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On balance of power strategies for Russia, U.S.

A long-term fundamental problem involving Russia and the United States is establishing and maintaining a stable balance of power, given the fact that Russia seems to be partially returning to the cold war era, evidenced by its continuing incursions into Ukraine and the annexing of Crimea. An issue of significance is the time and results Putin has spent in power rebuilding the authority of the Russian state within Russia and the authority of Russia within the former Soviet Union. The events in Ukraine underline the second strategy and potentially the first. If Putin cannot maintain at least Ukrainian neutrality, then the world’s perception of him as a master strategist is shattered, and the legitimacy and authority he has built for the Russian state is, at best, shaken.

Whatever the origins of the events taking place in the Ukraine, the United States is now engaged in a confrontation with Russia. The United States has the option of declining confrontation, engaging in meaningless sanctions against individuals and allowing events to take their course, or, the United States can choose to engage and confront the Russians, at least indirectly.

A failure to engage at this point would cause countries around Russia’s periphery, from Estonia to Azerbaijan, to conclude that with the United States withdrawn and Europe fragmented, they must reach an accommodation with Russia. This will expand Russian power and open the door to Russian influence spreading on the European Peninsula itself. The United States has fought three wars — World War I, World War II and the Cold War — to prevent hegemonic domination of the region. Failure to engage would be a reversal of a century-old strategy. As an author has recently mentioned in an article, isolationism is not the answer.

Whatever Putin does in Ukraine, he has two choices. One is simply to be pacifistic on all strategic fronts to prevent any further United States and European sanctions that could affect his weak economy. The second is to take action in places where he might achieve rapid diplomatic and political victories against the West, including the Baltic’s, Moldova or the Caucasus, while encouraging Ukraine’s government to collapse into gridlock using its various methods of intimidation. Russia would also explore bilateral relations along the Estonia-Azerbaijan line. This would prevent a U.S. strategy of containment without some significant Alliance adjustments.

Between 1989 and 2008, the implementation of U.S. strategy had involved the use of U.S. troops as the default for dealing with foreign issues. From Panama to Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States followed a policy of direct and early involvement of U.S. military forces. However, this was not the U.S. strategy from 1914 to 1989. Then, the strategy was to provide political support to allies, followed by economic and military aid, followed by advisers and limited forces, and in some cases pre-positioned forces. This was primarily a strategy of maintaining the balance of power. The containment of the Soviet Union involved creating an alliance system comprising countries at risk of Soviet attack. Containment was a balance of power strategy that did not seek the capitulation of the Soviet Union as much as increasing the risks of offensive action using allied countries as the first barrier. The threat of full U.S. intervention, potentially including nuclear weapons, coupled with the alliance structure, constrained Soviet risk-taking. Now the current Russian Federation is much weaker than what the Soviet Union had to offer during its day.

A direct military intervention by the United States in Ukraine is not possible. First, Ukraine is a large country, and the force required to protect it would outstrip U.S. capabilities. Second, supplying such a force would require a logistics system that does not exist and would take a long time to build. Finally, such an intervention would be inconceivable without a strong alliance system extending to the West and around the Black Sea. The United States can supply economic and political support, but Ukraine cannot counterbalance Russia and the United States cannot escalate to the point of using its own forces. Ukraine is a battleground on which Russian forces would have an advantage and a U.S. defeat would be possible.

If the United States chooses to confront Russia with a military component, it must be on a stable perimeter and on as broad a front as possible to extend Russian resources and decrease the probability of Russian attack at any one point out of fear of retaliation elsewhere. The ideal mechanism for such a strategy would be to update and modify NATO.

The countries that were at risk from 1945 to 1989 are not the same as those at risk today. Many of these countries were part of the Soviet Union then, and the rest were Soviet satellites. The old alliance system is not built for the present confrontation. The Estonia-Azerbaijan line has as its primary interest to retain sovereignty in the face of Russian power. The rest of Europe is not in jeopardy, and these countries are not prepared to commit financial and military efforts to a problem they believe can be managed with little risk to them. Perhaps an Alliance with the influence of an updated NATO should be built around such countries as Poland, Romania and Azerbaijan to help minimize Russian influence in the Baltic’s, Moldova and the Caucasus.

Azerbaijan serves a most strategic purpose in the generation and export of fossil fuel energy, given that the Alliance countries are heavy importers of Russian energy. For example, 91 percent of Poland’s energy imports and 86 percent of Hungary’s come from Russia. Developing European shale and importing U.S. energy is a long-term solution to help counter Russia’s oil and gas export efforts. A medium-term solution, depending on pipeline developments that Russia has tended to block in the past, is sending natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe. Until now, this has been a commercial issue, but it has become a strategically critical one. The Caspian region, of which Azerbaijan is the linchpin, is the only major alternative to Russia for generating and exporting fossil fuel energy. Therefore, rapid expansion of pipelines to the heart of Europe is as essential as providing Azerbaijan with the military capability to defend itself. The key to the pipeline will be Turkey’s willingness to permit transit.

The balance of power strategy allows the United States, which represents 25 percent of the world’s economy, to use the natural inclination of allies to bolster its own position and take various steps, of which military intervention is the last alternative. In my view, Russian power, although limited for a major power, has flourished while the United States was distracted by its wars in the Middle East and while Europe struggled with its economic crisis. That does not mean Russia is not dangerous. It has short-term advantages, and its insecurity means that it will take risks. Weak and insecure states with temporary advantages are dangerous. The United States has an interest in acting early in this game of strategic chess.

William Chevalier lives in Peterborough.

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