With Ukraine on the brink of revolt following the defrauded general elections, the international spotlight must expose Moscow’s machinations in the escalating crisis.
While attention has focused on restoration of authoritarianism in Russia, the starker danger both for America and Europe is the revival of Russian imperialism that threatens to tear Ukraine apart.
President Vladimir Putin is intent on recapturing Russia’s great-power status and is counting on Washington’s continuing acquiescence. He pursues several strategies to undermine his neighbors, especially states such as Ukraine that Russia has sought to absorb for more than 350 years through assimilation, genocide and state terror.
Moscow is rebuilding its regional hegemony by seeking predominant influence over the foreign and security policies of nearby capitals. States such as Ukraine are especially vulnerable because of Russia’s overwhelming diplomatic, economic and ethnic pressures. Moreover, Mr. Putin’s security services have deeply penetrated Ukraine and all other former Soviet republics to ensure the loyalty of selected political leaders.
Moscow is capturing monopolistic economic positions through targeted foreign investments and strategic infrastructure buyouts. This gives Moscow substantial influence over a neighbor’s economic, financial and trade policies. Under Mr. Putin’s direction, private business has been mobilized to serve regime interests.
The Kremlin has also increased regional dependence on Russian energy supplies and this relationship is being converted into long-term political dominance. Close connections between the Kremlin and large energy companies, whether through executive appointments or financial and police instruments, demonstrate close coordination of foreign and economic policy.
The Kremlin aims to limit the pace and scope of Western political and military penetration in Russia’s “near abroad.” NATO control in the Balkans and Central Europe and increasing U.S. involvement in Central Asia and the Caucasus are seen as springboards for American domination throughout Eurasia. Hence, the obstruction of closer links between Russia’s neighbors and Washington is envisaged as a way to restrict American hegemony.
Moscow wants to use the eastern half of Greater Europe as a springboard for rebuilding its continental status. Simultaneously, Russia seeks a hierarchical international-relations system in which major powers’ security agreements take precedence over smaller states between them.
Ultimately, Mr. Putin is intent on undercutting the trans-Atlantic link. By steadily expanding its dominance in targeted countries, Russian agencies aim to erode regional cooperation with the United States. The purpose is to reinforce the “Eurasian strategic pole” to counterbalance American globalism. Trans-Atlantic disputes provide fertile ground for Moscow to augment conflicts and maneuver itself into a stronger position to determine European security.
Moscow calculates that integration of Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova and the subversion of other East European countries will accelerate its strategic agenda and serve as a stepping-stone for further expansion. And it solicits European and American consent while it reconstructs the post-Soviet zone under its political and security umbrella. Ukraine is now a key piece in this geopolitical chess game.
To augment its position, Russia promotes itself as a regional stabilizer against the threat of weak states and Islamic terrorists. Internally divided countries such as Ukraine or authoritarian regimes such as the one in Belarus reinforce Moscow’s claim that its role pacifies the region. In reality, Mr. Putin’s expansionist and divisive policies may tear Ukraine apart into a pro-American West and a pro-Russian East while destabilizing a wider region.
In contrast to that of Russia, it is in America’s national interests to build secure and democratic systems throughout Europe and among all former Soviet republics that can assume membership in international institutions. But to guarantee such a development, the U.S. needs to intensify its engagement and fortify the region’s resilience to Russian pressure. Long-term Alliance interests should not be abandoned to Mr. Putin’s ambitions or the European Union’s weaknesses.
Washington has remained reticent while the Kremlin resurrects the Russian imperium. But the renewed Bush administration may soon reach a point of diminishing returns in its conciliatory approach toward Mr. Putin. Rather than help America’s counterterrorism offensive, Russian support of local dictators and repressive systems contribute to inflaming regional instabilities, spreading terrorism and multiplying available deadly weapons.
As Ukraine lurches toward disintegration, with the potential for more direct Russian involvement, it is time Washington drew a line across the steppes. Moscow needs to be warned that any forcible intervention or support for Ukraine’s partition, in a replay of the Moldova scenario, will have serious repercussions for bilateral relations. The White House must simultaneously lean heavily on Kiev to avoid doing anything that could spark the biggest crisis in Europe since the collapse of Yugoslavia.
Janusz Bugajski is director of the East European project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is the author of the just published book “Cold Peace: Russia’s New Imperialism” (New York/London: CSIS/Greenwood Press).