Not Quite a New Soviet Union, But Still Concerning
Over the past several months, Vladimir Putin has taken many steps to increase his influence and flex Russia’s muscles in Ukraine, Syria, and the Arctic Circle. At the same time, Russia is facing an economic crisis due to low oil prices and economic sanctions from the European Union and United States. Russia’s actions in these regions appear to be part of a larger plan to improve the Russian economy and increase Russian influence around the world. While Russia is not looking for war, the United States must respond very carefully in order to achieve a positive result.
Since the negotiated chemical weapons agreement between the United States, Syria, and Russia in 2013, Russia has become more active around the world. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, a former region of Ukraine, and has been supporting Russian separatists with military aid in its battle against the Ukrainian government. This has resulted in Donetsk and Luhansk, two states in eastern Ukraine, to be under de facto Russian control. In the Arctic Circle, Russia has been taking advantage of the new waterways that are becoming available due to the melting ice and has moved military assets into the area in an effort to establish control over parts of the Arctic Circle, of which Russia has the longest border. Recently, Russia has also begun airstrikes in Syria. These airstrikes appear to help the Assad government more than anything else. All of these actions threaten U.S. interests, but can create large economic and political benefits for Russia.
The benefits that these actions create are a reasonable motive behind current Russian foreign policy. Eastern Ukraine is the industrial center of the country and the Crimean Peninsula has oil fields that could bolster the oil and gas sector in the Russian economy. Additionally, the Arctic Circle now serves as a shorter route to transport goods and also has a great amount of oil and natural gas. Since the Russian economy is heavily dependent on exporting the above energy resources, seizing them will play a significant role in the Russian economic recovery. Furthermore, aiding the Assad regime in Syria allows Russia to maintain access to the Syrian ports on the Mediterranean Sea and maintain good relations with Iran. Syrian ports are crucial for the transport and selling of Russian goods and Iran is likely to become a large trade partner after the approval of the nuclear agreement. Aiding both of these countries can work to improve the Russian economy because it will lead to increases in trade. Lastly, all of these actions increase Russia’s influence and stature in the international community. Putin has entered three conflicts where Western interests are heavily involved and has a commanding role in each one, placing Russia at the center of global politics around the world.
Putin could be looking for a way to achieve economic gain to alleviate the crisis while also reaching a negotiated result in order to avoid an open conflict. President Putin is fully aware that many of his actions are seen as potentially threatening to U.S. interests. However, he needs to save the Russian economy. In his speech to the UN General Assembly, he argued that the world does not need to center itself on the United States and it is clear that he wants to be the alternative. Therefore, whatever result comes from his actions, it needs to be seen as a Russian victory. With the goal of countering the United States, any appearance of weakness or defeat would jeopardize his efforts as a legitimate alternative to the United States. While Putin cannot continue this dangerous game for a prolonged period of time due to economic struggles, he cannot be seen as surrendering to the will of the United States. Therefore, the response of the United States should be very calculated and precise.
Therefore, the United States should respond with a balance of sanctions and presentations of force, and negotiations and aid. This balanced response can allow for a diplomatic solution that satisfies both Russian and American interests. If the United States confronts Russia too aggressively, Russia may respond with disproportional aggression. However, if the United States allows Russia to accomplish its goals with minimal opposition, U.S. interests could be placed at risk as is currently happening in Syria. Despite this, the recent agreement regarding Syrian airspace shows that both parties are trying to avoid open conflict. Since both parties indicate a will to negotiate and neither party can afford to appear weak, a possible policy option could be to respond in kind to any Russian action. Equitable responses will cause tensions to rise, but will have a greater chance of avoiding a large aggressive surprise as a disproportionate response could cause. The aversion to open conflict displayed by the two powers indicate that negotiations will become more likely as tensions continue to rise. This will also allow both the United States and Russia to appear as two strong powers negotiating with each other instead of one power acquiescing to the other. However, as these conflicts are linked in some ways, the US does not necessarily need to respond in the same region. The US could respond to Russian action in Syria with action in the Arctic. This can allow any future negotiations to include more than one issue and more bargaining options. Either way, responding to Russia must be done very carefully or US interests could be put at larger risks than they are today.