The Russian Bear Growls
“Governments come and go, but Russia remains.” – Vladimir Vernadsky
Russia is on the march again. This time, Vladimir Putin–the shirtless Tsar of the new Russian Empire–is poised to cleave Eastern Ukraine away from the state of Ukraine. What will the new Trump Administration do? Will they cave to him? Will they threaten war? I believe it will be neither. Trump has no desire to war with Putin over Ukraine and I think he will not seriously try to stop him from taking more of Ukraine. The only solution outside of war with Russia will be to combat the Russian Bear with patience, time, and assertive global leadership buttressed by a rebounding economy.
Toward that end, Mr. Trump’s recent comments on the need for a more assertive U.S. nuclear warfare doctrine and his desire to rapidly expand the U.S. military indicates that, in the long run of his presidency, Mr. Trump will be in a far greater position to check the Russian advance through Europe. We should remember that geopolitics is a marathon and not a sprint.
“Let it be an arms race–we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” – Donald J. Trump to MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski
Recently, the Ukrainian government reported that their country suffered a debilitating blackout due to a cyber attack. It is widely believed that Russia is behind this attack. Indeed, over the last year, Russia has been building up their armed forces along the Ukrainian border in what many assume–myself included–is a first move toward a greater Russian annexation of yet another part of Ukraine. (I believe that Putin will likely move to slice Eastern Ukraine away from the rest of Ukraine, as he is taking regions of the country with large portions of ethnic Russians. And, after Crimea, Eastern Ukraine has the next largest ethnically Russian population in Ukraine).
Until Trump assumes office on January 20, Mr. Putin will continue to build up his forces outside of Ukraine. I suspect that he will lay low over the next month until he feels that he has amassed enough of a force to do a lightning strike into Eastern Ukraine.
Once the Russians feel comfortable with their force presence on the Ukrainian border, however, it is likely that Putin will either do one of two things: use the increased Russian force presence on the border to antagonize the West (as he will attempt to use the newness of the Trump Administration to his advantage) in order to grant him massive diplomatic concessions or, he will simply repeat his invasion of Crimea–before the West has a chance to respond.
If it is the latter, I believe that a President Trump will feel the need to counterpunch, much as he did to his opponents throughout the campaign. As such, the probability of some form of conflict would be high. But, I do not believe that this will be Putin’s preferred method of annexation. The costs are far too high for him and the outcome is far too uncertain.
Vladimir Putin & Coercive Diplomacy
I suspect that, given Putin’s penchant for maximizing his position through coercive diplomacy first, Putin will use his increased force presence to get diplomatic concessions from the new Trump Administration. Putin believes that Mr. Trump has a transactional view of foreign policy. Therefore, Putin will try to use his increased level of forces (compared to the West’s pittance force available to counter the Russians) as a lever to get Trump to concede Eastern Ukraine. He will likely try to convince a President Trump that there is a deal to be made over Ukraine.
Furthermore, Putin understands that Trump’s definition of American national interests are dissimilar from the usual American foreign policy elite’s view of the national interest. Like many Americans, I think that Trump disbelieves that warring with a nuclear-armed Russia over Ukraine (or any of the other Baltic states, for that matter) is in the U.S. national interest. The President-elect has already stated that he seeks a more cooperative relationship with Russia over combating terrorism and creating greater global stability. Therefore, warring over Eastern Ukraine seems to run counter to the Trump viewpoint.
While warring with Russia over Ukraine is not in the American national interest per se, preventing Russia from dismembering Europe is in the American interest. Therefore, it is essential for the incoming Trump Administration to understand that there are real risks by not standing up to Mr. Putin’s agitations in Europe. As Angelo Codevilla brilliantly surmised over at American Greatness:
“While he [Putin] has pushed only against mostly open doors, entirely too many doors from the Baltic to the Mediterranean have been open. The doors leading to the Atlantic are ajar and undefended politically as well as militarily. Putin has moved to the edge of resistance. But serious resistance has been lacking. This means that circumstances and opponents’ incompetence, as much or maybe more than Putin’s willfulness, may make of Russia a Eurasian hegemon inimical to America’s interest.”
The Trump Administration must accept that it has been dealt an awful hand by its predecessor; that the United States has made commitments that it cannot simply break in Europe (though it can–and must–alter some of them), and that America must close many of those “open doors” to the Atlantic as soon as possible.
However, I do not believe that Ukraine is the place to make such a stand. It is too close to Russia, both geographically and culturally. Also, Ukraine is not an official member of NATO, meaning that the need to defend it with American blood and treasure becomes murky. Plus, Ukrainian military capabilities are nowhere near what they need to be in order to rebuff an invading Russian military.
Recently, the RAND Corporation conducted a study that determined that the U.S. would need a minimum of seven brigades deployed to Eastern Europe in to keep the Russians away from taking more of Ukraine. While expensive, this can be done. But, is such a proposal serious? Most of the troops in the theoretical U.S. force deployed would consist mostly of light infantry (think of the 82nd Airborne) with only three of them being heavy infantry (forces that use heavy armor, like tanks).
This would be fine if the Russians deployed similar forces. But they have not. The forces that Russia has deployed to the Ukrainian border are almost exclusively comprised of heavier forces, brimming with massive armor and artillery. Such a force would overwhelm any proposed American and NATO defense of Ukraine. Remember also that Russia retains the world’s largest tank force. Let us also not forget that Russia has a preemptive nuclear warfare doctrine and we still do not have a firm grasp on what would incite the Putin Regime to implement such a doctrine (although Putin’s adoration of his old mentor, Yuri Andropov, should give us pause when seeking greater antagonism with Russia over Ukraine). Against such a Russian force, the RAND study acknowledged that:
“Attempting to use these light, foot-mobile forces forward against the much heavier and faster-moving Russian units left them exposed to being pinned and either bypassed or overrun and destroyed in detail. In either event, they did little to slow the enemy advance. They proved unable even to retreat, since they literally could not outrun their pursuers.”
Unfortunately, the current force posture under President Obama precludes such a possibility of deploying believable forces to deter Russian revanchism here (not without seriously degrading American fighting capabilities in other theaters). What’s more, who wants Ukraine more, Russia or the U.S.?
Putin is a dedicated Neo-Eurasianist, meaning that acquiring Ukraine is a central tenet to his worldview. Yet, losing Ukraine, while tragic, is not something that I believe that Mr. Trump views as a dire situation for America’s core interests.
Right now, something has to give.
The incoming Trump Administration is going to need to buy time for its military modernization and expansion efforts to take shape. Furthermore, Trump is going to seek Russia’s assistance in combating terrorism. Even still, the rise of Far Right movements throughout Europe indicates that previously Russophobic European countries may, in fact, end up welcoming Russia as a bulwark against Jihadism (though Russia’s actual history of serving as a defender against Jihadism is not as great as Putin and his supporters claim them to be).
Mr. Trump, along with the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, will rebuild our military. He will increase its size, strength, and capabilities. But that will all take time. In the meantime, the Trump Administration will need to stabilize relations with Russia to a degree so that it can effectively help to resolve the Syrian Civil War, combat terrorism, contain Iran, and pivot to Asia. Antagonizing Russia over Ukraine when NATO, the U.S., as well as the Ukrainians do not have the force posture to effectively defeat Russia in combat is strategically stupid.
Until the Trump military modernization and expansion can take shape, however, I believe that Trump will agree to cede more of Ukraine to Russia in exchange for more stable relations with Russia. Still, the possibility of deploying a force of Americans to block any further Russian advances is not outside the bounds of reality. It is simply that, without heavier armor–in far greater numbers than are available–to deploy against Putin, and without committing those forces indefinitely in Ukraine, it is likely that Mr. Trump will not seek to jeopardize American lives in a potential lost cause against Russia. Not when he needs Russia to help in the Mideast and to potentially counterbalance against China.
Passing the Test
The test that the Russians will put forward for Trump in his early presidency will be one that would require President-elect Trump to go to war over Ukraine. This will not happen. I suspect that Mr. Trump will allow the Russians to take Eastern Ukraine. At the same time, he will redouble his efforts at expanding the military and modernizing our nuclear forces.
As time progresses, America will have rebuilt its ability to stand toe-to-toe against the Russians. As it does this, the Trump Administration must look to states in Eastern Europe with the ability to counter Russia with minimal U.S. and NATO assistance. Increasing America’s support of the states that comprise the Visegrad Battle Group is a great start.
Mr. Trump should seek to verbally placate Mr. Putin, while simultaneously arming up the likes of Poland. It would be wise to look at reinforcing the Nordic Battle Group as well, at the same time urging the original NATO members to fulfill their treaty obligations and fully fund their commitments to NATO. The reason that the U.S. will need to empower sub-regional battle groups, like Visegrad, is because America cannot wage war everywhere all at once and, frankly, NATO is undependable.
In the near-term, it is likely that we will have to accept a greater Russian hand in regions near its border that have large numbers of ethnic Russians. In the long run, however, as President Trump exhibits strength and decisive leadership on the world stage, as the U.S. military is built up to Reagan-era levels of dominance, and as the U.S. economy rebounds, the long-term goal of checking Russian revanchism can be fully realized–at minimum cost to American troops and equipment.
Therefore, while the media and his critics will accuse President Trump of failing the Russian test, we must remember that geopolitics is a marathon, not a sprint. Putin will not be able to exert his will upon an American military that has the size that Trump and his Republican allies in Congress envision. Time not only heals all wounds, as Churchill once said, but, when combined with bold leadership, it can defeat any adversary.
The Union affirmed this belief against the Confederacy in the American Civil War. The British proved it against the Nazis in the Second World War. Unfortunately, the North Vietnamese confirmed this claim against the United States during the Vietnam War. Lastly, the United States validated this notion with its stunning victory over the Soviet Union in an interminable fifty-year Cold War.
Under President Donald Trump, America will use time to accomplish a similar task against an irredentist Russia–only with far less violence and expense.