rough edges of geographical proximity and power politics. There’s a lot at stake.

James Clad is a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense; Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. He served as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council from 2008-12. He tweets at @RAMEAP.

RELATED CONTENT