This week's post comes to us from friend and colleague Brandon Kenney. Brandon is a graduate of the University of Utah's Political Science program and is currently completing his Master's degree in Public Policy at the University of Minnesota.
Not long ago, Washington’s foreign affairs experts were not overly concerned with Russia challenging the United States on a global stage. Even along the campaign trail, Mitt Romney was laughed at in 2012 for making the claim that Russia was our top geopolitical adversary. This is up for debate, but we certainly shouldn’t have been laughing about the matter three years ago. Since then, Russia has grown in global influence, most notably with the annexation of Crimea. Tensions have only increased, with fears that Russia may pose a threat to the Baltic region (the countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). Last week, the United States announced it would be sending military hardware to seven European nations including the three Baltic countries. Though it may not seem like a big deal, this is a somewhat serious buildup of weapons along an increasingly tense border. So why is this (supposedly) a big deal?
Let’s take a step back, and look at what events lead to this point. With the end of the Cold War in 1991, the Soviet Union broke up, and regional powers began jockeying for influence over its remains. The most important powers that remained were the newly created Russian Federation and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO had been founded as a military alliance between the United States and its closest European powers during the height of the Cold War. Facing this newly empowered international organization, the Russian Federation after 1991 continued to lose influence in the region. NATO incorporated Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999, and the Baltic nations in 2004. Though not exactly a model of success, the state of things in Russia has improved to the point that the country became richer and more powerful as the years passed. Vladimir Putin, coming to power in 2000, has centralized power and overseen the promotion of a fierce Russian nationalism. Itching to regain regional power, Putin has often stirred up problems in areas of lesser concern to western powers, such as Georgia (the country not the state).
Putin has been even more aggressive lately, often acting under the pretense of an increasingly anxious Russian Diaspora living within the remains of the former USSR. Ukraine, the largest and most important of states (aside from Russia) in the former USSR, has often been one of the primary players in the East-West struggle. Following years of working toward a Western shift through a deal with the European Union, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych enraged pro-Western Ukrainians by cancelling the deal to shift its relations in favor of Russia. This led to protests throughout Ukraine in 2013, known as the Euromaidan protests. Two months later, in February 2014, Russian soldiers moved into the region known as Crimea and seized a number of government buildings. Days later, the Crimean parliament voted to join Russia, and called for a regional referendum. The vote, highly disputed, reported that 97% of Crimeans wanted to join Russia. Initially, world leaders condemned the referendum and accused Russia of manipulating the region’s population. Since then, the world’s leaders have been mostly quiet; seeming to have accepted whatever took place early in 2014.
Though the world seems mostly resigned to Crimea’s fate, a proxy war continues to rage in Eastern Ukraine with pro-cessionist forces battling the Ukrainian army for control. Russia continues to claim it has no part in this battle, but known Russian soldiers with Russian military equipment have been seen throughout the region (even taking selfies of themselves clearly in Ukraine). Putin’s strategy seems to be one of a slow encroachment into Ukrainian territory, often gaining ground and then quickly calling ceasefires to buy the pro-cession forces time to fortify their new territory. This region is especially important given the large number of natural gas pipelines which run through Ukraine, powering much of Western Europe.
In the meantime, eyes are turning toward Estonia, and some fear we may be headed toward a large scale conflict with Russia. These fears are not misguided. Estonia, much like Ukraine, was a part of the former USSR and has a large Russian minority. Russian official have spoken of concerns that the Russian minority has been mistreated. The reincorporation of the Baltic States would also connect the mainland with its port at Kaliningrad and provide Russia with a much stronger presence in the Baltic sea.
Signaling that both sides do indeed fear escalation, Russia and NATO forces have carried out military exercises in the region. As Estonia is a member of NATO, its allies would be required to intervene should Russia make any moves into any of the NATO allied states (part of Article Five of the NATO Charter). Just as it did in Ukraine, Russia may be looking to stir the pot in Estonia, and foment protests like those that took place in Ukraine. If successful, NATO would be forced to seriously consider stepping in. The organization’s hands are bound in a way they were not with Ukraine (since Ukraine is not a NATO member). The worst-case-scenario, then, seems to be an all-out war between Russia and NATO.
Despite all of this, I seriously doubt that anyone wants a war. The costs are far too high for both sides, especially Russia. If it is in Putin’s designs to annex Estonia as he did Crimea, he is probably counting on NATO being unwilling to get involved in a country like Estonia, just as they have stayed out of Ukraine. NATO’s inaction would lead to the end of the treaty, bolstering Russian’s power both in the region and further afield. It is a dangerous game, but one which has the potential to either strengthen Russia’s regional hand significantly, or bring it spiraling back into the darkness of its early post-Cold War years. Given the humiliation of these years and the loss of so many of its former Soviet satellites to NATO, it is understandable that Russia is looking to regain some of its former glory on the world stage. Unfortunately, this could come at a very high price to both Russia and the world.
TL;DR: Russia is looking to challenge Western influence in Europe by testing the NATO alliance. If Russia invades a NATO country, the U.S. will have to respond or risk losing the entire alliance.