Tuesday, February 11, 2014

New Dimensions of U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Russia | Stratfor

By George Friedman

The struggle for some of the most strategic territory in the
world took an interesting twist this week. Last week we discussed what
appeared to be a significant shift in German national strategy in which
Berlin seemed to declare a new doctrine of increased assertiveness in
the world -- a shift that followed intense German interest in Ukraine.
This week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, in a
now-famous cell phone conversation, declared her strong contempt for the
European Union and its weakness and counseled the U.S. ambassador to
Ukraine to proceed quickly and without the Europeans to piece together a
specific opposition coalition before the Russians saw what was
happening and took action.

This is a new twist not because it makes clear that the United States is not the only country intercepting phone calls, but because it puts U.S. policy in Ukraine in a new light and forces us to reconsider U.S. strategy toward Russia and Germany. Nuland's cell phone conversation is hardly definitive, but it is an additional indicator of American strategic thinking.

Recent U.S. Foreign Policy Shifts

U.S. foreign policy has evolved during the past few years.
Previously, the United States was focused heavily on the Islamic world
and, more important, tended to regard the use of force as an early
option in the execution of U.S. policy rather than as a last resort.
This was true not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Africa and
elsewhere. The strategy was successful when its goal was to destroy an
enemy military force. It proved far more difficult to use in occupying
countries and shaping their internal and foreign policies. Military
force has intrinsic limits.

The alternative has been a shift to a balance-of-power strategy in which the United States
relies on the natural schisms that exist in every region to block the
emergence of regional hegemons and contain unrest and groups that could
threaten U.S. interests. The best example of the old policy is Libya,
where the United States directly intervened with air power and special
operations forces on the ground to unseat Moammar Gadhafi. Western
efforts to replace him with a regime favorable to the United States and
its allies have not succeeded. The new strategy can be seen in Syria,
where rather than directly intervening the United States has stood back
and allowed the warring factions to expend their energy on each other,
preventing either side from diverting resources to activities that might
challenge U.S. interests.

Behind this is a schism in U.S. foreign policy that has more to do
with motivation than actual action. On one side, there are those who
consciously support the Syria model for the United States as not
necessarily the best moral option but the only practical option there
is. On the other, there are those who argue on behalf of moral
interventions, as we saw in Libya, and removing tyrants as an end in
itself. Given the outcome in Libya, this faction is on the defensive,
as it must explain how an intervention will actually improve the moral
situation. Given that this faction also tended to oppose Iraq, it must
show how an intervention will not degenerate into Iraqi-type warfare.
That is hard to do, so for all the rhetoric, the United States is by
default falling into a balance-of-power model.

The Geopolitical Battle in Ukraine

emerged as a problem for the United States after the Orange Revolution
in 2004, when the United States, supporting anti-Russian factions in Ukraine,
succeeded in crafting a relatively pro-Western, anti-Russian
government. The Russians read this as U.S. intelligence operations
designed to create an anti-Russian Ukraine that, as we have
written, would directly challenge Russian strategic and economic
interests. Moreover, Moscow saw the Orange Revolution (along with the
Rose Revolution) as a dress rehearsal for something that could occur in
Russia next. The Russian response
was to use its own covert capabilities, in conjunction with economic
pressure from natural gas cutoffs, to undermine Ukraine's government and
to use its war with Georgia as a striking reminder of the resurrection
of Russian military capabilities. These moves, plus disappointment with
Western aid, allowed a more pro-Russian government to emerge in Kiev,
reducing the Russians' fears and increasing their confidence. In time,
Moscow became more effective and assertive in playing its cards right in
the Middle East -- giving rise to the current situations in Syria and
Iran and elsewhere.

Washington had two options. One was to allow the balance of power to
assert itself, in this case relying on the Europeans to contain the
Russians. The other was to continue to follow the balance of power
model but at a notch higher than pure passivity. As Nuland's call shows,
U.S. confidence in Europe's will for and interest in blocking the
Russians was low; hence a purely passive model would not work. The next
step was the lowest possible level of involvement to contain the
Russians and counter their moves in the Middle East. This meant a very
limited and not too covert support for anti-Russian, pro-European
demonstrators -- the re-creation of a pro-Western, anti-Russian
government in Ukraine. To a considerable degree, the U.S. talks with
Iran also allow Washington to deny the Russians an Iranian
card, although the Syrian theater still allows the Kremlin some room to

The United States is not prepared to intervene in the former Soviet
Union. Russia is not a global power, and its military has many
weaknesses, but it is by far the strongest in the region and is able to
project power in the former Soviet periphery, as the war with Georgia
showed. At the moment, the U.S. military also has many weaknesses.
Having fought for more than a decade in the core of the Islamic world,
the U.S. military is highly focused on a way of war not relevant to the
former Soviet Union, its alliance structure around the former Soviet
Union is frayed and not supportive of war, and the inevitable post-war
cutbacks that traditionally follow any war the United States fights are
cutting into capabilities. A direct intervention, even were it
contemplated (which it is not), is not an option. The only correlation
of forces that matters is what exists at a given point in time in a
given place. In that sense, the closer U.S. forces get to the Russian
homeland, the greater the advantage the Russians have.

Instead, the United States did the same thing that it did prior to
the Orange Revolution: back the type of intervention that both the human
rights advocates and the balance-of-power advocates could
support. Giving financial and psychological support to the demonstrators
protesting Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's decision to reject a
closer relationship with Europe, and later protesting the government's
attempt to suppress the demonstrations, preserved the possibility of
regime change in Ukraine, with minimal exposure and risk to the United

Dissatisfaction with the German Approach

As we said last week, it appeared that it was the Germans
who were particularly pressing the issue, and that they were the ones
virtually controlling one of the leaders of the protests, Vitali
Klitschko. The United States appeared to be taking a back seat to
Germany. Indeed, Berlin's statements indicating that it is prepared to
take a more assertive role in the world appeared to be a historic shift
in German foreign policy.

The statements were even more notable since, over the years, Germany
appeared to have been moving closer to Russia on economic and strategic
issues. Neither country was comfortable with U.S. aggressiveness in the
Middle East and Southwest Asia. Both countries shared the need to create
new economic relationships in the face of the European economic
crisis and the need to contain the United States. Hence, the apparent
German shift was startling.

Although Germany's move should not be dismissed, its meaning was not
as clear as it seemed. In her cell phone call, Nuland is clearly
dismissing the Germans, Klitschko and all their efforts in Ukraine. This
could mean that the strategy was too feeble for American tastes (Berlin
cannot, after all, risk too big a confrontation with Moscow). Or it
could mean that when the Germans said they were planning to be more
assertive, their new boldness was meant to head off U.S.
efforts. Looking at this week's events, it is not clear what the Germans

What is clear is that the United States was not satisfied with
Germany and the European Union. Logically, this meant that the United
States intended to be more aggressive than the Germans in supporting
opponents of the regime. This is a touchy issue for human rights
advocates, or should be. Yanukovich is the elected president of
Ukraine, winner of an election that is generally agreed to have been
honest (even though his constitutional amendments and subsequent
parliamentary elections may not have been). He was acting within his
authority in rejecting the deal with the European Union. If
demonstrators can unseat an elected president because they disagree with
his actions, they have set a precedent that undermines
constitutionalism. Even if he was rough in suppressing the
demonstrators, it does not nullify his election.

From a balance of power strategy, however, it makes great sense. A
pro-Western, even ambiguous, Ukraine poses a profound strategic problem
for Russia. It would be as if Texas became pro-Russian, and the
Mississippi River system, oil production, the Midwest and the
Southwest became vulnerable. The Russian ability to engage in Iran or
Syria suddenly contracts. Moscow's focus must be on Ukraine.

Using the demonstrations to create a massive problem for Russia does
two things. It creates a real strategic challenge for the Russians and
forces them on the defensive. Second, it reminds Russia that Washington
has capabilities and options that make challenging the United States
difficult. And it can be framed in a way that human rights advocates
will applaud in spite of the constitutional issues, enemies of the
Iranian talks will appreciate and Central Europeans from Poland to
Romania will see as a sign of U.S. commitment to the region. The United
States will re-emerge as an alternative to Germany and Russia. It is a
brilliant stroke.

Its one weakness, if we can call it that, is that it is hard to see
how it can work. Russia has significant economic leverage in Ukraine, it
is not clear that pro-Western demonstrators are in the majority, and
Russian covert capabilities in Ukraine outstrip American capabilities.
The Federal Security Service and Foreign Intelligence Service have been
collecting files on Ukrainians for a long time. We would expect
that after the Olympics in Sochi, the Russians could play their trump

On the other hand, even if the play fails, the United States will
have demonstrated that it is back in the game and that the Russians
should look around their periphery and wonder where the United States
will act next. Putting someone in a defensive crouch does not require
that the first punch work. It is enough for the opponent to
understand that the next punch will come when he is least expecting it.
The mere willingness of the United States to engage will change the
expectations of Central Europe, cause tensions between the Central
Europeans and the Germans and create an opening for the United States.

The Pressure on Russia

Of course, the question is whether and where the Russians will answer
the Americans, or even if they will consider the U.S.
actions significant at all. In a sense, Syria was Moscow's move and this
is the countermove. The Russians can choose to call the game. They have
many reasons to. Their economy is under pressure. The Germans may not
rally to the United States, but they will not break from it. And if the
United States ups the ante in Central Europe, Russian inroads there will

If the Russians are now an American problem, which they are, and if
the United States is not going to revert to a direct intervention mode,
which it cannot, then this strategy makes sense. At the very least it
gives the Russians a problem and a sense of insecurity that can curb
their actions elsewhere. At best it could create a regime that might not
counterbalance Russia but could make pipelines and ports vulnerable --
especially with U.S. help.

The public interception of Nuland's phone call was not all that
embarrassing. It showed the world that the United States, not Germany,
is leading the way in Ukraine. And it showed the Russians that the
Americans care so little, they will express it on an open cell phone
line. Nuland's obscene dismissal of the European Union and treatment of
Russia as a problem to deal with confirms a U.S. policy: The United
States is not going to war, but passivity is over.
New Dimensions of U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Russia is republished with permission of Stratfor.