Our Broken Russian Policy

 /  April 4, 2016, 1:50 p.m.


America’s decision to respond to Russia’s invasion of Crimea with economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation has greatly harmed America’s strategic interests in Europe and Asia. Unfortunately, however, all current US rhetoric concerns doubling down on these failed strategies or simply lamenting Moscow’s aggressive violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and repudiation of international norms. American opinion of Russia has sunk in the last two years to levels below the corresponding numbers for the USSR in the 1960s and 70s. The inability of the current American strategy to induce Putin to cooperate with the West or withdraw from annexed Ukrainian territory has forced Washington to call for a doubling down on the current strategy. Candidates from across the political spectrum have seconded this idea. Moderate Republicans have referred to Putin as a “gangster” and a “thug” and advocated for “punch[ing] the Russians in the nose,” and even the dovish Bernie Sanders promotes a tough stance on Russia. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, labelled Russia as the top threat to American security and requested a quadrupling of American military spending in Europe.

Amidst this chorus, few have stopped to analyze the utter failure of the current American strategy. Fewer still have come to terms with the fact that there are no good solutions. Because of Washington’s failure to reconcile itself to the intractability of its current diplomatic morass, policymakers have given little thought to the most crucial task facing the United States—preventing a similar diplomatic failure in the future. Washington’s current strategy and its alternative—to compromise with Moscow—are both disastrous. Washington should learn from its mistakes to ensure it never faces a similar situation again, and should approach any foreign policy initiative cautiously, always ensuring that it does not interfere in other countries’ spheres of influence unless absolutely necessary.

The Failure of Sanctions

The West’s current strategy of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation has failed, as Russia’s continued occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, its troubling stance towards Europe, and its intervention in Syria demonstrate. Moreover, the West’s current strategy has weakened American and European economies, failed to substantially affect Russia’s economy, caused Russia to rally around the flag, and driven it into China’s arms.

In reaction to Russian aggression in Ukraine, American and European countries implemented sanctions freezing assets and issuing travel bans for many high-level Russian officials, and targeting Russian arms manufacturers, state firms and banks. Russia responded with counter-sanctions targeting Western agriculture and raw materials. Both sets of sanctions damaged trade, significantly harming Western and especially European economies. The United States suffered, losing an estimated $13 billion (almost 0.1 percent of total GDP) in exports to Russia, while American energy companies suffered further from lost joint US-Russian development projects. But the EU has been damaged most due to its greater dependence on trade with Russia, which is the union’s third largest trading partner, accounting for 8.4 percent of EU trade. While economic analysis is not definitive, estimates for EU losses have ranged from 0.5 percent, to as much as 1 percent of total GDP. The EU is set to lose 900,000 jobs in the short-run and perhaps as many as 2.2 million jobs (1% of total employment) in the long-run. For Western countries facing slow growth, high unemployment, and the concomitant rise in political extremism, these economic losses are significant. Great power politics is not a zero-sum game; what harms Russia does not necessarily benefit the West, absolutely or even relatively. Presumably, having Russia as a partner, both economically and strategically, would be preferable to the status quo. By drawing both countries into a lose-lose relationship, the diplomatic rupture over Crimea and Ukraine has damaged American interests. However, even if harm to Russia did benefit the West, it is not clear that the sanctions are harming Russia.

All estimates of sanctions’ effects on Russia are uncertain because the collapse of oil and gas prices is at the root of much of Russia’s recent economic pain. In 2013, oil and gas accounted for 16 percent of Russian GDP and in 2012 accounted for 52 percent of Russia’s federal budget revenues and 70 percent of exports. Thus, while proponents of sanctions can point to Russia’s 3.7 percent decline in GDP in 2015 with further declines predicted, a ballooning deficit that could reach up to 6 percent this year, and the devaluation of the ruble, much of this economic downturn is attributable to oil prices, rather than sanctions. Furthermore, European dependence prevented sanctions against the hydrocarbon industry. Consequently, even when coupled with low oil prices, sanctions have not substantially affected Russian oil production, which actually hit a post-Soviet peak in January. Although sanctions were originally intended to hurt the Russian oligarchs in bed with Putin’s government, persuading them to redirect Russian policy, there is reason to believe that Russian oligarchs are not the primary losers from sanctions. Billionaires with stakes in sanctioned companies have suffered far less than billionaires not involved in sanctioned companies, indicating that Moscow has shielded who it needs to. Sanctions have not forced Moscow to drastically reduce military spending, and salaries for soldiers actually increased. Furthermore, as time progresses, Russia can adapt to sanctions by finding new trading partners and new sources of financing. Once oil prices begin to rise again, and the Russian economy grows, sanctions will be even less effective. Sanctions will not cripple Moscow badly enough to force it to change course.

Instead of motivating Russia to reappraise its actions, sanctions have united Russians behind their government. While sanctions can sometimes be effective in altering countries’ policies (see Iran), they can also backfire. To understand why sanctions often backfire, and merely reinforce existing policy, rather than change it, imagine a reversal of roles. If Washington backed Syrian rebels that Moscow did not like, and in response Moscow issued sanctions against the United States, would Washington bow to Russian pressure? Of course not. No country wants to feel at the mercy of another. Indeed, most Russians blame the West for their economic ills. According to a recent poll, 71 percent of Russians think sanctions are meant to “weaken and humiliate” Russia, while only 4 percent think their purpose is to stop the fighting in Ukraine. According to another poll, 86 percent of Russians agree that "The US [is using] Russian...difficulties, to turn it into a secondary power, [a] raw material appendage of the West.” Perhaps this is why only 20 percent of Russians believe that Russia should make concessions and why Putin’s approval rating, hovering in the 60s from 2011-2014, has remained well above 80 percent since the Ukrainian crisis. Perhaps, had the West not sanctioned Russia, more Russians would feel guilty or angry about their country’s aggression, rather than angry and resentful about perceived Western injury.

Finally, sanctions have driven Russia and China together, a dangerous combination for the US and its allies. Even with the recent Chinese growth deceleration, China’s economy is rapidly growing and is projected to overtake America’s within a generation. Because of its economic power coupled with its even more rapidly expanding military and recent aggression in East Asia, perhaps the most important geostrategic area of the world in the 21st century, the United States has every reason to build a coalition of Asian countries to balance China’s rise. Alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and India are all crucial in this effort, but one gaping hole in Washington’s ring of containment to deter China is Russia.

The Chinese Factor

Were it not for the West’s antagonism, Moscow would have every reason to become Beijing’s strategic rival, and thus Washington’s partner in countering China’s rise. Fierce competition in the Far East between Communist China and the USSR (that almost led to war) during the Cold War offered the United States an opportunity to dramatically alter the balance of power. By allying with Beijing to counter Moscow, Washington used this rivalry to its advantage. Had relations with Moscow not deteriorated during the last few years, Washington could have once again used triangular diplomacy—this time to counter China.

In addition to the natural jealousies that emerge whenever a senior, declining power coexists with a junior, rising power, Russia and China have many reasons for rivalry. Beijing and Moscow have been involved in a decades-long dispute along the 6th-longest shared border in the world, which almost brought the two states to war in 1969. Furthermore, the almost completely depopulated Russian Far East (seven million people and falling) has grown increasingly reliant on Chinese investment. The fact that, in the words of one geopolitical analyst, “Siberia has a population vacuum sitting on a vast and barely exploited field of natural resources: coal, metals, diamonds, oil and gas, and the world’s largest forests—all of which the Chinese manufacturing behemoth requires and desires” led 60 percent of the Russian public to be worried about Chinese migration in the Far East and 41 percent to believe that China’s rise is bad for Russia in 2008.

Recent poll numbers indicate that public opinion has shifted dramatically recently, turning these natural rivals into partners. As Russian favorability rating of the United States has fallen from 51 percent to 15 percent since 2013, Russians’ opinion of China has risen from 2013 to 2015, fueled by the overwhelming 89 percent of Russians who believe Russia should seek other partners to counter American influence. Almost as worrisome is that Chinese public opinion has not followed the global trend of increasing antipathy toward Russia, but instead gives Russia its third highest favorability rating, behind Ghana and Vietnam. Additionally, American hostility after Ukraine compelled Russia to finally come to terms with China in November last year, settling the border dispute and diffusing one source of conflict. In the words of Fu Ying, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, “The Chinese-Russian relationship is a stable strategic partnership and by no means a marriage of convenience.” This is far from the climate of apprehension that characterized Chinese-Russian relations prior to the conflict over Ukraine.

In addition to the Far East, Russia and China are natural competitors in Central Asia. Over the last few years, China has developed its Silk Road project in an attempt to assert economic and strategic influence over the region, and there is reason to suspect that it will assert its Central Asian dominance with increasing forcefulness, if for no other reason than to pacify citizens frustrated by slowing economic growth. In 2014, China overtook Russia to become Central Asia’s largest trading partner and is beginning to economically dominate the traditional Russian stronghold. Despite Russian concern about Chinese behavior in Central Asia, Moscow’s conflict with the West has compelled it to essentially cede Central Asia to the Chinese, at least economically, if not militarily and culturally. Even though Russia did establish the Eurasian Economic Union in 2014 for free trade, a general lack of enthusiasm among the economic block’s members forced Russia to offer major economic concessions, such as inexpensive gas to Armenia and $1 billion in aid to Kyrgyzstan. Compared with the growing Chinese behemoth, the EEU is rather insignificant. Furthermore, in an effort to pressure these countries into joining the EEU, Russia even took the radical step of closing its borders to Central Asian migrants, who send remittances back to their native countries. This is a devastating blow to Central Asian countries that are among the most reliant on remittances in the world, and will further reduce Russian economic influence in the region.

But Western sanctions have driven Russia to cooperate economically with China. It is not a coincidence that in 2014 Chinese investment in Russia grew by 80 percent and the two nations signed a $400 billion agreement in which Russia supplies China with gas, drawing the two economies closer together. In 2015, Russia and China even signed a major free trade deal between the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and the Chinese Silk Road belt. The agreement effectively conceded Chinese dominance in a region where Russia and China should be competing.

In short, sanctions have harmed Western economies, failed to do significant damage to Russia’s economy, caused Russians to unite behind Putin’s policies rather than reject expansionism, and driven Russia into China’s arms. Had Washington and Moscow remained at least amicable, Western economies would be growing faster, there would be less danger to European unity, and, perhaps most importantly, Russia would be a counterweight to Chinese expansion in Central Asia. With a much larger economy, military, and population, China poses a far greater future threat to American security than Russia. Having Russia as a partner in balancing against China’s rise would have been useful; instead Russia has become an obstacle to Washington’s maneuvers against of Beijing.

A Strategy for the Future

The United States is currently in a lose-lose situation. The current strategy of sanctioning Russia has been a failure, and a strategy of concession in which the United States would give in to Russian demands in Ukraine would only encourage future aggression from Russia and other countries. Although there may be no easy solution to the Ukrainian crisis, Washington should learn the lessons of Ukraine and take all necessary precautions to ensure such a situation never arises again.

To determine what Washington should have done differently and how it should change its global strategy, we must understand what motivated Russia to invade Ukraine and Crimea in the first place. The invasion was a strategic decision reacting to a perceived threat from NATO and EU expansion toward Russian borders. With the Ukrainian coup in 2014, Russian leaders feared that a Western-friendly government would pursue NATO membership. Russian concerns were not utterly baseless, given that NATO was founded as a group designed to counter Moscow’s ambitions, that Ukraine and NATO had an ongoing military relationship, and that NATO leadership had expressed openness to the possibility of Ukrainian membership in the face of Russian opposition. As Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky recently wrote, Russia could have easily conquered all of Ukraine in 2014 had it wanted to. However, it held back because its goals were only to ensure that Russia, and not a NATO-allied Ukraine, had access to the important naval base of Sevastopol, to demonstrate Russian power, to harm Ukraine enough to dissuade any other Eastern European country from aligning with the West, and to convince the West not to antagonize Russia. Immoral though Russian aggression in Ukraine may be, it’s unlikely that Russia would have felt the need to invade if the US had refused to consider closer relations with Ukraine.

Given that current policy has been disastrous for all parties, is there an alternative strategy for Washington that would be more successful? The alternative to current American policy is likely a deal whereby the West promises not to accept Ukraine, or other countries on Russia’s border, such as Belarus or Georgia, into the EU or NATO, and Russia agrees to withdraw from eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Although this would remove Moscow’s reason for aggression, it would take a great deal of additional work to repair the wounds of the Ukrainian dispute. It is not at all clear that such a deal would increase cooperation between Moscow and Washington. Furthermore, such a deal would send a signal to the world, especially those countries hoping to alter regional balances of power in their favor, that the United States is not only willing to permit aggression, but also reward it by refusing to ally with Ukraine. After all, should such a deal be implemented Moscow would have successfully fulfilled its main objectives in Ukraine through aggression.

Western passivity in the face of aggression could lead to anarchy and disorder throughout the world. It would be the latest in a series of deals that have allowed Russia to benefit from illegal military action. Also, Iran, China, and other countries looking to expand their power could use past Russian success in Ukraine to justify aggression. Thus a deal with Moscow, far from being a palatable alternative to a failed sanctions program, could exacerbate future threats to world order.

Because both staying the current course and changing strategies are detrimental to the security of the world, the most important lesson to be learned from the Ukrainian debacle is that such a situation has no easy solutions, and Washington should do everything it possibly can to avoid a future situation. Any country that commits an act of aggression in the face of Western opposition places the United States in a harmful strategic scenario: it can either acquiesce, which would display weakness and encourage future aggression, or it can strategically and economically isolate, which will likely result in a scenario far worse than that which existed before the incident, as has clearly happened with Russia. Therefore, in the future, American strategy should focus on avoiding such scenarios.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has faced a choice: to engage with Ukraine or not. The United States should have opted for the latter and avoided the current scenario. This would not have demonstrated weakness. In fact, it would have demonstrated far less weakness than Washington’s current inability to change Moscow’s policy. Admittedly, however, Washington had two compelling reasons to engage: strategic and moral.

A strategic analysis demonstrates quite plainly that such a policy, if based on strategic motives, was misguided. The West had little to gain by incorporating Ukraine into NATO, even if Russia ultimately acquiesced. NATO already had members on Russia’s borders in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and on the Black Sea, in Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria. In the event, Russia did not acquiesce, leaving the United States faced with the current strategic catastrophe.

Many policymakers and pundits have argued that the United States has a moral obligation to protect Ukraine and uphold its right to self-determination. This is wrong on a number of levels.

First, considering the situation from Moscow’s perspective reveals that American moral superiority on respecting self-determination is hollow. In 1961, the United States was not willing to let Cuba, a country as sovereign as Ukraine, enter into a military alliance with its enemy and station missiles close to its shore. The United States tried to topple the Cuban regime and still uses its economic clout to punish Cuba for its choice of allies. Just as Russia fears a NATO military base on its border, the Kennedy administration insisted to the Soviet Union, in no uncertain terms, that it would not tolerate missiles so near its territory. Why should Russia not be permitted to exercise the same rights as the United States? If the Soviet Union was wrong to play in Washington’s backyard, why is the West right to play in Russia’s today?

Second, sometimes realism is better than idealism. The United States should recognize that countries are often immoral. While it should never stop trying to persuade other countries to act morally and eschew aggression in the long-term, it must also recognize that in the near-term it must proceed with caution. If you knew that a neighborhood near your house was particularly dangerous, you would stay away from that neighborhood. This would perhaps not stop you from working with the city government to improve the neighborhood, but before it was improved, you would keep your distance. Eastern Europe is a bad neighborhood, and Washington should proceed accordingly. While maintaining high morals is noble, it often produces disastrous results.

Third, those who argue that Washington has a moral responsibility to Ukraine to help it join with the West would do well to remember the toll this crisis has taken on Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Ukraine has lost a major chunk of territory in Crimea and its eastern provinces, continues to fight a civil war in the east, and has an economy that shrank by 12 percent last year. Had Moscow never felt the need to invade Crimea or fund and arm fighters in Eastern Ukraine, Ukraine and the Ukrainian people would have been much better off, not to mention the economic hit that is causing increased suffering in the United States and Europe.

Therefore, Washington should avoid pursuing any policy that is not strategically vital and that may induce another country to an act of aggression. Just as Washington should have recognized that Moscow would see any expansion of NATO as a threat to its vital interests, so it should analyze the effects of its behavior on all countries. Washington should not conduct policy that violates other countries’ vital interests when it does not have to. To do so risks compelling other countries to act aggressively, potentially causing precisely the kinds of events that have had such devastating consequences in Ukraine.

In scenarios that involve vital American interests, such as protecting existing NATO allies or keeping the Strait of Hormuz open, the United States should be firm and unyielding in its refusal to tolerate aggression and bold in its willingness to implement strategy irrespective of other countries’ concerns. It should use military force to demonstrate that it will resist aggression. Potential aggressors will recognize that the dangers of aggression far outweigh any potential benefits. For instance, the United States should tell Moscow explicitly, with words and army divisions, that it will not tolerate Russian aggression against the Baltic states or Poland, all NATO allies. Because attacking these countries is not in Russia’s vital interests, it will most likely refrain from risking confrontation with the West by attacking them. However, the United States should not issue such a declaration about Ukraine; Russia has deep historical ties to Ukraine would be willing to antagonize the West over its future.

Because Moscow cares deeply about keeping Ukraine out of NATO and that whether or not Ukraine joins NATO is not in America’s vital interest, such a realist analysis would have caused American policymakers to recognize that (3) Moscow would be willing and able to use aggression to prevent such an eventuality if Washington were to pursue it, and (4) the scenario that would develop would force the United States into a lose-lose situation. To avoid disasters like Ukraine in the future, Washington should examine every foreign policy decision through this lens.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Adam Chan

Adam Chan is a fourth-year Fundamentals major. This summer he interned at Hamilton Place Strategy, a policy consulting firm. Previously, he interned at CNN, focusing on the Russia investigation, at the R Street Institute, a think-tank in DC and an extern at the Department of the Interior. At the Gate, Adam has been a Senior Writer, Opinion Editor, and Editor-in-Chief, and now just writes for The Gate. On campus, Adam has also been President of the UChicago Political Union and has been a Team Leader at the institute of Politics, as well as an active member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. He loves studying political philosophy and history, enjoys playing card and board games with friends, traveling, and eating exotic food.


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