THE BLOG
01/30/2015 04:52 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2015

Why the West's Strategy of Containing an 'Aggressive' Putin Is Misplaced

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Since the March 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and the initial forays of Russian military forces into Eastern Ukraine, Western policymakers, academics and media figures have frequently depicted Russia as an aggressive power and Putin as a belligerent statesman who seeks to destabilize the international system to maximize Russian power. The notion of a neo-imperialist Putin, who presides over a Russian military that has unchecked hegemonic ambitions, has induced fear of Russian military intervention across the post-Communist region. While Lithuania's development of a contingency manual to prepare its citizens for confrontation with the Russian war machine is perhaps the most striking manifestation of this new Cold War hysteria, Eastern Ukraine remains the most widely discussed potential invasion target for Putin.

On the surface, the heavy demographic concentration of ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine, latent Euro-Skepticism and the continued salience of the West-East cleavage in Ukrainian politics, provides a strong rationale for these invasion fears. Russia's dwindling economic leverage and the Kremlin's historic reluctance to escalate military campaigns beyond incursions into comparatively easy-access autonomous territories raises serious doubts over the relevance of these fears. Overemphasis on the dubiously premised need to contain Russian aggression has distracted attention from Ukraine's dire domestic economic and political situation, and has undermined prospects for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

We will provide evidence for our assessment that Putin is very unlikely to attempt a military operation in Eastern Ukraine, through the analysis of Russia's economic constraints, geographic considerations as well as highlight the implications of arms trafficking in the current crisis. Also, we will also illustrate the deleterious effect that prioritizing the containment of Russia will have on the crisis currently festering inside Ukraine.

The Role of Economic Constraints

While Russian policymakers have engaged in a great deal of inflammatory rhetoric, the most recent statement being Putin's declaration that NATO forces in Ukraine are "foreign legions," the severe economic constraints Russia faces as a result of declining oil prices, a collapsing ruble and the stiffening sanctions regime, raises serious questions regarding Russia's willingness to convert belligerent speeches into military action. While Russia's economy admittedly showed signs of weakness prior to the oil price slide and the invasion of Crimea, the costs of reconstructing infrastructure and promoting economic development in Crimea are estimated at around $4.5 billion a year, a major economic burden in the current climate. The incorporation of Eastern Ukraine would result in even steeper economic costs, as the takeover of responsibility for suspended pensions alone will cost $2.6 billion.

While Putin has deftly managed to maintain high approval ratings at home by invoking the "rally around the flag" effect and drumming up the national Russian spirit of self-sacrifice that was born in the World War II experience, the massive costs and more extensive international isolation that would likely result from a takeover of Eastern Ukraine, could irreparably damage Putin's reputation as an agent of economic prosperity. Furthermore, in contrast to Crimea, where historical legacies and perceptions of a common Russian heritage, aided Putin, economic elites and oligarchs in Eastern Ukraine will be more resistant to cooperate with Russia. In the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, 70 percent of Eastern Ukrainians supported the retention of Ukraine's territorial figure (the corresponding figure for the Russian majority in that region was 58 percent).

The exercise of restraint in the aftermath of the military intervention in South Ossetia in 2008, as Putin did not extend military efforts to the entire Caucasus, indicates that the Kremlin is careful not to conflate a pro-Russian alignment with a desire to unite with Russia. The economic costs and geopolitical fallout of enforcing a Russian occupation on a population that does not desire it, explicitly contradicts Putin's strategic interests, which have been defined by a defensive desire to protect his sphere of influence from what he perceives to be aggressive NATO encroachment.

Geographic and Strategic Factors

Putin's successful (albeit costly) assimilation of Crimea into the Russian Federation was meticulously calculated and occurred as a result of a unique combination of favorable conditions. Putin's strategy in Crimea directly benefited from brewing political tensions, the region's history of autonomy, the arguably legitimate presence of Russian troops in Crimea as a result of the Black Sea Fleet, and the long shared border between Russia and Ukraine.

The chain of events in Crimea closely parallels the events in Georgia during the 2008 South Ossetia crisis. In both of these cases Putin's perception of NATO expansion as a threat to its security interests compelled him to intervene. These defensive motivations are underscored by Russia's new military doctrine, which explicitly labels NATO as the most significant strategic threat. The Poroshenko regime's stated ambitions to join NATO and the recent annulment of Ukraine's non-aligned status, directly play into Putin's fears and will likely implore him to maintain a Russian military presence in Ukraine for the foreseeable future. However, in light of the economic costs outlined earlier, the modus operandi that Russia will likely employ in Eastern Ukraine is continued destabilization rather than outright annexations of territory.

Even though the air of nostalgia to restore Russia's regional dominance might lurk in the background, Russian neo-imperialism is a practical impossibility in the current international system. While Russia's intentions to destabilize Eastern Ukraine can be explained from a strategic standpoint, it is improbable that Russian belligerence will diffuse to EU member states like Lithuania, as the costs of such an intervention would likely be catastrophic. Russia's economic woes and demographic stagnation indicate that its relative power is dwindling and render further Russian military occupations even more unlikely.

Implications for the Containment-First Strategy Towards Russia on the Internal crisis in Ukraine

While the world's attention is preoccupied with entertaining the possibility of Putin's invasion rampage, this misplaced focus distracts greatly from the internal crisis brewing in Ukraine. The absence of a peaceful resolution increases the chances of a spillover of the current civil war into the central and western parts of the country. The conflict has been exacerbated further by the movement of illicit weapons, which are moving westward primarily from the war-ravaged Eastern Ukraine. President Obama's response to these developments has so far been tepid. Obama recently signed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which provides military assistance to the Ukrainian government and allows for additional sanctions on Russia. This limited commitment will inevitably only prolong the crisis further as current levels of assistance are not nearly sufficient to ensure Kyiv emerges triumphant.

Hungarian billionaire George Soros, who has close connections to anti-Russian civil society organizations in Ukraine, recently suggested a $50 billion dollar financial package, which would essentially "buy" Ukraine off from Russia's sphere of influence. . However, this proposal grossly neglects the financial reality of the EU leaders themselves who, realistically, will not provide more funds to Ukraine to prevent it from bankruptcy or to counter Kremlin's alleged nationalist expansion. Most importantly, this proposal does not provide a tangible means of resolving the worst obstacle to economic prosperity: the ongoing conflict in Ukraine that has claimed at least 5,000 reported lives.

Thus far, prospects for a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine crisis have been undermined by the continuous stream of violence, and deep-seated distrust that has undermined cooperation between all parties involved. A self-reinforcing cycle of violence has been created in eastern Ukraine and distorted illusions have been formulated about Putin's intentions in other parts of Eastern Europe. This speculation overlooks the compelling evidence that Russia is on a trajectory of economic and demographic decline, the West's misplaced fears of further Russian aggression will only increase the likelihood of a persistent and potentially escalated conflict in Ukraine.