- - Saturday, February 29, 2020

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently conducted a successful tour of the former Soviet countries of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Uzbekistan. These four Union republics of the USSR only became independent in 1991. Mr. Pompeo’s visit demonstrates the ongoing interest of the United States in these key strategic areas of Eastern Europe and Eurasia, and sets the stage for a more forward-leaning U.S. policy in the run-up to the elections, especially in the second term of the Trump presidency.

The visit also indicates how hollow accusations that President Trump is somehow enthralled by Russian President Vladimir Putin are. In the wake of Mr. Pompeo’s tour, Moscow is livid and so is China. To add American insult to the Kremlin’s injury, Mr. Pompeo called upon Europe to stop the strategic Nord Stream Two gas pipeline project, which would bring gas from Russia to Germany and to buy U.S. liquified natural gas instead.

At the prestigious Munich Security Conference last week, Mr. Pompeo announced a $1 billion initiative for Eastern and Central Europe to replace Russian gas with the U.S.-sourced energy commodity.

The interests of the United States in Eurasia were set back during the long reign of Mr. Putin, particularly with the start of the Georgian War in the summer of 2008. Mr. Putin pushed the United States and its allies around, thwarting NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine, preventing the placement of U.S. military bases in the region, and foiling U.S. investment in large infrastructure and natural resources projects, including pipelines.

However, the constitutional amendment process recently launched in Russia may give the United States and its allies a new strategic opening. Firstly, it is likely that Mr. Putin will step down as president in the coming years.

Whoever comes to replace him will be weaker than Mr. Putin and may be more open to new security arrangements, which gives the United States opportunities to help its friends and allies, especially Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, to restore their territorial integrity.

Georgia lost vast territories in the 2008 Russo-Georgian war that was conducted mostly in the secessionist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but also included a Russian offensive against the capital Tbilisi. Dmitry Medvedev at that time had been president for only six months and had neither the stature nor the courage to contradict Mr. Putin even if he had wanted to, which he didn’t.  

It was Mr. Putin who prevented the restoration of Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili made a strategic error in rushing to attack despite U.S. warnings, and also of engaging in reckless behavior in South Ossetia, where he allowed clashes between the Georgian forces and the Russian peacekeepers to escalate.

If the situation repeats in the coming years, Mr. Putin may not be the Russian commander-in-chief. The United States will have to bide its time and build a relationship with his successor. After all, the new commander-in-chief will be the new president — and he will be weaker than Mr. Putin, at least initially.

This is the opportunity for the United States to boost its presence in the region and to shore up its allies. To restore the territorial integrity of Georgia and Ukraine, it will be necessary to build up the level of trust and cooperation, striving to restore justice for Georgia, Moldova, in the Donbass, and in the Crimea.

And if regular diplomacy fails, increased pressure on the Russian president and his entourage may be in order, including freezing the personal accounts of his family and those of other in the West, sanctions against the family members of senior leaders and oligarchs, or further tightening of credit policies toward state-connected Russian businesses.

Secondly, it is important to understand why Russia is adopting an amendment to the constitution to complicate the procedure for ceding or transferring territories to other states. Russia is clearly trying to secure its claims to occupied or disputed territories. These include the Crimea captured in 2014, the Kuril Islands, occupied by Stalin in 1945, as well as the Kaliningrad region (former German East Prussia), where many strive for deeper integration with the European Union, and some areas bordering Estonia.

Therefore, in response to Mr. Putin’s plans to amend the constitution, the Pentagon and NATO leaders should plan to increase military assistance to and cooperation with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, as well as working to further integrate the Baltic countries into the NATO structure to repel Russian potential aggression and assisting in the return of territories controlled by Russia.

The West has two missions in Eastern Europe: To save the countries in Russia’s shadow from losing their sovereignty, territorial integrity and national identity, and to protect them from foreign aggression. This includes both military threats from Russia and economic threats from China.  This support also means extending the southern-western flank of NATO to the Caucasus. All that separates the Balkans from Russia is the Ukraine and the Black Sea.   

In the coming years, the United States should vigorously train and equip the forces of its NATO allies, regularize military exercises such as this year’s Defender-Europe 20, and deploy regular NATO naval forces in the Black Sea. It should also not shy from using carrots and sticks vis-a-vis Mr. Putin’s successor. Only by remembering President Ronald Reagan’s principle of “peace through strength” and by building a better relationship with Mr. Putin’s successor can the United States hope to restore the territorial integrity of the former Soviet states.

• Wes Martin, a retired U.S. Army colonel, served in the Army Military Police and worked with the Russian military in Berlin and with the Ukrainian army in Iraq.

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