Russian Aggression and the Annexation of Crimea

Following the end of the Cold War and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, power dynamics on the Eurasian continent were reshaped by expansions of Western institutions, such as the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). These expansions have strongly contributed to the current state of tensions between the US (and the EU) and Russia. Russia, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, is attempting to restructure the balance of power on the continent. A restructuring of power dynamics on the European continent is seen as necessary by the Kremlin to maintain their territorial sovereignty. This is on display in conflicts in Ukraine such as the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and military buildups along Russia’s Western border. The current US policy towards Russian aggression includes raising the cost for Russia for its actions with the goal of regime change and supporting US allies in Eastern Europe.

Historical Background

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was forged in 1949 to ensure a US commitment to the security of the European continent post WWII and in response the rise of the Soviet Union. The Alliance was formed to ensure a sharing of burden would occur, and that the European nations would too be responsible for their defense in cooperation with the United States. The Soviet Union countered NATO with its own, similar arrangement, the Warsaw Pact between Russia and the communist states in Eastern Europe.

Andrew T. Wolff best describes the source of current Russian aggression as stemming from two historical contexts: a) Russia’s tradition of geopolitical emphasis and worldview and b) a strong disagreement over a 1990 “no expansion promise” made between Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev and US Secretary of State James Baker.

Russia has long held a long-standing tradition of approaching the world through a geopolitical standpoint. Russia places an emphasis, above all else, on its own territorial sovereignty and maintaining a relative sphere of influence. This ideology can be seen throughout Russia’s centuries of history as an expansionist empire; some might even argue that this “empire mindset” has still not subsided under the new post-Westphalian state order. This territorial sovereignty is exerted by the ability of the Kremlin to influence politics of that area through political, economic, and social pressures.

The expansion of the EU and NATO, two organizations which deliberately elected to leave Russia out of their membership and operations for many years, pose, for Russia, a threat to its territorial sovereignty as well as its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe by promoting ideals and reform policies not in line with Putin’s administration. Due to the close ties of ethnic Russians across countries like Ukraine, economic and political success there may serve as a ‘spark’ leading to a call for reform in Russia itself—this poses a potential threat to Putin’s control over the country. While some might point to the strong favorability of the Russian leader in the polls, it is important to remember that Putin is looking towards his long-term placement. Should the Russian economy be struck again by recession or depression, that favorability will quickly turn into unfavorability as Russians who were simply content may no longer have a source of income nor food to put on their table.

On a similar note, the 1990 informal agreement between the US and Russia supposedly stated that in exchange for cooperation on a peacefully reunified Germany, NATO would not expand past East Germany. The breakdown comes in interpreting what this agreement actually meant. For the Kremlin, it meant NATO membership would not extend past East Germany, which it did. NATO’s first expansion was in 1999 with the addition of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into the alliance and has since grown to 28 members. According to a high ranking NATO official, the US and NATO understood this agreement to mean no NATO-deployed troops or bases would be stationed beyond East Germany, which there has not been until after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Ultimately, Russia’s interest does not actually lie in the Crimea, but rather the annexation can be seen as an attempt to destabilize the Ukrainian government which was seeking closer ties with the European Union. The government was on the eve of signing a EU-Ukrainian agreement, granting Ukraine access to the EU common market and a push forward on the needle towards accession. Keeping Ukraine from fully integrating with the ‘west’ is of utmost importance for the Kremlin to ensure its sphere of influence remains somewhat intact. This type of power move can also be seen in Georgia, where Russia invaded South Ossetia in 2008 following talks of Georgia looking to join NATO. While Georgia’s NATO aspiration was not the immediate trigger, it intensified relations which ultimately broke down with military build-ups following the downing of a Georgian unmanned drone.

Current US Policy

The current US policy in countering Russian aggression, namely the 2014 annexation of the Crimea and rebel activity in Eastern Ukraine is best described by Steven Pifer, a Senior Fellow at Brookings, in a testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Pifer broke breaks down the current US response into three sections:

“I. Bolster the Ukrainian Government

  1. Reassure NATO allies of the US commitment to defend against Russian aggression

III. Penalize Russia with the objective of promoting a change in Russian policy”

These three aspects of the US’s strategy, in practice, seek to try to increase the cost of aggression for Russia both through sanctions and increased military support of our allies.

US efforts to bolster the Ukrainian government have been accomplished through disbursements of foreign operations assistance with US$513,502,000 budgeted for 2016, up from US$334,198,000 in 2015. These funds overwhelmingly went to support ‘Economic Development’, with the second largest spending category being ‘Peace and Security,’ which includes providing material support and training to Ukrainian troops. These efforts are meant to help sustain the Ukrainian government against opposition forces and help it fund programs to continue to develop the country economically and socially.

In reassuring NATO allies of the US’s commitment against Russian aggression, the US has pledged both support and weapons. The 2015 European Reassurance Initiative saw the Baltic states each receiving over US$30 million each in equipment to bolster their defense efforts as well as dramatic increases of US Foreign Military Assistance being pledged to these nations as well. The US is currently constructing a second anti-ballistic missile station in Poland in order to complete a so-called “European ballistic missile shield.”

During NATO’s 2016 Summit in Warsaw, President Obama announced the stationing of 1000 US troops throughout Eastern Europe, namely Poland and the Baltic states. While 1000 troops offer Europe minimal, if any, tactical advantage, it is moves like these that NATO sees as key to maintaining the alliance. Should an invasion occur into any of these nations, not only will the invaded nation’s troops be attacked, but so will the US troops, directly forcing the US into the conflict. The theory goes that now the US will have no choice but to pursue full engagement after attacks on their own troops.

While these moves have reassured many US allies, they do pose a very real risk of being interpreted by Russia as encroachment and escalation on its border. Without proper channels of communication and a clear understanding between the two parties, these troop movements may be countered by similar build-ups by Russian troops. This can lead to a continuous cycle of build-up by both sides in response to one another.

A key part of the US response to Russian aggression has been so-called “smart sanctions” which target individuals the US has identified as playing a role in guiding and execution Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Crimea. These sanctions are intended to increase the personal, economic, and diplomatic cost of Russian aggression. Sanctions range from freezing of financial assets to restrictions on travel for these individuals. Additional sanctions imposed in partnership with the EU and NATO members a) restrict access of state-owned enterprises to western markets, b) embargo oil production and exploration equipment exports to Russia, and c) embargo military good exports to Russia. The ultimate goal of the sanctions is to force a regime change through external pressure on the regime itself as well as pressure the economically-affected population.

While the Russian economy has been in an economic downturn since 2014, credit may not be fully placed on the sanctions regime, but rather on a global downturn in oil prices. The Russian economy relies extensively on oil exports with minimal diversification. The global downturn in oil prices as directly impacted the economy and the value of the Russian ruble. The sanctions regime has further hampered the recession by limiting the country’s access to credit, meaning it has limited sources of finance. With the recent OPEC agreement to cut production, it will be a true test of the strength of the sanctions regime and how much it will prohibit the economy from recovering fully.

Concluding Remarks

The current conflict in Ukraine is a symptom of wider Russian aggression. These moves, unilaterally executed by Putin, can be viewed as a response to long-term ‘encroachment’ of western organizations like the EU and NATO. These organizations which explicitly do not include Russia (although attempts have been made for more bilateral cooperation) pose threats to what Russia perceives to be its territorial sovereignty and its sphere of influence. Russian moves can be seen to attempt to destabilize the international systems set up by Western powers.

Many politicians and pundits like to talk of a “Russian reset” in which the US (and other Western powers) would attempt to reharmonize relations with Russia and start with a blank slate, of sorts. I can appreciate the sentiment of this approach and for sure, so does Donald Trump. However, I think it’s a folly. A fundamental basis of international relations is the idea of the “long game,” states and actors are always aware of how their actions affect their long-term status, credibility, and survival. The same concept can be applied in a backwards looking manor; it is laughable to think a state will forget previous actions and threats. Rather, I would argue, Trump and other western leaders should look to rebuild relations with Russia fully embracing our past and current clashes. A relationship with Russia should be folded into institutions where the Kremlin can have an equal seat at the table and reassure itself that any moves executed by Western powers does not pose a threat to Russian sovereignty. This is key if any successful and productive relationship with Russia is to move forward.

On the same note, we need to reemphasize it is never okay to sit idly by or fail to respond to aggressive moves on behalf of Russia that threatens sovereignty of other nations. Maintaining sovereignty of all nations is paramount to US security. If we don’t defend others, who would defend us should the day come. That’s why Donald Trump should continue the US’s trifold policy, until otherwise warranted, of bolstering support militarily and economically of Ukraine and its Eastern European allies as well as attempting to usher a regime change through sanctions.