By Lili Bayer
Summary The United States and Russia have been engaging in high-level negotiations over Ukraine. The U.S. is implementing a dual strategy, engaging with Moscow while also boosting its military presence in Central and Eastern Europe in an effort to limit Russian influence. Both countries have fundamental strategic interests at stake and several cards to play.
There are few places that evoke collective feelings of fear and betrayal the way Yalta does for the residents of Central and Eastern European countries. The seaside town in Crimea was the site of a historic meeting in February 1945, where U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided the fate of post-World War II Europe, shaping the formation of western and eastern blocs on the continent. For Central and Eastern Europe, Yalta has become a symbol of Western geopolitical considerations trumping their own aspirations for freedom and independence.
Today, watching high-level negotiations between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine and Syria, the greatest fear for the region’s governments is another Yalta moment – a moment when the U.S. opts to grant Russia significant concessions in Eastern Europe in order to make a deal. But a Yalta-style deal between Washington and Moscow is not coming. Washington’s ultimate goal is to reach a negotiated settlement on the status of Ukraine, whether formally or informally, that would allow Ukraine to be at the very least militarily neutral, while also deterring Russian assertiveness and limiting Russian influence in the region.
One of the United States’ chief strategic goals since the early 20th century has been to prevent the rise of a hegemon in Europe. The U.S. intervened in both World Wars and fought the Cold War in order to ensure that no single power could dominate the Continent. At the same time, U.S. strategy in Europe has been to engage in costly fighting on the Continent only as a last resort: during the World Wars, the U.S. aided allies through loans and supplies, but only became involved in large-scale combat when it had become apparent one power could indeed dominate the continent.
The U.S. strategy toward Russia that is now unfolding has remained grounded in America’s century-old approach to Europe. The U.S. is committed to undermining rising Eurasian powers like Russia while avoiding direct military confrontation. Therefore, the U.S. is implementing a two-pronged strategy when it comes to the region – engaging in negotiations with the Kremlin over Ukraine, while boosting its military presence in Central and Eastern Europe.
The U.S. and Russia are in the midst of negotiations over the future status of Ukraine. The U.S., in keeping with its strategy in Europe, is unwilling to send American troops to defend Kiev, but it is also working to limit Russian influence in the region and avoid any return to a pro-Russia Ukraine. As a result, earlier this month, CIA Director John Brennan visited Moscow. Then, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with both Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin – the latest in a series of high-level talks on both Ukraine and Syria. As we have written, the Ukrainian and Syrian crises are intimately linked: Moscow has used its involvement in Syria to boost its negotiating position with Washington. The two sides are working to craft a settlement that would both satisfy Russia’s defense needs and America’s requirement of limited Russian influence in the region. The deal will thus likely include a measure of autonomy for Donbass and a requirement that the government in Kiev, while pro-Western politically, will not benefit from significant defense assistance from the West.
The second element of U.S. strategy is boosting Western military presence along NATO’s eastern edge. On March 30, the Pentagon announced continuous troop rotations of U.S.-based armored brigade combat teams to Europe. According to U.S. defense officials, by the end of 2017, there will be a total of one armored, one airborne and one Stryker brigade in Europe, in addition to one pre-positioned set of combat-ready equipment sufficient to support another armored brigade combat team and division-level enablers. This announcement is merely the next phase in a process that began after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the onset of fighting in eastern Ukraine. Over the past two years, both the U.S. and NATO moved to boost their presence and cooperation with countries like Poland and Romania and the Baltics. The U.S. aim is to use these moves to both reassure its allies in the region and deter Russian assertiveness.
Russia is unlikely to respond directly to U.S. moves in Central and Eastern Europe. First and most important, despite the size of its military and its status as a nuclear power, Russia cannot afford a direct confrontation with the U.S. and NATO. Also, the U.S. deployments in the region were not designed to be offensive. In fact, the deployments were likely planned in a way to signal to Moscow that Washington is not looking for a serious escalation. Therefore, Russia has no incentive to risk a direct confrontation.
Moscow’s options, therefore, involve indirect moves against U.S. interests. Russia can engage in covert operations in the region or information wars. It can support certain anti-establishment political parties within Europe, as it has already done in countries like France and Hungary. It can also make limited military moves in peripheral countries that are not NATO members. Furthermore, Russia can opt to insert itself into a crisis and make itself useful to the U.S. in a certain theater – as it has in Syria – in order to improve its negotiating position.
Russia is unlikely to engage in a significant, large-scale military operation in the near term. It is important to remember that Russia’s involvement in Syria, even at its height, was limited and relatively low budget. Russia is facing serious financial difficulties, and has already been forced to cut its defense budget by 5 percent this year. While Putin has argued that the cuts will not affect Russia’s military modernization drive, Sergey Chemezov, the head of Russia’s industrial conglomerate Rostec, has publicly said that he expects defense orders to be cut by 10 percent this year. The Russian government often uses foreign policy as a means to boost its domestic popularity, but as the country’s financial problems grow, the Kremlin is more likely to prioritize certain categories of domestic spending in order to maintain stability at home.
Moreover, Moscow’s influence in the Baltic states and Central Europe has eroded over the past few years as these countries joined NATO and the European Union. While Europe is experiencing its own internal crisis, the Baltic states and Central European countries are all heavily dependent on the EU economically – in terms of trade, investment and funding. Nevertheless, Russia can try to shape political developments in Central and Eastern Europe through the use of Russian businesses, economic ties with elites or ethnic Russian communities in some countries.
In the long term, Russia will face demographic and strategic challenges that will make it weaker. As Russia struggles, it could pose a greater threat to U.S. interests in Central and Eastern Europe. Despite ongoing talks between Moscow and Washington, America’s solution to the Russian challenge will not be a slew of concessions to the Kremlin in a deal reminiscent of Yalta. The U.S. is selectively negotiating and deterring Russia, with the aim of limiting Russian influence while avoiding direct confrontation in the region.