Amidst the end of the democratic revolution in Ukraine and the theft of Crimea by means of an illegal invasion and fraudulent referendum there has been much talk about what Russia will do next. Will Russia invade the rest of Ukraine and seize it? Will they then go on to seek the Moldovan province of Transnistria located to Ukraine’s west? The answer may be all of the above and then some (if Russia’s post-Soviet military can manage). For Vladimir Putin Russian foreign policy isn’t so much about protecting ethnic minorities (a Hilter-esque excuse for Territorial expansion) as it is about establishing control over former Soviet Republics and restoring Russia’s long-lost power and glory. In the words of distinguished Russia scholar Richard Pipes Russia, “can’t reconcile themselves to the loss of the three Baltic Republics [Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania] and Ukraine and Georgia.”
Still despite these facts, much like during the Cold War, there has emerged a roster of gargoyles seeking to offer various apologies for Vladimir Putin’s aggression by shifting the blame to American and European statecraft. This can be seen in the op-ed pages of The New York Times where international relations professor John Mearshimer rationalized Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty as an essentially understandable reaction to American attempts to expand NATO and for its support for the Ukrainian protestors. Elsewhere Stephen Cohen of NYU laments the Western media’s “relentless demonization of Putin”. When Cohen could no longer cast doubt on whether Russia had invaded Crimea he went so far as to label the Russian invasion of Crimea an attempt to protect (just as Mearshimer does) “Russia’s traditional zones of national security.”
The main problems with all of these arguments is that they all assume Putin’s aggression stems from Western provocation and plans for NATO expansion that would “encircle” Russia, and not from a neo-imperial ideology that seeks to bring all of Russia’s former imperial possessions back under its control. This argument implicitly assumes that in the absence of such Western interference we would not see such aggression from Russia’s part. It also implicitly assumes that Russia has some right to maintain at the very least, some sort of sphere of influence over its neighbors even though those countries are opposed to any sort interference from Russia.
In response, I would like to ask by what token Estonia was “encircling” Russia when they suffered Russian cyber attacks upon their infrastructure for merely wanting to move a monument to the Red army to a different location? How is Vladimir Putin’s willingness to use Ukrainian civilians as human shields in an invasion of Ukraine a reasonable response to the ouster of Yanukovich? How are Russian threats to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes on Poland a reasonable response to Polish attempts to acquire infrastructure to support a tiny missile shield aimed at Iran? The fact remains that Ex-Soviet states such as Ukraine are not “asking for it” by seeking greater economic and security ties with the West. Moscow is not in a situation where it “cannot help itself ” to territorial gains, nor does Moscow necessarily have a right to maintain a “sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe.
The fact of the matter remains that it is Russia and not the West that is the offending party in this situation. For Vladimir Putin, the absence of western involvement would not eliminate his attempts at re-establishing his vision of a Eurasian empire. This can seen through an examination of the ideas of Putin’s ideological mentor, Alexander Dugin as well in the testimony of Putin’s former economic advisor Andrei Illiarnov, who has stated that Putin wishes to re-establish control over Ukraine and the Baltic states. The United States and its NATO allies need to stand strong against this resurgent Russian threat.
Although crucial, the United States should move past a sanctions-only approach and offer increased military assistance to Ukraine and the Baltic states beyond what has been sent. This will be especially crucial for Ukraine, which faces the most immediate threat from Russia. As Ian J. Brezezinski pointed out in The Washington Post, this assistance would involve actions such as providing anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, military trainers, and a small rapidly deployable NATO Response force which can act as a tripwire and bolster Ukrainian military readiness through training exercises.
The important thing is that none of these responses would pose a threat to Russia in any way but would deter further Russian aggression by communicating our resolve through the prospect of escalation. The fact of the matter remains that although Russian assistance has been helpful in some respects with Afghanistan and Iran, it remains a significant adversary of the United States and a significant threat to its neighbors.