It has been a good year for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
His country annexed a strategic peninsula in the Black Sea, he retains high approval ratings at home, and his aggressive military actions in Ukraine remain largely unanswered.
Mainland Europe relies heavily upon Russian natural gas—at least half of which is piped through Ukraine—for energy resources. The continent as a whole receives 24 percent of its natural gas from Russia, with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all NATO allies, receiving 100 percent of it from their Eastern neighbor. While Western European countries have large gas stores and alternative means to receive gas supplies, relying solely upon these alternatives will be costly and is only viable in the short run. Current trends suggest an even starker outlook. European gas imports from Russia are expected to increase over the coming decade, reaching 413 billion cubic meters in 2020 from 327 billion cubic meters today.
Partially due to these gas dependencies, many European nations have been reluctant to employ broad sanctions or take strong military action to thwart Russian aggression. That reluctance may have started to waver for Western European economic giants like Germany, Great Britain, and France, but it will remain in place for more gas dependent Eastern Europe—at least for a while. European Union plans to reduce energy dependence on Russia, although they exist, rely upon nonexistent infrastructures. Proposals to construct new pipelines from North Africa, jumpstart European alternative energy sectors, or even to import coal from fracking operations in the United States abound, but all of these ideas require significant investments of both time and capital. With the right amount of political will and the proper economic policies, the EU can likely find the latter, but the former will always remain a finite resource. Thus, it will be difficult for the EU alter Putin’s course in the short term.
But time is also a finite resource for President Putin. He knows that his ability to twist the EU’s arm by monopolizing energy markets is a short-term advantage, but it is an advantage he hopes to utilize for maximum gain. The leverage energy exports grant Russia enables Putin to come off as a practical dealmaker while still supporting Ukraine’s rebels. In September 2014, he orchestrated a ceasefire between his Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government, giving the hard-pressed separatist forces time to reorganize and granting them legal recognition. Later, on October 17th, he signed a deal with the pro-West Ukrainian government to renew shipments of natural gas before the winter months set in. Although a necessary success for Ukraine in the short term, the deal plays into Putin’s hands. Another year-long gas deal is another year spent relying upon Russia—a year Ukraine may not have.
Despite the backlash against pro-Russian sentiments in Kiev, the relationship between Ukraine and Russia is still complex. Ukraine spent decades under Soviet leadership, and retains religious and cultural ties to its northeastern neighbor. Russian is widely spoken across Ukraine, and when a group of Ukrainian parliamentarians attempted to outlaw Russian as a second language following the removal of the previous, pro-Russian President in February, they were met with immediate backlash. A few weeks later, Russian separatists announced their plans to return Eastern Ukraine to Russian rule. Today, Ukrainians remain divided on how to treat their Eastern neighbor. Few desire to sever ties completely, but most desire more dialogue with the West and greater independence from Russia. This complex relationship was apparent in Russia’s latest round of talks with Ukraine and the European Union. By providing gas supplies, but not a permanent truce, President Putin catered to the Ukrainian people, but not to Ukraine.
He plays this game well. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and especially during Putin’s tenures as President and Prime Minister, Russia has used its military might and energy resources to provoke conflicts in former Soviet Republics with large ethnic Russian populations, such as Georgia and Moldova. Putin usually picks these battles wisely, but often pursues them too aggressively—alienating potential, more moderate allies. Like in Ukraine, citizens of these countries are torn between Russia and the West. Many are of Russian descent, speak Russian as their native language, and desire at least a cultural connection with their former Soviet master. Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova, retains Russian soldiers and a Communist government. Citizens of South Ossetia, the center of a brief conflict between Georgia and Russia in 2008, use the Russian ruble as often as their national currency. In other regions, Russia has returned in full force. Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, initially struggled beneath Russian administration, but has adjusted to living under Putin’s authority. Most Crimeans still celebrate the takeover, with only a few minorities, such as the Muslim Tatars and the LGBT community, speaking out against Russian rule. Putin’s response to these criticisms will likely define the long-term success of further territorial grabs and annexations—making Crimea a testing ground for future Russian actions.
So far, Crimea is one area where Putin’s authoritarianism has done more harm than good. Since Russia’s takeover numerous laws have been put in place to restrict the movement and freedom of speech of outspoken groups, especially the Tatars. Persecuting the Tatar population, although they have long been antagonists to the Russian state, only strengthens the international community’s claims against Russia’s annexation of the region. It mirrors Stalin’s 1944 mass deportation of Russian Tatar’s to death and misery in Siberia, and worse, from Putin’s perspective, weakens the calls for self-determination for ethnic Russians in nearby nations. Rather than silence the Tatars through intimidation and arrest, Putin should soothe their claims against Russia by treating them as equals to Crimea’s majority Russian population. In this era of internet communication and international human rights law, forceful coercion isn’t a long term option for controlling populations. By allowing Tartars to retain their cultural homogeneity as Russian citizens, Putin sends a message to other regions torn between pro-Russian majorities and ethnic minorities: the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
If Russia’s regional ambitions are to be realized, it must come to terms with this undeniable truth: self-determination, while a key component in Russian power grabs, is a two way street. It gives Russian majorities outside Russia’s boundaries a chance at reunification, but also gives other groups a right to be heard. If Putin plans to continue Russia’s expansionist policies, he will need to rely upon the voices of Russian exclaves and the voluntary quiet of other ethnic minorities. For a man like Putin, who rose to power in the depths of the Cold War, this logic may be difficult to accept. But it shouldn’t be. The Chechnyan War, Russia’s longest and deadliest post-Cold War conflict, centered on minority rights. More than a decade after the end of the violence the region remains tumultuous. This instability is not something Russia can afford in its new prize. Crimea, with its strategic position on the Black Sea and offshore oil reserves, is too critical to Russia’s future. The world has changed. The integration of mass communications and human rights enables almost any minority group to reach the global audience—as long as the global audience is open to listening. Putin mustn’t ignore that.
But there is little within Russia that will force Putin to face the new reality of human rights and global media. To his people, excluding a few outspoken liberal activists and business leaders, Mr. Putin is a hero. State owned media outlets cast him as the liberator of Crimea and the defender of persecuted Russian minorities across Eastern Europe. Humanitarian aid convoys to beleaguered civilians in Ukraine, as well as purported and real missteps by Western and the Ukrainian governments, contribute to that illusion. But with the right mix of force and a touch of compassion towards Crimean minority groups, Putin will likely keep his valiant image and will retain the political will to weather economic sanctions and keep the West at bay.
The integration of mass communications and human rights enables almost any minority group to reach the global audience—as long as the global audience is open to listening. Putin mustn’t ignore that.
But while Putin may ignore the changing reality of human rights and global media, NATO is ignoring him. Thus far, NATO and the West have done little in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. A few measly sanctions nibble away at Russia’s economy and speakers constantly berate Putin at the UN, but no real efforts to punish Russia have been made. Even the tragic loss of Flight MH17 only prompted renewed aid for the Ukrainian military and stronger economic sanctions—both of which Russia has endured with moderate success. Although NATO has conducted more active military operations since the Soviet Union’s collapse than it did throughout the entire Cold War, its military readiness and will for major military action is at an all-time low. The war in Afghanistan sapped the alliance’s political capital amongst its member states, and even successful missions like Operation Unified Protector in Libya displayed the alliance’s dearth of munitions, fuel, and personnel for long term engagements. Ukraine is not a member of the military alliance, and thus is unable to call upon the mutual defense pact at the core of the NATO treaty, nor is it able to ask for consultation with NATO members. Without these two elements, Ukraine can only collaborate with NATO on humanitarian projects.. However, after a decade of war in the Middle East and a push for austerity measures across Europe, this too is unlikely.
NATO has instead attempted to thwart Russian ambitions in NATO member states, increasing air patrols, strengthening air defense systems, and stationing more soldiers in Eastern European bases. Despite such actions, NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe remains startlingly weak. An internal report from the UK Commons Defence Committee noted major weaknesses in NATO’s readiness to respond to a Russian attack on a member-state. The report noted that the conventional military conflicts NATO was founded to fight bear little resemblance to the current threat in Eastern Europe, and instead, the alliance must now consider the use of irregular militias and cyberattacks within the bounds of its mutual defense pact. From a strategy standpoint, this logic is perfectly sound. Russia’s takeover of Crimea relied heavily upon paramilitary units and a major cyberattack against Estonia in 2007 was traced to Russian hackers. But altering the NATO treaty in such a way would likely place NATO soldiers in combat zones far more often than most member nations would like—making change unlikely.
Triumph against Russian separatists in Ukraine, should it occur, will be but one small victory for the West amid major losses in the new proxy war with Russia. Crimea, with its strategic location on the Black Sea and access to major offshore oil deposits, is a major coup for Putin. It is also a testament to the effectiveness of his strategies in areas with major ethnic Russian exclaves. As Russia continues to ponder pockets of pro-Russian sentiment around Eastern Europe, Crimea’s example will no doubt prove enduring.
If Russia’s stranglehold on European energy resources is allowed to continue any longer than it must, Putin’s short term window for intervention in Eastern Europe will evolve into something far more enduring: a permanent Russian threat to any Eastern European state with a restless ethnic Russian population.
For EU and NATO leaders constrained by Russian energy conglomerates and an outdated NATO treaty, Crimea is already a lost cause. But it is a crucial warning as well. Little can be done in the short term to thwart Russian ambitions. Strengthening the NATO treaty, while difficult, would likely help, placing Russia squarely in the bulls-eye for any asymmetrical military actions against NATO member states. But in the long term, the EU, in consultation with NATO, must develop legitimate military and economic policies to end outside dependency on individual nations. Austerity measures will need to be relaxed, reliance on the United States for military support reduced, and reinvestment in military and energy industries. But empowering Russia’s neighbors is only half the battle. Legitimizing ethnic minorities within Russia by calling attention to their narratives is just as important. Putin’s censorship can only block out so much information in the modern era, and highlighting that authoritarianism within Russia would undermine Putin’s political support. It is only with the loss of that support will Putin’s bear truly re-enter hibernation.