Obama Needs a Eurasia Strategy
May 28, 2014
Ukraine passed a major test Sunday with the election of a new President, Petro Poroshenko. While voting in the East was restricted by separatist violence, overall the turnout was still a respectable 60% of eligible voters. Russian President Vladimir Putin had already tipped his hand that he would respect the outcome of the vote, so the Russian government is likely to recognize Poroshenko’s victory and engage the new government. Make no mistake, it is unlikely that Putin will abandon efforts to destabilize Ukraine through various economic, intelligence, and military measures, but at least for the moment it appears the effort to establish Novorossiya [New Russia] on Ukrainian territory has suffered a setback. The Ukrainian military routed the rebels who had seized the airport in Donetsk on May 26, and Moscow stayed on the sidelines. Poroshenko’s election is no panacea, but a reasonably peaceful election with a clear outcome was a necessary step to establish a foundation for the rest of the hard work Ukraine must undertake to strengthen its sovereignty in the weeks and months ahead.
There are several important lessons we should take away from this past seven months of crisis that lead me to the conclusion that the White House needs to develop a Eurasia strategy. One, Ukraine’s sovereign vulnerability resulted from economic and military weakness coupled with years of criminal political mismanagement. That Ukraine was so vulnerable was shocking in some ways to a number of interlocutors from Central Asia and the South Caucasus with whom I have spoken in recent months. At the time of the Soviet collapse, Ukraine was at least as richly endowed with economic potential and human capital as any other post-Soviet state. If not for such poor management, indeed aided and abetted by Moscow, Ukraine could look more like Poland than Belarus today, and even by some key economic indicators like per capita GDP, Belarus is ahead of Ukraine.
Second, it was irresponsible on the part of the European Union last fall to be negotiating an Association Agreement with Ukraine that would preclude Kiev from having stronger trade ties with Moscow including some kind of relationship with the Customs Union. Certainly the Yanukovych government and Moscow bear the bulk of responsibility for the failure of those negotiations in the fall of 2013 and the Obama Administration for not paying closer attention to the possible explosive dangers of these negotiations as well. It was not, is not, and willnot be economically or politically viable for Ukraine to lean West at the expense of Russia or vice versa. Many other states bordering on Russia, such as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, must also find a balance in their economic and political ties with Moscow, Brussels, and Washington as well as other major players including China, Turkey, and others. If we really believe in multilateral, positive-sum outcomes, then we need to practice what we preach rather than immediately demonize Moscow for holding a monopoly on zero-sum thinking.
Third, although Moscow was not solely responsible for the Ukraine crisis, we must also be aware that Vladimir Putin appears to have embarked on a highly nationalistic and revisionist foreign policy as the principal means for galvanizing domestic political support within Russia. Other factors like the impact of Libya and Syria, fear of a “colored” revolution in Russia, and the emergence of Moscow-based opposition in 2011 have certainly played a role to push Putin in this direction. But the stagnating Russian economy is probably the overriding reason. For much of the fourteen years of Putin’s de jure and/or de facto reign, increasing economic prosperity was the bedrock of his political popularity. Since his return to the Presidency in 2012, Russian economic growth has fallen from 3-4% to virtually zero, with the IMF reporting negative 0.5% growth for the first quarter of this year. Despite the stagnant economy, Putin appears to have clearly decided not to undertake many of the reform measures that could set Russia back on a more sustainable and robust growth track. He has likely decided to avoid such measures to improve the investment climate and reduce corruption because they could erode the foundation of his political power. This means the nationalist, aggressive, and anti-Western turn in Russian foreign policy is likely to continue, especially as it pertains to pressure on Russia’s neighbors.
Fourth, due to the fact that the crisis in Ukraine emerged mainly because of Ukrainian vulnerabilities, any successful long-term resolution of the crisis will be the result of working closely with the Ukrainians to strengthen their sovereignty. My view since the military occupation of Crimea on February 28th has been that we needed to focus much more on strengthening Ukraine than on punishing Russia. Economic and financial sanctions are a very limited policy tool with a lot of potential downsides, and their implementation, including the threat of sectoral sanctions, are not the main cause of the relatively positive, at least for now, outcome in Ukraine. The principal reason why Putin decided to hold off on more extensive territorial gains and destabilization of the Presidential elections, in my view, was the fact that the campaign was not going well. The turning point was the sham referenda held in Donetsk and Lugansk on May 11th where it was clear that there was inadequate support for the “oppositionists” who came across as a group of thugs and sociopaths with no positive political program besides causing mayhem. Ukrainian sovereignty, sans Crimea for now, has been saved by the actions of the Ukrainian people. When it comes to punishing Russia, Putin appears more than capable of punishing his country with his stagnation-promoting economic policies.
So with Moscow’s challenges to the independence and sovereignty of its neighbors unlikely to abate, we need to think much more comprehensively and strategically about how we can craft economic, security, and political policies towards the states of the South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia), and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) as well as Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine. A first step is to gauge what each country individually would like to see in U.S. policy towards them. Yes, this means that we should listen and engage in a real dialogue rather than insist on a policy that we believe should be in their national interests. We should assume that each state can decide on their national interests on their own; though this does not mean we can or should meet all of their desires.
Since 1991 we have founded our policies towards all of these Eurasian states on strengthening their independence and sovereignty. In my extensive travels and discussions with representatives of all these states over the past year, I can confidently conclude that all of them would like a stronger relationship with Washington. This was true before the Russian annexation of Crimea and the desire for stronger ties with Washington is now only greater. It is almost like a law of physics that Russian aggression leads smaller neighboring countries desiring stronger relations with other major powers, especially the United States, in order to hedge their own sovereignty.
As we craft this strategy, we need to keep in the forefront of our minds that while these are states on the territory of the former Soviet Union, we should think of them in the middle of the huge Eurasian supercontinent stretching from Europe to China, from Russia to India, and the Greater Middle East to Southeast Asia. Eurasia is a truly multipolar environment in which the post-Soviet states seek to strengthen their ties in multiple directions as the essence of their foreign and security policy strategies. Perhaps Kazakhstan best epitomizes this “multi-vector” strategy as it shares such large borders with both Russia and China. The comparative advantage of the United States is that it can play the role of off-shore balancer—it will never be perceived to be a direct territorial threat to any of these states. Ironically, when I call for the Obama Administration to develop a Eurasia policy and start with the post-Soviet states, I really have in mind something that is part of a much larger strategy towards a Eurasia that is much larger than the territory of the former Soviet Union.
The dynamics on the “World Island” as the noted British geographer, Sir Halford Makinder, described the Eurasian supercontinent more than 100 years ago, are in a period of substantial and rapid change. Indeed, the continent is reconnecting through networks of transit and trade ties reminding many of the ancient Silk Road that linked the continent up until the advent of sea trade more than 500 years ago. The Central Eurasian states, many land-locked or with limited access to the sea, can strengthen their sovereignty by having more freedom of choice in the direction of their key exports and imports. The current “New Silk Road Vision” of the Obama Administration is a step in the right direction, but it is too limited in its scope as it only focuses on one transit corridor linking Central Asia to India through Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Ultimately the market will be the final arbiter of which trade routes will be most dominant in the newly emerging Eurasia. The United States should leverage its potential as an off-shore balancer to focus on becoming an equal opportunity facilitator for all Eurasian states to expand their choices as ultimately greater market-based and fair competition can strengthen the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine and the many other states of Eurasia that currently fear domination by one state or another.
Andrew C. Kuchins is senior fellow and director of the Russia Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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