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 cellphone 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 cellphone 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 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 rift 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. On the other, there are those who argue on behalf of moral interventions, as we saw in Libya, and who see removing tyrants as an end in itself. Given the outcome in Libya, this faction is on the defensive; it must explain how an intervention will actually improve the moral situation. Since this faction also tended to oppose Iraq, it must show how an intervention will not degenerate into Iraq-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
Russia 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, enabled 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, 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 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 enable Washington to deny the Russians an Iranian card, although the Syrian theater still provides the Kremlin some room to maneuver.
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 was 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 States.
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 cellphone 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 meant.
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 cards.
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 dissolve.
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 cellphone 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.