NEW BEGINNINGS, NEW PROBLEMS
Shortly before U.S. President Barack Obama left for Europe this week, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes warned that the crisis in Ukraine is not over: “There are people dying on a regular basis in eastern and southern Ukraine, given the violence perpetrated and initiated by separatist factions there. So by no means are we out of the woods.”
Still, since Ukraine held a successful presidential election – voting in Petro “Chocolate King” Poroshenko – and Russia has withdrawn most of its troops from the border they share, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the crisis has exited its most critical phase.
What does Russia’s balance sheet look like? In addition to annexing Crimea, Russia has formed a Eurasian Economic Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan (Ukraine was supposed to be a member) and signed a $400-billion, 30-year gas deal with China. But in light of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s oft-stated objective – to establish a Eurasian Union that functions as an independent and central actor in international affairs – these victories seem more tactical than strategic.
For starters, Russia’s approach to Ukraine has mobilized opposition throughout Europe. True, elections for the European Parliament have strengthened several right-wing populist parties that regard European integration as anathema. (The New York Times observes that they “have been gripped by a contrarian fever of enthusiasm for Russia and its president.”) Even this fringe support, however, seems more opportunistic than organic, driven less by the desire for a Eurasian Union than by the hope that supporting Russian foreign policy in the short term will weaken the prevailing European order.
Looking beyond Europe, far-reaching economic and diplomatic pushback from the West have compelled Russia to accelerate its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, where it seeks, above all, to strengthen its relationship with China. But while Sino-Russian relations are indeed growing stronger, they are also growing more lopsided – in China’s favor.
China is a rising power that needs vital commodities. Russia is a declining power that needs to cultivate the perception of strategic alignment and ideological solidarity with China to be deemed a major power. This asymmetry presents Russia with a predicament: Beyond what threshold will its efforts to curry favor with China effectively render it a supplicant?
Fearful of this outcome, and mindful that Chinese influence is overtaking its own across Central Asia (which was firmly within its orbit as recently as a decade ago), Russia is also trying to curry favor with bitter antagonists of China, including Japan and Vietnam. If and when China assesses that these hedging efforts have gone too far, it can leverage its prodigious economic influence to change Russia’s calculus.
More isolated by the West and more dependent on China, Russia is in a less favorable strategic position than it was at the beginning of the year. Less clear, however, is how its incursion into Crimea will change Europe’s defense posture.
In June 2011, in his last policy address as U.S. Defense Secretary, Robert Gates famously lamented that NATO had become “a two-tiered alliance,” with the United States accounting for more than three-quarters of the entire alliance’s defense spending. He warned that it could succumb to “collective military irrelevance” if that imbalance persisted, and that if it did, America’s future leaders might not “consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”
While some of America’s European allies have vowed to contribute more to their own security, the developments of recent years are not encouraging. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen noted last month that “Russian defence spending has grown by more than 10 percent in real terms each year over the past five years. … By contrast, several European NATO countries have cut their defence spending by more than 20 percent over the same period. … And the cuts have been particularly deep here in Central and Eastern Europe.”
President Obama, meanwhile, has “proposed a new $1 billion fund” that, if approved by Congress, “would pay for added military exercises in Europe, including further Navy deployments to the Black and Baltic seas.”
While observers on both sides of the Atlantic have welcomed this initiative, it could encourage Europe to continue free-riding on U.S. security commitments. (The United States faces a comparable, though arguably less acute, dilemma in the Asia-Pacific: While China’s neighbors express concern about the sustainability of America’s rebalance to the region, they are making insufficient investments in their own capabilities.)
As Russia’s annexation of Crimea recedes from the headlines, a central challenge – and opportunity – for the transatlantic project will be to distribute security burdens more evenly.
Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a co-author of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013).
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