Russian Foreign Policy Interests in Ukraine

This is a guest post by Zachary SeldenAssistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida and former Deputy Secretary General for Policy at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

There is a lot of commentary out there on Ukraine right now, but there is not a lot being said about Russian foreign policy interests.  From 2003-2011, I spend a lot of time in the NATO world dealing with Russian diplomats and politicians.  I remember sitting across the table from Deputy PM Dimitry Rogozin back when he was the Russian ambassador to NATO.  I remember all too many meetings with Russian Duma members where they played out conspiracy theories that would make a 9-11 Truthers meeting look thoughtful and balanced.  I’m no Russia expert, but I think I have some insight.

First, what do they really want?  Its pretty simple: Russia wants to politically and economically control the “near abroad” and weaken any potential competitor for influence in the region.   No secret there. Against that scorecard, they are doing well at the moment.  Even if Russia does nothing more in Ukraine’s east, they have effectively blocked Ukraine from closer association with the EU and NATO.  Why?  Because neither NATO nor the EU is going to take in a state with territorial disputes.  If you want to make an EU official break out in hives, just whisper “Cyprus” in his ear and watch the itching begin.  Russia’s actions in Georgia effectively block them from joining NATO, so the strategy  works.   Russia now effectively holds a trump card over any western-oriented Ukrainian government that wants to move closer toward western institutions.

 So what’s next?  Given the anemic reaction to Russia’s actions, I would expect Russia to push the advantage.  Not in Ukraine but in one of the Baltic states.  Latvia, and to some extent Estonia, have Russian minorities that are not all that well integrated.  I am not going to engage in a blame game here, but let’s agree that both Baltic states could do more to help the Russian-speaking residents participate fully in civic life (and in some cases even be citizens).

So with a little help from well-placed agitators in some towns in Baltic states with large Russia populations, you can see how it would not be too difficult to spin up some incidents where there are street fights, arrests, violence, and maybe a few prominent deaths  (we are talking about a Kremlin run by former KGB officials after all, this is the sort of thing they did for their senior thesis projects).  Now how can Mother Russia stand by when only a few kilometers over the border ethnic Russians are being oppressed?

Russia isn’t going to send in the troops, but they will press for greater autonomy, and a democratic referendum on closer association with Russia in Russian-populated parts of the Baltics.  Then the new local authorities can invite in Russian advisors and peacekeepers….any one movement can be portrayed as reasonable, but over time it adds up.

The point is that Russia doesn’t have to engage in a military operation- both Estonia and Latvia are NATO members- but chipping away at the credibility of the NATO alliance is a key Russian foreign policy goal.  If they can create the sense that the alliance really wouldn’t back up the Baltic states in a situation like this, then they score a huge win.  And really, is anyone going to risk war over some tiny province of a tiny country?  Of course not which is why you can’t allow things to go down that path.

So what do we do about this?  First, deny Russia the opportunities they want to exploit.  Latvia doesn’t have enough money to hire the language teachers to help Russian-speakers pass the language test?  Fine, here’s an extra few million for Latvian teachers.   At the same time, run some conspicuous joint military exercises in the region, and maybe establish some Cooperative Security Locations with American personnel.  Not bases, just places where US forces can rotate through as needed.  Have a quiet heart-to-heart chat with the Kazakhs.  My guess is they are feeling a bit exposed at the moment too and might be very receptive to hosting some US forward deployments (as they have in the past).    Have a secret discussion with Georgia and Ukraine that NATO will consider a Membership Action Plan and eventual membership if they give up any claim to South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Crimea respectively.   Of course they won’t and of course it won’t stay secret, but it will put Russia on notice that the trump cards they think they have might not actually be worth much.

If you want to play this game, you need to understand what the other side wants and where their leverage is.  If we are smart we can use Russia actions in Crimea to build up our informal and formal alliances with a whole range of states in the region.  Anticipate the next move, negate the leverage and use the momentum against your opponent.  It’s a strategy that judo enthusiast Vladimir Putin would appreciate.