Russia is Not Walking Away Empty Handed

 By Christopher Ynclán Jr. and Patrick Fox

Original Realist Review Image Composition
Source Credit: Markiv Mykhailo/Wikimedia Commons/TASS News Agency

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced that he will be sending forces into parts of Ukraine for peacekeeping, an action perceived by many as an invasion. 

America must work to negotiate a settlement that protects all stakeholders in this conflict. Politicians in Washington must put aside their stubbornness and pride because the current crisis guarantees that Russia will be walking away with something, given the well-documented impossibility of an American military intervention. 

As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy begins to scavenge for alternatives, and as Russian forces begin to “evacuate” Ukranians from the increasingly bloody Donbas region, innocent lives increasingly depend on wiser voices prevailing.  

Few foreign policy thinkers recognize that Putin is motivated by something deeper than an immediate desire to control Ukrainian resources or even to create some buffer from a European military invasion. 

Americans struggle to sympathize with the national humiliation that Russia suffered in the 1990s. Since the fall of the USSR, Russia has witnessed former satellite states gain NATO membership and an ascendant China outpace its BRIC peers economically. 

Such anxieties drove Russia to form the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to protect its interests in Eurasia. CSTO’s recent intervention in Kazakhstan has been in line with Moscow’s long-running objective to keep a system of sympathetic states around it to act as a buffer from invasion.

The closest that America has come to suffering a similar cultural scarring as Russia did in both the Second World War and the 1990s “shock therapy” was the American Civil War. 

Putin is uniquely able to leverage this sense of humiliation and anger. It has remained his mandate for power since he reaffirmed Russian regional military supremacy with his series of military conflicts in Chechnya, Georgia and now Ukraine. 

The remnants of that post-Cold War reorganization have left Russia in a unique position as an economically weak but militarily and ideologically strong regional power.

The most influential tool in the Russian arsenal today is the military, which has undergone a myriad of modernization efforts and reforms. In contrast, Russian soft power has not offered the same effectiveness. 

The Russian reliance on direct military force has been viewed as aggressive by the West, where the prevailing interpretation of Putin’s foreign policy is unmitigated expansion into neighboring states. This thinking fails to answer why the Russian foreign policy establishment has not used a full range of tools which it could use to conduct statecraft. 

An examination of recent writings by leading Russian figures within their foreign policy sphere, such as Sergei Karaganov of the Russian International Affairs Council and Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center, reveals that Moscow believes that their possession of nuclear weapons can act as an ultimate means to obtain any interests.

That sentiment has even been recently echoed by Putin when warning of the consequences should Ukraine be allowed to join NATO.

Today, Russia’s economy is significantly less developed than the military. Much of this is because of American-run market-oriented reforms in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, with Russia’s economy contracting close to 40% between 1990 and 1998. This decade was characterized by rapid economic decline, the gradual expansion of Russian internal markets and rampant organized crime. 

Yeltsin’s handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin, manipulated the changing Russian economy to secure long-term power through the establishment of oligarchic control over key sectors. Under Putin, there has been a further weakening of Russian competitiveness through a dependence upon their energy sector. 

Compounding this has been a deepening asymmetric economic partnership with China, hindering the will for domestic production of technologies critical to 21st century economic competition. Such conditions contradict Russia’s projection as a great power. In reality, it is a scaled-up and nuclear-capable version of the Eurasian states in the CSTO. 

In the age of globalization, Russia has maintained a foreign policy aimed at evoking nationalism for self-preservation. While the reasons for the current crisis in Ukraine are complex, the event is driven by a perceived disunity in the West and an attempt to reconstruct post-WWII military grand strategy – a strategy that ignores the resentment that it creates among those who live in these buffer states.

This brings us to the modern day. The buildup of Russian troops has created a perceived crisis for the security of our allies as well the sovereign nation of Ukraine. If they fail to understand the impetus of Russian actions in eastern Europe, Western policymakers face the prospect of making decisions that could endanger the many stakeholders in the Ukrainian border crisis, both foreign and domestic. 

An authoritarian Russian president is not in the habit of making empty threats and Putin has little reason to back down and apologize for his aggression, because doing so would erase his past twenty years of geopolitical posturing. 

In the bloody amputation of eastern Ukraine, Russia will walk away from the operating table feeling victorious. While Ukranians themselves certainly have the willpower and pride to oppose Russia for the foreseeable future, the United States does not have the means to humiliate Russia any further. Putin’s legacy is the swell of Russian pride and ambition to make right the perceived wrong of lost Russian regional supremacy.

Realist foreign policy must keep in mind its namesake: reality. America and its allies can not plan around a full-scale war with Russia, so guaranteeing the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine is a fantasy.

Similarly, no matter how much money it costs, Russia will not be intimidated by soft power jabs. American diplomats and military officials must remember that people are already dying, this is a real conflict and lives are already being lost. 

The American strategy for de-escalation in Ukraine must be to ensure that nobody walks away from the table completely satisfied, because if someone does, it will almost certainly be Russia. 

Christopher Ynclán Jr. is a recent graduate from the University of North Texas and a current counterterrorism research fellow at Rise to Peace. He is also a regular contributor to the Realist Review. 

Patrick Fox is a regular writer for the Review. He majors in International Relations at Syracuse University, where he is president of the Syracuse John Quincy Adams Society.

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