From Estonia to Azerbaijan: American Strategy After Ukraine

>From Estonia to Azerbaijan: American Strategy After Ukraine
by George Friedman
Tuesday, 25 March 2014 09:24

As I discussed last week, the fundamental problem that Ukraine poses
for Russia, beyond a long-term geographical threat, is a crisis in
internal legitimacy. Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent his
time in power rebuilding the authority of the Russian state within
Russia and the authority of Russia within the former Soviet Union.
The events in Ukraine undermine the second strategy and potentially
the first. If Putin cannot maintain at least Ukrainian neutrality,
then the world’s perception of him as a master strategist is
shattered, and the legitimacy and authority he has built for the
Russian state is, at best, shaken.

Whatever the origins of the events in Ukraine, the United States is
now engaged in a confrontation with Russia. The Russians believe that
the United States was the prime mover behind regime change in
Ukraine. At the very least, the Russians intend to reverse events in
Ukraine. At most, the Russians have reached the conclusion that the
United States intends to undermine Russia’s power. They will resist.
The United States has the option of declining confrontation, engaging
in meaningless sanctions against individuals and allowing events to
take their course. Alternatively, the United States can choose to
engage and confront the Russians.

A failure to engage at this point would cause countries around
Russia’s periphery, from Estonia to Azerbaijan, to conclude that with
the United States withdrawn and Europe fragmented, they must reach an
accommodation with Russia. This will expand Russian power and open
the door to Russian influence spreading on the European Peninsula
itself. The United States has fought three wars (World War I, World
War II and the Cold War) to prevent hegemonic domination of the
region. Failure to engage would be a reversal of a century-old

The American dilemma is how to address the strategic context in a
global setting in which it is less involved in the Middle East and is
continuing to work toward a “pivot to Asia.” Nor can the United
States simply allow events to take their course. The United States
needs a strategy that is economical and coherent militarily,
politically and financially. It has two advantages. Some of the
countries on Russia’s periphery do not want to be dominated by her.
Russia, in spite of some strengths, is inherently weak and does not
require U.S. exertion on the order of the two World Wars, the Cold War
or even the Middle East engagements of the past decade.

The Russian and U.S. Positions

I discussed Russian options on Ukraine last week. Putin is now in a
position where, in order to retain with confidence his domestic
authority, he must act decisively to reverse the outcome. The problem
is there is no single decisive action that would reverse events.
Eventually, the inherent divisions in Ukraine might reverse events.
However, a direct invasion of eastern Ukraine would simply solidify
opposition to Russia in Kiev and trigger responses internationally
that he cannot predict. In the end, it would simply drive home that
although the Russians once held a dominant position in all of
Ukraine, they now hold it in less than half. In the long run, this
option — like other short-term options — would not solve the
Russian conundrum.

Whatever Putin does in Ukraine, he has two choices. One is simply to
accept the reversal, which I would argue that he cannot do. The
second is to take action in places where he might achieve rapid
diplomatic and political victories against the West — the Baltics,
Moldova or the Caucasus — while encouraging Ukraine’s government to
collapse into gridlock and developing bilateral relations along the
Estonia-Azerbaijan line. This would prevent a U.S. strategy of
containment — a strategy that worked during the Cold War and one
that the Europeans are incapable of implementing on their own. This
comes down to the Americans.

The United States has been developing, almost by default, a strategy
not of disengagement but of indirect engagement. Between 1989 and
2008, the U.S. strategy has been the use of U.S. troops as the
default for dealing with foreign issues. From Panama to Somalia,
Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States followed a policy of
direct and early involvement of U.S. military forces. However, this
was not the U.S. strategy from 1914 to 1989. Then, the strategy was
to provide political support to allies, followed by economic and
military aid, followed by advisers and limited forces, and in some
cases pre-positioned forces. The United States kept its main force in
reserve for circumstances in which (as in 1917 and 1942 and, to a
lesser degree, in Korea and Vietnam) allies could not contain the
potential hegemon. Main force was the last resort.

This was primarily a strategy of maintaining the balance of power. The
containment of the Soviet Union involved creating an alliance system
comprising countries at risk of Soviet attack. Containment was a
balance of power strategy that did not seek the capitulation of the
Soviet Union as much as increasing the risks of offensive action
using allied countries as the first barrier. The threat of full U.S.
intervention, potentially including nuclear weapons, coupled with the
alliance structure, constrained Soviet risk-taking.

Because the current Russian Federation is much weaker than the Soviet
Union was at its height and because the general geographic principle
in the region remains the same, a somewhat analogous balance of power
strategy is likely to emerge after the events in Ukraine. Similar to
the containment policy of 1945-1989, again in principle if not in
detail, it would combine economy of force and finance and limit the
development of Russia as a hegemonic power while exposing the United
States to limited and controlled risk.

The coalescence of this strategy is a development I forecast in two
books, The Next Decade and The Next 100 Years, as a concept I called
the Intermarium. The Intermarium was a plan pursued after World War I
by Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski for a federation, under Poland’s
aegis, of Central and Eastern European countries. What is now
emerging is not the Intermarium, but it is close. And it is now
transforming from an abstract forecast to a concrete, if still
emergent, reality.
Forces Leading to the Alliance’s Emergence

A direct military intervention by the United States in Ukraine is not
possible. First, Ukraine is a large country, and the force required to
protect it would outstrip U.S. capabilities. Second, supplying such a
force would require a logistics system that does not exist and would
take a long time to build. Finally, such an intervention would be
inconceivable without a strong alliance system extending to the West
and around the Black Sea. The United States can supply economic and
political support, but Ukraine cannot counterbalance Russia and the
United States cannot escalate to the point of using its own forces.
Ukraine is a battleground on which Russian forces would have an
advantage and a U.S. defeat would be possible.

If the United States chooses to confront Russia with a military
component, it must be on a stable perimeter and on as broad a front
as possible to extend Russian resources and decrease the probability
of Russian attack at any one point out of fear of retaliation
elsewhere. The ideal mechanism for such a strategy would be NATO,
which contains almost all of the critical countries save Azerbaijan
and Georgia. The problem is that NATO is not a functional alliance.
It was designed to fight the Cold War on a line far to the west of the
current line. More important, there was unity on the principle that
the Soviet Union represented an existential threat to Western Europe.

That consensus is no longer there. Different countries have different
perceptions of Russia and different concerns. For many, a replay of
the Cold War, even in the face of Russian actions in Ukraine, is
worse than accommodation. In addition, the end of the Cold War has
led to a massive drawdown of forces in Europe. NATO simply lacks the
force unless there is a massive and sudden buildup. That will not
occur because of the financial crisis, among other reasons. NATO
requires unanimity to act, and that unanimity is not there.

The countries that were at risk from 1945 to 1989 are not the same as
those at risk today. Many of these countries were part of the Soviet
Union then, and the rest were Soviet satellites. The old alliance
system was not built for this confrontation. The Estonia-Azerbaijan
line has as its primary interest retaining sovereignty in the face of
Russian power. The rest of Europe is not in jeopardy, and these
countries are not prepared to commit financial and military efforts
to a problem they believe can be managed with little risk to them.
Therefore, any American strategy must bypass NATO or at the very least
create new structures to organize the region.

Characteristics of the Alliance

Each of the various countries involved is unique and has to be
addressed that way. But these countries share the common danger that
events in Ukraine could spread and directly affect their national
security interests, including internal stability. As I observed, the
Baltics, Moldova and the Caucasus are areas where the Russians could
seek to compensate for their defeat. Because of this, and also
because of their intrinsic importance, Poland, Romania and Azerbaijan
must be the posts around which this alliance is built.

The Baltic salient, 145 kilometers (90 miles) from St. Petersburg in
Estonia, would be a target for Russian destabilization. Poland
borders the Baltics and is the leading figure in the Visegrad
battlegroup, an organization within the European Union. Poland is
eager for a closer military relationship with the United States, as
its national strategy has long been based on third-power guarantees
against aggressors. The Poles cannot defend themselves and the
Baltics, given the combat capabilities necessary for the task.

The Dniester River is 80 kilometers from Odessa, the main port on the
Black Sea for Ukraine and an important one for Russia. The Prut River
is about 200 kilometers from Bucharest, the capital of Romania.
Moldova is between these two rivers. It is a battleground region, at
least of competing political factions. Romania must be armed and
supported in protecting Moldova and in organizing southeastern Europe.
In Western hands, Moldova threatens Odessa, Ukraine’s major port also
used by Russia on the Black Sea. In Russian hands, Moldova threatens

At the far end of the alliance structure I am envisioning is
Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea bordering Russia and Iran. Should
Dagestan and Chechnya destabilize, Azerbaijan — which is Islamic and
majority Shiite but secular — would become critical for limiting the
regional spread of jihadists. Azerbaijan also would support the
alliance’s position in the Black Sea by supporting Georgia and would
serve as a bridge for relations (and energy) should Western relations
with Iran continue to improve. To the southwest, the very pro-Russian
Armenia — which has a Russian troop presence and a long-term treaty
with Moscow — could escalate tensions with Azerbaijan in
Nagorno-Karabakh. Previously, this was not a pressing issue for the
United States. Now it is. The security of Georgia and its ports on
the Black Sea requires Azerbaijan’s inclusion in the alliance.

Azerbaijan serves a more strategic purpose. Most of the countries in
the alliance are heavy importers of Russian energy; for instance, 91
percent of Poland’s energy imports and 86 percent of Hungary’s come
from Russia. There is no short-term solution to this problem, but
Russia needs the revenue from these exports as much as these
countries need the energy. Developing European shale and importing
U.S. energy is a long-term solution. A medium-term solution,
depending on pipeline developments that Russia has tended to block in
the past, is sending natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe. Until now,
this has been a commercial issue, but it has become a strategically
critical issue. The Caspian region, of which Azerbaijan is the
lynchpin, is the only major alternative to Russia for energy.
Therefore, rapid expansion of pipelines to the heart of Europe is as
essential as providing Azerbaijan with the military capability to
defend itself (a capability it is prepared to pay for and, unlike
other allied countries, does not need to be underwritten).

The key to the pipeline will be Turkey’s willingness to permit
transit. I have not included Turkey as a member of this alliance.
Its internal politics, complex relations and heavy energy dependence
on Russia make such participation difficult. I view Turkey in this
alliance structure as France in the Cold War. It was aligned yet
independent, militarily self-sufficient yet dependent on the
effective functioning of others. Turkey, inside or outside of the
formal structure, will play this role because the future of the Black
Sea, the Caucasus and southeastern Europe is essential to Ankara.

These countries, diverse as they are, share a desire not to be
dominated by the Russians. That commonality is a basis for forging
them into a functional military alliance. This is not an offensive
force but a force designed to deter Russian expansion. All of these
countries need modern military equipment, particularly air defense,
anti-tank and mobile infantry. In each case, the willingness of the
United States to supply these weapons, for cash or credit as the
situation requires, will strengthen pro-U.S. political forces in each
country and create a wall behind which Western investment can take
place. And it is an organization that others can join, which unlike
NATO does not allow each member the right to veto.

The Practicality of the U.S. Strategy

There are those who would criticize this alliance for including
members who do not share all the democratic values of the U.S. State
Department. This may be true. It is also true that during the Cold
War the United States was allied with the Shah’s Iran, Turkey and
Greece under dictatorship and Mao’s China after 1971. Having
encouraged Ukrainian independence, the United States — in trying to
protect that independence and the independence of other countries in
the region — is creating an alliance structure that will include
countries, such as Azerbaijan, that have been criticized. However, if
energy does not come from Azerbaijan, it will come from Russia, and
then the Ukrainian events will dissolve into tragic farce. The State
Department must grapple with the harsh forces its own policies have
unleashed. This suggests that the high-mindedness borne of benign
assumptions now proven to be illusions must make way for realpolitik

The balance of power strategy allows the United States to use the
natural inclination of allies to bolster its own position and take
various steps, of which military intervention is the last, not the
first. It recognizes that the United States, as nearly 25 percent of
the world’s economy and the global maritime hegemon, cannot evade
involvement. Its very size and existence involves it. Nor can the
United States confine itself to gestures like sanctions on 20 people.
This is not seen as a sign of resolve as much as weakness. It does
mean that as the United States engages in issues like Ukraine and must
make strategic decisions, there are alternatives to intervention —
such as alliances. In this case, a natural alliance structure
presents itself — a descendant of NATO but shaped for this crisis,
much like the alliance I forecast previously.

In my view, Russian power is limited and has flourished while the
United States was distracted by its wars in the Middle East and while
Europe struggled with its economic crisis. That does not mean Russia
is not dangerous. It has short-term advantages, and its insecurity
means that it will take risks. Weak and insecure states with
temporary advantages are dangerous. The United States has an interest
in acting early because early action is cheaper than acting in the
last extremity. This is a case of anti-air missiles, attack
helicopters, communications systems and training, among other things.
These are things the United States has in abundance. It is not a case
of deploying divisions, of which it has few. The Poles, Romanians,
Azerbaijanis and certainly the Turks can defend themselves. They need
weapons and training, and that will keep Russia contained within its
cauldron as it plays out a last hand as a great power.

George Friedman is the Chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in
1996 that is now a leader in the field of global intelligence.
Friedman guides Stratfor’s strategic vision and oversees the
development and training of the company’s intelligence unit.

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