A New U.S. Strategy Toward Neo-Imperial Russia

21 August 2013, 14:53

After cancelling his planned summit with President Vladimir Putin, scheduled for early September, President Barack Obama accused his Russian counterpart of displaying a “Cold War mentality.” The same charge has been levelled by the Kremlin at members of the U.S. Congress and at several White House advisers. In reality, the West is no longer waging a global Cold War to contain or roll back the Soviet bloc. Instead, it confronts a regionally assertive Russia seeking to expand its “pole of power,” remove American influence from Eastern Europe, and bully its neighbours into strategic submission within a new Russian imperium.

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After four years of toiling to “reset” relations with Moscow, on the assumption that Russia can mature into a strategic partner, Washington needs to fundamentally reassess its approach. In particular, it must deal more intensively with all of Russia's neighbours who fear Kremlin designs on their independence. To prevent a new Cold War with Russia, Washington must work to strengthen the sovereignty and security of all nearby states and consolidate Europe’s democratic development.


Throughout the Obama presidency relations with former Soviet satellites and new NATO members have been neglected in the erroneous hope that a cooperative U.S.-Russia relationship would preclude any conflicts over the eastern part of Europe. Hence, Washington did not expend political capital on further NATO enlargement or the active defence of new allies.

The mistaken assumption by Obama officials was that the previous George W. Bush presidency was primarily responsible for the deterioration of bilateral relations with Moscow because of its support for Ukrainian and Georgian entry into the North Atlantic Alliance. Hence, by pushing aside the Wider Europeans and pursuing collaborative links with Moscow in areas of common interest the Russian government would supposedly act as a responsible international player.

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Putin perceived Obama’s soft approach toward Moscow as proof of American weakness in the wake of the financial crisis and the exhausting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also saw White House appeasement as an opportunity to pursue the creation of a Eurasia Union that would combine political, economic, and security levers in a new Russian-centred anti-democratic condominium to counter the influences of the EU, NATO, and the U.S.

The new chill in U.S.-Russia relations was provoked by a range of disputes, including the granting of political asylum to an American intelligence defector, Putin’s support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and escalating violations of human rights inside Russia. Moreover, despite Obama’s fixation on nuclear disarmament, the Kremlin has rejected any further cuts to its nuclear arsenal as its military strategy is constructed around the use of nuclear weapons. These bilateral rifts have exposed White House naivety about Russia’s neo-imperial regional ambitions, its authoritarian political system, and its officially sponsored anti-Americanism.

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The strategic consequences of the frostier relationship between Moscow and Washington will directly affect Russia’s neighbours. Until now, they have either complained about U.S. neglect in ensuring security in the Wider Europe or gravitated toward Russia because of America’s evident disinterest and Moscow’s pressures and enticements. If the Obama administration wants to become relevant again in strengthening Europe’s self-determination and democratic development it will need to adopt a three-pronged strategy: buttress the security of the newest NATO members; re-energize the process of Alliance enlargement for those countries that desire to enter; and reengage more energetically with states that feel most vulnerable to Russia’s pressure and seek an outlet westward, particularly an increasingly exposed Ukraine.


Immediately after announcing that he was cancelling the planned summit with Putin, Obama invited the three Baltic Presidents for talks at the White House on August 30, ahead of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. The meeting will cover a broad range of mutual interests, including regional cooperation, defence programs, energy security, cyber cooperation, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Obama will also underscore joint efforts to advance human rights and democratic values in the region, with a clear reference to Russia. The meeting will be a good opportunity to raise other pressing regional questions, including the future of Ukraine and its relations with the EU.

The three Baltic States, which joined the EU and NATO almost a decade ago, have had conflictive relations with Moscow and continue to express concern over Obama’s push for nuclear disarmament. Russia persistently applies pressure on Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania regardless of their NATO membership, whether by depriving them of energy resources, manipulating the position of ethnic Russian minorities, or engaging in provocative military exercises. At the beginning of August, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev complained about their NATO accession and claimed that these three small countries actually threatened Russian security. If one were to replace the word “security” with “expansion” in such statements, we would be closer to understanding Russia’s real ambitions.

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Moscow is growing increasingly aggressive in its neighbourhood and challenging the security of NATO members. Russia’s Zapad 2013 exercises in September will resemble Zapad 2009, which simulated a conventional war between Russia and NATO over Poland, culminating in the nuclear annihilation of Warsaw. Russia is also building a military air base in Belarus that will figure prominently in future exercises and possible combat operations. Such steps necessitate a more concrete American commitment to the defence of Central-East European through more regular NATO exercises and the construction of national anti-missile systems that would act as a credible deterrent to Russia’s aggressive posture.

Obama has also announced that he will visit Sweden on his way to the G20 summit. This sends a strong message to a country that is considering joining NATO and which has experienced increasing pressure from Moscow to remain neutral. In April, Russian planes provocatively overflew Swedish air space without being tracked by the Swedish military, causing a major uproar in Stockholm about the effectiveness of national defence.

In June 2012, Russian General Nikolai Makarov, chief of the General Staff of Russia’s armed forces, warned Sweden and Finland that any moves to join or develop closer ties with NATO would be construed as hostile actions toward Moscow. Makarov also described the ongoing Nordic-Baltic defence cooperation projects as a potential military threat to Russia. Instead, he claimed that both Nordic countries should develop closer military cooperation with Russia. Such proposals are strenuously rejected by both Helsinki and Stockholm; in fact, sentiments toward NATO entry may grow in the wake of Moscow’s menacing stance.

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Makarov also threatened pre-emptive attacks on any planned Missile Defence (MD) sites in Poland and elsewhere in CEE in the event of an international crisis. Polish Defence Minister Tomasz Simoniak subsequently stated that Warsaw would prefer a return to “good old NATO” and that the U.S. decision to cancel the fourth phase of the European missile defence shield reflected Washington’s unfortunate “hesitation” toward Europe.

Instead of bending over backwards to accommodate Moscow’s staunch opposition to any MD system in the region that Russia’s military cannot control, Obama must confirm that components of America’s Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence System will be placed in Poland, Romania, and other states by a date certain regardless of irritating Kremlin warnings. If Warsaw and Bucharest are not cowered by persistent Russian bullying, why should Washington be concerned?


Washington must develop a sustained strategy with achievable targets toward the Wider Europe, particularly with former Soviet republics that seek constructive ties with the U.S. Ukraine’s independent stance from Russia needs to be reinforced, Georgia’s path toward NATO bolstered, Belarus’s Western orientation revived, Moldovan territorial integrity ensured, Azerbaijan’s pro-Western position supported, and Central Asia’s ties with the U.S. developed.

Such a comprehensive strategy must be mutually driven and incumbent governments have to be closely engaged in designing its content. The Ukrainian administration needs to perceive the expiration of the U.S.-Russia “reset” as an opportunity to reengage with Washington. A formula will need to be found to remove the most neuralgic disputes with regard to political prisoners and other anti-democratic policies. Despite Ukraine’s stalled political, economic, and security progress, unlike Russia it still qualifies as an emerging democracy and its people desire to be part of a unified Europe.

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For his part, President Viktor Yanukovych must put forward credible initiatives to defend his country from Russia’s economic penetration and its political ambitions designed to ensnare Kyiv in the Customs Union and subsequently rope it into the Eurasia Union. Washington must encourage the granting to Ukraine of an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement at the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius at the end of November. Economic development through a Western orientation will provide more effective protection against Russia’s recolonization.

Georgia after its presidential elections in October will need to confirm its commitment to NATO membership through a Membership Action Plan (MAP). The MAP process must then be launched with Tbilisi at the next Alliance Summit scheduled for 2014. Belarus can reduce Moscow’s pressures to sell its national assets to Russia’s state oligarchs by releasing the remaining political prisoners and engaging with the EU to devise association and trade agreements similar to the Ukrainian model.

In Moldova, Washington needs to move beyond the stalemated format of current negotiations and assist Chisinau in forging a joint state. This will require not only coordination with Brussels but also working with nearby countries such as Ukraine to exert pressure on the pro-Muscovite regime in Tiraspol and establish a single Moldovan federation. However, in such a political arrangement central government decisions on national security and foreign policy cannot be blocked by Transnistria.

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U.S. relations with Azerbaijan must become more active, as the country remains key for developing security in the Caspian Basin region, whether by supplying alternative sources of energy to Europe, combating international terrorism, or standing up to a belligerent Iran and a threatening Russia. Azerbaijan is also the gateway for more constructive relations with the Central Asian states who remain fearful of Moscow’s pressures to join the planned Eurasia Union.

It may also be time to convene a U.S.-initiated summit with the newest European democracies and with NATO and EU aspirants. This could be hosted in a constructive trans-Atlantic tandem with a reinvigorated Germany following the September elections. The likely victory of Chancellor Angela Merkel will further boost Germany’s voice in EU affairs. Berlin could become a more assertive partner for the U.S. in pursuing the agenda of democratic security for the Wider Europe. Indeed, in recent years Berlin has been more outspoken on Russia’s democratic regression and its regional ambitions than the Obama administration. A high-level gathering will be a valuable opportunity to synchronize policy and gain the inputs of key countries such as Poland and Ukraine in a coordinated approach to consolidate the national security of each European state.

If Obama is serious about restoring America’s pivotal role as the promoter of democratic security then competition, confrontation, and even occasional conflict with Moscow are inevitable. However, Putin’s Kremlin must not be allowed to dictate the foreign and security policies of any European state, whether they are new NATO members, aspiring candidates, or neutrals. The U.S. must encourage their sovereign decisions to partner with and join whatever multi-national organizations bolster their security. Such a sustained strategy will also help prepare the continent for the impending fracture of the Russian Federation, a coming conflagration that is unlikely to be as peaceful as the unravelling of the Soviet Union.

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