The Drivers of Russian Behavior, and Overlaps with China

The origin of the present crisis in Ukraine contrary to the West’s narrative of it being the creation of an expansionist Russia is in major part the creation of the West itself. The primary reason for this, and one advocated by John J Mearsheimer as well has been the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s continual expansion eastwards in violation of commitments made to Russia before the fall of the Soviet Union. As Ankit Panda & Hannes Adomeit have highlighted these promises made to Gorbachev were vital to obtain the USSR’s consent for permitting the reunification of Germany. This understanding between Russia and the United States was predicated upon recognition of the fact that European stability could be maintained only with the cooperation of both the states treating each other as equals. This rhetoric would be repeated by the German Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroder at the 41st Munich Conference on Security Policy in 2005, as well. How little Russia thought of this became evident in 2007 with its withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Russian fear of NATO’s expansion acquires deeper meaning in light of Russia’s historic necessity of expanding its borders to anchor its borders on defensible frontiers and attain strategic depth against potential invaders. Further, the conception of foreign policy in Putin led Russia is one of foreign policy being used as a tool for generating consensus in a nation whose government has had little to show for domestically. An assertive foreign policy allows for stabilization of the regime by creating a ‘rally around the flag’ effect generating legitimacy which in turn justifies the domestic accretion of centralized power. The author advances that China, the dominant power in the Asia Pacific also counts amongst the drivers of its own strategic behavior the desire to maintain buffer states so as to have strategic depth and as the author shall develop later in this essay relies on its foreign policy to accomplish the same function as is achieved by Russia. The degree of overlapping of the foreign policy function in both Russia and China is widely different; nonetheless it is a factor for China even if at a much lesser level than Russia.

The Development of the Russian-Ukranian Relationship

Ukraine and Russia both trace their origins to the Kievan Rus who flourished by the Dnieper river in the early 9th century. Whilst over time the two groups diverged and started acquiring their own distinct identity, the decisive event marking the convergence of the two groups  was theKhmelnytsky Uprising, a Cossack rebellion against the ruling Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1648-1657 which resulted in the Treaty of Perieaslav under which Ukraine was incorporated under the Russian Tsars. Attempts were made by Ukraine during times of great geopolitical instability such as the Russian Revolution and the Nazi occupation of Ukraine to unsuccessfully assert their independence. An exposition of Ukraine’s tumultuous history would require a separate paper to do it justice however; it would be profitable to take note of certain events that have a direct bearing on the events at hand in Ukraine today. The 1932-1933 period when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union under Stalin saw millions of Eastern Ukrainians lose their lives in a artificially created famine known as the Holodomor following which millions of Russians resettled in Ukraine, western Ukraine then being part of Poland was not affected by this event. In January 1954 the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred Russian Crimea to Ukraine marking Ukraine’s 300th anniversary of unification with Russia. Little could the then generation of Soviet leaders have foreseen the ultimate collapse of the USSR which resulted in the 2 major southern ports in Soviet possession; Sevastapool and Odessa becoming part of Ukraine though agreements were concluded with Russia allowing it to maintain its Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.

The Genesis of the Present Crisis in Ukraine

The present crisis in Ukraine can be traced from protests occurring in 2004-2005 in Ukraine over allegedly rigged elections, the popularly branded Orange Revolutions. Consequently Viktor Yushcenko replaced Viktor Yanukovych a man held to be closer to Russia. As Ian Traynor reporting for the Guardian noted the winning candidate received massive support from the United States in the form of organization and funding of the pro Yushcenko groups. Russia perceived this as United States meddling in its Near Abroad, the region of post Soviet states which Moscow perceives as falling within its sphere of influence. The 2010 elections however saw Yanukovych return to power in elections that were declared lawful by international monitors who hailed from the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe amidst a host of other intergovernmental bodies and NGO’s. On November 21, 2013 Yanukovych opted to revive old Moscow ties by rejecting the trade and association talks with the EU sparking off massive protests. These protests escalated over the next two months with the EU and the United States warning Yanukovych of sanctions on January 22 and January 23, 2014 following the death of 3 protestors. An escalation of violence from February 18 onwards concluded with the peace pact of February 21 wherein Yanukovych agreed to give up his powers, hold early elections and form a government of national unity. However, an escalation of violence resulted in Yanukovych fleeing the capital and the Ukrainian parliament declaring Yanukoyvch to no longer be the President. Shortly thereafter new ministers were named for the government.

This weaning away of Ukraine from the Russian sphere of influence to the West provoked a strong Russian response with Russia putting troops on high alert and initiating military exercises even as armed men seized the Crimean parliament and two airports. With Putin obtaining the Russian parliament’s approval to invade Ukraine Russian forces swiftly secured Crimea bloodlessly.  A referendum conducted on March 16, 2014 in the peninsula where the majority of the population comprises ethnic Russians saw 95 percent of the participants vote to join Russia even as the EU and the United States of America cried foul refusing to accept the results of the referendum. The NATO secretary general has referred to the present events as constituting ‘the gravest threat to European security and stability since the end of the cold war’ and has called upon Europe to bolster defence spending. However, European nations weakened and engrossed in dealing with the Eurozone crisis have not been able to come up with a strong response. Europe’s tempered reaction is also fuelled by the massive energy supplies it procures from Russia. With over a third of Europe’s energy supplies coming from Russia and EU-Russia trade amounting to over US$400 billion there are serious limitations to the actions it can take. With Russia having incorporated Crimea and Ukraine on the path of withdrawal of its armed forces from the region Crimea is here to stay with Russia. The more surprising move has been the United States declaration ruling out any military involvement on its part in the region.

Understanding the US Response to the Ukranian Crisis

The first point that would profit one to keep in mind when analyzing the US reaction to the present crisis is the asymmetry of interests involved in the present crisis. A non hostile Ukraine is critical for Russia, it is not so for the United States. Ukraine is vital to Russian security, it is not vital to America’s security. Ukraine has been a traditional invasion route into the Russian mainland. Given this reality Russia has consistently striven to maintain a regime in Ukraine that was at least preferably tilting towards Moscow and neutral at the most. What it desperately seeks to avoid is a Ukrainian regime antithetical to Russian interests. As George Friedman notes it may seem ludicrous to the world today that Russia fears an invasion but it is not so for the Russians. The Russians clearly remember that in 1932 Germany was in shambles but by 1938 it was overwhelmingly powerful. 6 years is not a very long time.

The port of Sevastopol in Crimea is one of the few warm water ports Russia possess. Ensuring continued access to this port was a factor in Russian decision making; this was further aggravated by the uncertainty of the future of Russia’s Tartus port in Syria making Sevastopol the only naval base from where it could hope to project power into the Mediterranean. Russia felt humiliated after the Libyan episode where it perceived the Western powers as having ‘betrayed’ it via its creative interpretation of Resolution 1973 and causing a regime change in Libya. Coming in its wake the shift in Ukraine to a distinctly pro Western stance would have dealt a shock to Russia domestically which the Putin regime would have found hard to weather. Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia which had been considering NATO membership happened a year after its withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. From the Russian perspective it was not possible to understand in what conceivable way the inclusion of Georgia advanced the security interests of the NATO community other than encircling and containing Russia. Even in the worst case scenario wherein Ukraine falls to Russia the territorial situation for NATO would for all practical purposes be the same as before the beginning of the crisis. Such a situation would see a NATO floundering for common ground with the drawdown of the Afghanistan operations reanimated with a common threat to focus upon. In any situation short of the worst case scenario NATO still stands to benefit as Russia’s assimilation of Ukraine has polarized Ukraine and generated deep seated resentment against Russia.

Whilst the causes for Russian behaviour have been understandable what has been a cause for some intrigue is why the United States hasn’t taken Russia to task strongly enough over the precedent it is establishing with Ukraine. Russia has amongst other arguments advanced that of ‘historical injustice’ in support of its claims going so far as to call Khrushchev’s transfer of Crimea in 1954 as arbitrary and reckless. Allowing Russia to get away with an argument relying upon historical injustice renders countless agreements and accords of the past open to violation based on the same logic. Allowed to go scot free what prevents Russia from pulling out of the Belavezha Accords of 1991, the Treaty of Brest Litovsk of 1918 or going even further back the cheap sale of Alasksa. The historical injustice argument is the same one used by Nazi Germany to avoid its commitments under the Treaty of Versailles. Given the reliance on supposed historical fact by countries such as China to back its territorial claims in the South China Sea the United States has allowed a dangerous precedent to be set. China has however not gone all guns blazing in support of Russia given its apprehensions over its own many domestic separatist movements.

The United States reticence can be explained by the American desire to avoid what Rory Medcalf has called the ‘trifurcation of its strategic attention’ in the theatres of Europe, the Middle East and the Asia Pacific. This is happening at a time when US defence spending faces serious fiscal challenges, China continues to emerge as an economic juggernaut resulting in a rapid accretion of its military capabilities and the general populace is war weary from the decade long conflict against terrorism. Given the US withdrawal from Afghanistan Russia will play a crucial role in determining the stability of the Afghan government. Further, Russia could always chose to upgrade its relationship with Syria damaging US interests. It has already threatened to derail the Iran talks and has stepped up military activity in Latin America to levels the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Cold War. The Latin American front has seen Russia propose to establish military bases in Cuba, Venezuela & Nicaragua with negotiations underway to establish refueling bases and allow port visits. The present crisis reinforces the need for the US to maintain a three hub navy so as to have a presence in the Mediterranean, the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. With the United States having a required fleet size ranging from anywhere between 313-346 ships but presently hovering in the 280’s it is incapable of maintaining such a naval presence for any prolonged stretch of time.

Implications of the US Response to the Situation in Ukraine

The US decision to not intervene militarily at the doorstep of a region (Europe) it has identified in the Quadrennial Defence Review 2014 as housing the most stalwart of US allies who are central to American diplomatic efforts has sent a worrying message. This message has gone both, to nations in the Asia Pacific and even Europe about US credibility and willingness to provide leadership. The recognition bestowed upon Europe seems to run at odds with the American public rhetoric of Asia being the region it intends to devote its maximum attention to despite the abundance of literature questioning the commitment of the United States to do so. Given America’s failure to react following the breach of the red line laid by it of chemical weapons use in Syria, an image of an isolationist America is beginning to set in at time when the international order is in a state of flux. Japan has of late begun rearming itself and removing self imposed limitations by building strong armed forces. The common reaction has been one of relief in the US policy making community as Japan would no longer be free riding on US provided security. This may however not be a good thing since US forces deployed in Japan in support of the American strategy of extended deterrence does not ensure that the US forces are strong enough to resist an external attack. They are only strong enough to act as tripwire forces that guarantee automatic US involvement in any conflict in the area involving Japan. The problem as Jake A Douglas notes is that Japan is acutely conscious of this fact. Assured in the knowledge of automatic US support Japan can adopt a more hawkish approach in its foreign policy. The US can take remedial measures by taking back their best bargaining chip, namely the decision to commit or not to commit US troops in a conflict. This could be done by means of shifting from a permanent deployment pattern to a more temporary, rotational one. However, given the recent beating US credibility has taken all the way from Syria to Ukraine such a move could potentially push Japan to go nuclear instead of injecting more prudence into the decisions of Japanese policy makers.

Ukraine had given up its nuclear arsenal in return for assurances of security from the USA, UK and Russia as chalked out in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, a move described as a poor one by John Mearsheimer back in 1993. Mearsheimer had blasted this decision back then saying that Ukrainian nuclear weapons were the only reliable deterrent to Russian aggression. It is true that posing such counterfactuals has inherent problems and if Ukraine were to magically have nuclear weapons yesterday it may have deterred Russian aggression but the fact is that potential Russian actions would have to be figured out all the way from 1994. The problem with such a line of reasoning is that it presumes Russia would have tolerated a nuclear weapon armed Ukraine on its borders for so long. However what can’t be denied is that failure to intervene in support of Ukraine shall only embolden regimes such as North Korea to hold on to its nuclear arsenal and may even force a rethink amongst other powers that have chosen to not acquire nuclear weapons.

China’s great balancing act is ensuring domestic security by keeping the inequality between the rich coastal regions and the impoverished interior regions from spilling over. Continuing the transfer of wealth inland requires sustained demand for Chinese goods which flow to the world from the seas, seas that China does not control. China’ sea lines of communication carrying vital energy supplies pass through India’s backyard and its greatest fear as an American blockade of it using the First & the Second Island Chains. Retrenchment is not an option China can afford to take as the growth of popular nationalism and sensitivity of government opinions to the same have resulted in a government very concerned about its legitimacy. The only thing preventing China from strong arming its way through its neighbor’s oppositions about its maritime territorial claims is the Japanese-American military alliance. However, even this alliance’s effectiveness is a function of its credibility, a credibility that is being put to the test with China’s rapid improvements in its A2-AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) strategy. Anti access aims to keep the US from getting involved in the region while Area Denial seeks to ensure the US forces that exist in the region stay bogged down. China aims to accomplish this via a hybrid inventory of cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, submarines, cyberwarfare and anti satellite missiles. Used in conjunction with low tech short range systems such as sea mines, short range artillery, fast small attack craft operating within range of land based aircraft this gives China an impressive capability to hinder and influence US zones of operation. If China were to concluded that the US is incapable or unwilling to continue exposing itself to ever greater risks to aid its Asian allies China would hold the initiative and have a strong incentive to act forcefully, hence the US pivot to the Asia Pacific to reassure its allies. Stephen Walt has argued the present problem plaguing the US is the overextension of the country due to a pile up of diplomatic commitments that leave little room for dealing with a crisis when it pops up. It is this Walt argues which has allowed the actions of “ideologically driven subordinates” to cause the geopolitical mess that is now Ukraine. Given recent US actions wherein it has failed to respond decisively in Syria and in Ukraine it is not all too surprising for US allies to have second thoughts about its commitment to the region.

An important point to remember at this juncture is to distinguish between core interests and other interests. Russian intervention in Ukraine was an example of Russia protecting its core interests and pivot or no pivot no amount of presence of United States armed forces in the region would have deterred Russia from acting as it did. What enhanced American presence could have guaranteed was no Russian intervention in mainland Ukraine a course of action that the Russians can consider with impunity today. An American decision to intervene therein however would be contingent of the sort of pressure the European Union/NATO could bring upon it since Ukraine is a nation of little interest to the United States. In the Asia Pacific a similar analogy may be drawn. Today China counts its claims in the South China Sea as a core interest, at the same level as it considers the importance of Taiwan reunification and Tibet’s integration. Given this public commitment any actions by countries in the vicinity or the United States that appear to challenge China’s claims in Sea bear the potential to inflame China’s domestic constituencies which in turn would inflame Chinese external relations.

Admirable as US attempts at maintaining stability may be making the risk needing to be taken for an escalation too low allows Beijing to pursue its strategy of ‘tailored coercion’ with impunity. The danger that now lies ahead is if China interprets US restraint as seen in Ukraine to symbolize a larger trend of US isolationism following a long decade of bloody occupations that have wearied the American people. The analogy drawn by Colby and Ratner between Soviet and Chinese conduct would be instructive here. They note that President John F Kennedy’s excessive concern with stability and failure to respond firmly and clearly to the USSR’s predatory moves towards Berlin was what encouraged the Soviets to make their Cuba move. Were China to do something similar in territories that involved Japan there would be a very real and grave danger of rapid escalation. Increased Japanese assertiveness in pursuing its foreign policy without consulting the US carries the risk of playing right into Chinese hands and giving it the justification to act in a much more aggressive fashion which could result in escalation of hostilities and lead to a conflict that might drag the US into it as well. In light of the same US initiatives aimed at pursuing multilateral initiatives and building ties with ASEAN need to be backed by clear signals to China that escalation will have its costs. What will make the US task much tougher in Asia is the near impossibility of organizing a coordinated region wise framework with which to engage China in times of peace or hurt China in times of war. Unlike in Europe a common alliance with decades of joint experience working together and interoperability does not exist in the Asia Pacific. All of that to begin with requires trust and commitment. To achieve that the United States would be best served in the Asia Pacific by firstly best serving those in Europe.

This is a guest post authored by Himanil Raina, a student at the NALSAR University of Law and a freelance writer on geopolitical and international affairs.