Understanding the Kremlin’s new found aggression towards Ukraine requires an understanding of Russia’s history, and President Vladimir Putin’s foreign-policy motif. An understanding is essential in avoiding the frigid hostility of the Cold War.
In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. The world turned a blind eye, partly because Georgia is an insignificant state on the fringe of Europe but mostly because the costs of cutting Russia adrift would be too high. Days after the Sochi Olympics, Russia annexed Crimea. The world accepted it because Crimea should have been Russian all along – the territory had been transferred to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954. If the Soviet leader were alive today he would likely admit that in hindsight the transfer was a mistake. Now the Russian army is infiltrated eastern Ukraine, albeit subversively. Putin denies any such action, however this is highly implausible. The attacks were co-ordinated, and in strategically useful places that had seen few prior protests. Ukraine is a part of Europe, it was moving towards EU membership, and despite Moscow’s perception it is a sovereign state. Disregarding minor sanctions, why is the West standing by while Russia destabilises its neighbour? The answer is that ultimately, Ukraine remains within Russia’s sphere of influence and the land matters more to Putin than it does to any Western leader. Those two reasons are what the whole conflict is over, after all.
Its all about geography – the vast Russian landmass and its foreign policy
The Russian foreign-policy paradigm is one I have examined many times; recent events make the explanation relevant once again. The Russian landmass is incredibly large, flat, and thus vulnerable. Throughout history, the peoples that populated this landmass secured their frontiers aggressively. This is true of the Scythians, the Huns, the Mongols, the Russian Empire of the Czars, the Soviets, and the modern Russian Federation. Throughout Russia’s history, it has acted as “a land power that had to keep attacking and exploring in all directions or itself be vanquished.” We see this in the 1800s when Russia pushed into Eastern Europe in an attempt to block France, and again in 1945 when Moscow used Eastern Europe as a buffer-zone against a resurgent Germany. Russia has also pushed into Afghanistan to block the British during the Great Game, and conquered the Far East to block China. These same motives were at play when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Moscow again felt vulnerable when the Soviet Union dissolved and it lost the buffer-zone it gained in 1945.
Today Russia is the most vulnerable it has been in centuries
During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow gave up much of its influence of both the Warsaw Pact and the former Soviet Republic states. Many of these states subsequently joined the EU and NATO. This left Russia even smaller, and in Moscow’s eyes even more vulnerable as a result than it was in the aftermath of the First World War, when it was bitterly defeated by the Central Powers. Indeed, Russia holds a similar amount of territory today as it did under Peter the Great.
Expanding EU integration is seen by Moscow as an attempt to install Russia-hostile political regimes in Russia’s former sphere of influence. In contrast to the EU’s value-driven foreign policy, Russia’s government places importance on stable governance, it believes the promotion of democracy and the rule of law risks regional stability. Thus, Moscow remains very wary of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, an attempt to deepen EU ties with the post-Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. To Moscow this is an attempt by the EU to contain Russia by removing the legitimate authoritarian regimes and installing Russia-hostile governments. This is why today Putin believes the European Union is a threat, and why the Ukraine is of utmost importance. If the country were to slip out of Moscow’s sphere of influence, Russia would be left that much more vulnerable. The nation feels cornered.
The man with the plan
Putin has stated that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He sees the world as in a state of transition from an American dominated power balance that began with the fall of the USSR to one that is made up of several global powers. As such the Russian President’s goal is to re-establish Russia as a great-power, if not in a bipolar state system than in a multipolar state system. Allowing Ukraine to drift westwards is in direct conflict with this goal, and thus the overthrow of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in favour of a European oriented interim government is anathema to the Kremlin. The Ukraine is in particular a more personal-desire to the Russian national narrative, as it was in Kiev that the modern Russian state was born. Furthermore the country borders Russia, cutting deep into its southern flank. To the Kremlin, a western-oriented Ukraine is likely even more undesirable than a western-oriented Poland.
So what does Putin hope to achieve in the Ukraine? It is unlikely that the intention is to annex Ukraine’s east, occupation would come at heavy costs, both politically and militarily. It is more likely that the Kremlin hopes to incite civil conflict to erode the authority of the new pro-Western government in Kiev. In Putin’s eyes, a destabilised Ukraine is better than a Western one.
The West’s Balancing Act
With this in mind, how best can the West counter Russia’s new found aggression? Both sanctions and NATO military exercises are certainly necessary, the latter to assure the Baltic states that they are not second-class NATO members, and can count on NATO to come to their defense. However, the West must be very careful not to overact, thereby plunging the world back into a Cold War, or worse. A complete isolation of Russia would be devastating to Europe’s economy, a distraction to America’s “Asian Pivot,” and destructive to overall global security. A cornered bear is a dangerous one, and West must understand where it can act, and what is outside of its own sphere of influence. Henry Kissinger eloquently described the balancing act the West must achieve in order to counter Moscow without ostracising it, and it all comes down to understanding Putin’s motives.
“Paradoxically, a Russia is a country that has enormous internal problems … but it is in a piece of strategic real estate from St Petersburg to Moscow. It is in everybody’s interest that it becomes part of the international system, and not an isolated island. One has to interpret Putin not like a Hitler-type, as he has been, but as a Russian Czar who is trying to achieve the maximum for his country. We are correct in standing up to him, but we also have to know when the confrontation should end.”
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Insatiable, The Economist, 19 April 2014.
Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.
Kissinger, Henry. GPS, 11 May 2014.
Light, Margot. “Russia and Europe and the process of EU enlargement.” In The Multilateral Dimension in Russian Foreign Policy, edited by Elana Wilson Rowe and Stina Torjesen, 83-96. New York: Routledge, 2009.
Lucas, Edward. The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).
Mankoff, Jeffrey. Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012.
Zagorski, Andrei. “The limits of a global consensus on security: the case of Russia.” Global Security in a Multipolar World (2009): 67-84. Accessed March 6, 2012.http://www.iss.europa.eu/uploads/media/cp118.pdf
The Obama administration’s official policy on Iran’s nuclear ambitions is clear, it does not intend to accept a nuclear-armed Iranian regime. This is the right policy. Should Iran gain nuclear weapons, regional and global peace would be severely jeopardised. I suggest a new strategy for preventing this outcome.
A debate on the current nuclear stand-off involving Iran, the United States, and Israel is currently raging amongst foreign policy intellectuals. This debate centers on the question: can the America and Israel live with a nuclear-armed Iran? The answer is no. A nuclear-armed Iran is a threat to Middle Eastern security, global security, and Israel’s security; as such this outcome cannot be tolerated. The debate must therefore shift from can America and Israel live with a nuclear-armed Iran, to what can America and Israel do to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons?
The Middle East is a region that can be described as a ‘powderkeg.’ The region consists of a multitude of nation-states, and each nation-state consists of a number of peoples, religions, religious sects, and cultures, in varying ratios. These factions are often extremely at-odds, to such an extent that when a central government is removed (i.e. Iraq) the country collapses into sectarian violence. In other cases it does not even take the removal of a government to achieve this outcome; Syria is currently fighting a bloody civil war. To make matters worse, relations between many of these states vary – from warm to icy hatred.
Thus, like 1914 Europe, a seemingly insignificant event (like the random assassination of an archduke) could lead to a devastating war. In 1914 this event occurred in an area mired with sectarian tension: the Balkans. History tends to repeat itself, when the Soviet Union gave up its influence of this same region it again collapsed into violence. Luckily this time around it did not trigger a European war.
Adding nuclear weapons to the Middle East would make the region a ‘nuclear powderkeg.’ If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will likely motivate its regional rival Saudi Arabia to do the same, which would likely trigger a nuclear arms race in the region. In a quest for security, many regional actors will be motivated to gain nuclear weapons as a means of deterring the nuclear threat posed by Iran. Although the risk would still remain relatively small, the probability of the world’s first nuclear war occurring would increase dramatically.
A dangerous regime
True, the Iranian regime is not suicidal, and is unlikely to use its nuclear weapons should it develop them. I argued in ‘Knowing Ones Enemy’ – Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Motives that no nation-state purposely risks its own security. While this is true, if every state in history acted according to the rational-actor model, history would not have occurred as it did. But history unfolded as we know it and governments at times acted irrationally – indeed Hitler invaded the Soviet Union while Stalin ignored intelligence reports of the coming German invasion. So while the Iranian regime may not be irrational, it may at times act irrationally.
I would argue Iran is even more likely to act irrationally than other states. The Cold War saw two gargantuan nuclear superpowers face each other on the brink of nuclear war, and both stood down. Even an irrational Iranian regime would be unlikely to use nuclear weapons should it possess them. But the nuclear-armed Iran scenario is a much different situation than the one seen during the Cold War. Neither Iran nor its would-be nuclear rival Israel (since Israel also possesses nuclear weapons) are superpowers. Israel’s sheer size means it could be completely destroyed by even a few nuclear bombs, and the Iranian regime openly talks of doing literally just this. To prove this, one must only look to statements made by the Iranian officials. Jeffrey Goldberg sums up the situation eloquently:
What we have right now in the world is a genuinely unprecedented situation, certainly unprecedented in the post-World War 2 international order. We have a member state of the United Nations, the Islamic Republic of Iran, that actively calls for the destruction of another member state, that is Israel. They are very clear and consistent on this subject, right from the beginning of the Islamic Republic. I’ll give you a couple of examples. This is from the supreme leader of Iran [Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei]: “The Zionist regime is a true cancer tumour on this region that should be cut off and it definitely will be cut off.” General Gholam Reza Jalali, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guard Core said last August: “The fact is, that there is no other way but to stand firm and resist until Israel is destroyed.” Finally, Mohammad Hassan Rahimian, who is a top aide to Khamenei, said in a January 2010 television interview quote: “We have manufactured missiles that allow us when necessary to replace Israel in its entirety with a big holocaust.”
Statements such as these display the fact that the Iranian regime is even less likely than most states to act according to the rational actor model. Bound by a hatred for Israel, the regime is likely to act unpredictably – or predictably against Israel depending on one’s view. If nuclear weapons are involved in this scenario, the situation becomes more dangerous still. Therefore Iran must not be allowed to gain nuclear technology.
Many argue a surgical military strike by the United States or Israel can halt or at least set-back Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Proponents of this strategy point to the successful preemptive Israeli attacks of Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. While these attacks did prevent these states from attaining nuclear weapons, this strategy must only be kept as a last resort. Military action comes with risks, the worst being triggering a full-blown war. Iran could retaliate by attempting to close, or even threatening to close, the Strait of Hormuz, causing a global economic crisis. It could stir up its terrorist proxies. Although unlikely, Iran could launch missiles at US troops and allies across the Gulf region, even parts of Europe fall in its range. Finally an attack on Iranian turf, even a surgical strike minimizing or eliminating civilian casualties, could be used by Iranian propaganda to sway Iranian public opinion in favour of a nuclear program. The regime would argue it needs nuclear capabilities for security.
Thinking outside the box
Let us not forget why Iran wants nuclear capabilities. As I argued in my previous piece on Iran the Iranian regime feels threatened by a history of American influence, the removal of the Afghani and Iraqi regimes by American interventions on Iran’s borders, and President George W. Bush’s labeling of Iran as a member of the “Axis of Evil.” These events caused the regime in Tehran to fear for its very existence. It thus seeks nuclear weapons as a means of securing itself.
Let us also not forget there is already a nuclear-armed state in the Middle East, Israel. Because Israel has nuclear weapons there is already a nuclear imbalance. Once again, Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons in order to maintain its security.
A potential solution
Keeping these facts in mind it becomes obvious that the only way to convince Iran that giving up its nuclear ambitions is in its best interest, is to somehow offer it a guarantee of security during negotiations. Perhaps Israel should give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for Iranian cooperation. In return Iran would have to give up its weapons program and allow complete access to foreign investigators. The United States could guarantee Israel’s security by promising to support it militarily should Israel suffer an Iranian attack, but the United States must also promise not to preemptively attack Iran like it did Iraq in 2003. I do not argue this situation is necessarily attainable with today’s leadership, indeed Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is highly unlikely to agree to this, but I do argue it is a potential solution that should be given the consideration of foreign policy circles.
History gives my proposal credit. During the Cuban Missile Crisis the secret negotiations led to a similar compromise. The Soviet Union was convinced to remove missiles from Cuba, in return the United States removed its missiles from Turkey. Meanwhile Castro was promised that no US invasion of Cuba would occur. Three nation-states gave up nuclear security – the US and the USSR some second-strike capabilities, and Cuba the ability to deter an American attack. The lesson to be learned here is that in order to gain something one must be willing to give something up. Thus the original question should really be what is America and Israel willing to give up to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons? Washington should keep this in mind during future negotiations with Tehran, and Obama should keep this in mind during negotiations with Netanyahu.
Allison, Graham. “The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50.” Foreign Affairs vol. 91 no. 4, July/August 2012.
‘Can Israel Live With A Nuclear Iran?’ Intelligence Squared, NPR. 22 January 2013.
Kroening, Matthew. “Time to Attack Iran.” Foreign Affairs vol. 91 no. 1, January/February 2012.
Waltz, Kenneth N. “Whay Iran Should Get the Bomb.” Foreign Affairs vol. 91 no. 4, July/August 2012.