This Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy podcast reviews the unfolding military escalation on the Russian-Ukrainian border, as Russian forces strengthen their posture and pose a potential stress test of the Biden administration, U.S. European allies, and the NATO alliance. To discuss this potential crisis in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, Newlines Institute Senior Analyst and head of the Authoritarianism Program Nicholas Heras is joined by three top analysts on Russian foreign policy and Eastern European geopolitics: Caroline Rose, Eugene Chausovsky, and Jeff Hawn.
Caroline Rose is a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute for Policy and Strategy and is a foreign policy specialist on the Middle East and Europe. She is the head of Newlines’ Strategic Vacuums Program. Eugene Chausovsky is a non-resident Fellow with the Newlines Institute, focusing on the political, economic, and security issues pertaining to Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East. Jeff Hawn is an independent geopolitical risk consultant based in London. He has published extensively on U.S.-Russian relations and the evolution of Russian domestic and foreign policy.
In this discussion, they cover the local, regional, and geopolitical dynamics of this crisis in Eastern Europe, and to forecast the potential consequences of a new Russian campaign in Ukraine.
Since the Russian intervention in Crimea in the Black Sea region and the emergence of the Donbass conflict in 2014, Russia and Ukraine have locked horns over Russian-backed separatist forces that have seized large areas of Ukraine’s eastern and Russia-bordering Donbass region. Despite efforts to achieve mediation and a permanent cease-fire, the conflict has continued to simmer, with repeated clashes between Ukrainian soldiers and Russia-backed separatist forces in the border region, without spilling into open fighting between the two countries.
Recent Russian moves to deploy an estimated 4,000 personnel and a series of combat brigades, artillery, armor, and logistical units-from different parts of Russia to within close proximity of the Russian border with the Donbass has raised alarm bells in Kyiv, Brussels, and Washington. There is now concern that Russia may launch an offensive into Ukraine and increase aggressive behavior towards former Soviet satellite states in an attempt to carve out greater influence in its Eastern European periphery.
While Ukraine is not a NATO member and the U.S. advisory presence in Ukraine is small, a renewed Russian-backed military campaign in the Donbass region would impact the more than 72,000 U.S. military personnel who are deployed in Europe and threaten NATO’s interest in protecting European territorial integrity.
Heras started off by asking the looming question on policymakers’ minds: Why is the Kremlin acting now? Hawn assesses Russia’s practical and political imperatives: Eased weather conditions with the arrival of spring have allowed it to reimpose its presence and build out its combat capabilities. Hawn maintains, however, that the escalation along the Russia-Ukraine border may reflect both inherent strengths and weaknesses of Russia: Russia is not actively losing the conflict, but it is not winning, either. Chausovsky notes that the frozen nature of the Russia-Ukraine conflict likely points to the fact that Russia is seeking greater leverage in the region and decreases the likelihood of any successful mediation efforts or attempts for a permanent cease-fire. Collectively, Chausovsky, Hawn, and Rose agree that direct hostilities arising from this crisis are unlikely at this time since there has been no renewed attempt for an offensive by Russian-backed separatists or Russian targeting of Ukrainian command-and-control as has happened before. Rather, they point to the fact that this buildup signals a larger Russian shift to seriously prepare for conventional military conflict with Eastern European states, NATO, and potentially the U.S.
On a corresponding U.S. and NATO response, Caroline Rose asserts that the buildup will force the Biden administration to recalibrate its defense strategy in Eastern Europe and increase the rate of its rotational presence in key locations such as Germany and Poland. Rose asserts that while an immediate offensive is not likely in Ukraine, Russia’s attempted change to the balance of power in Eastern Europe will play on some of the sensitivities former Soviet satellite countries have over territorial integrity and play on the “collective memory” of the 2008 Russian intervention in Georgia. As a result, it is likely that Eastern European countries will behave more hawkishly and lobby the U.S. for greater security assistance along the border with Russia and Russian client states like Belarus.
Reflecting on his recently published Newlines Institute terrain analysis on Russia’s foreign policy aims, Hawn noted that the buildup in Ukraine directly relates to Russia’s aims to serve as a chronic disruptor to its rivals’ military interests and maintain strategic stability. Both Hawn and Chausovsky noted that Ukraine is a case study into Russia’s renewed interest in returning to its European periphery and conventional conflicts following a series of costly ventures in the Middle East, such as in Syria and Libya. Answering Heras’ question of what Russia’s long-term aims in Ukraine are, Chausovsky notes that the Kremlin and specifically President Vladimir Putin are very mindful of Russian limitations and therefore seek to undermine and isolate Ukraine from integrating into the broader European defense, political, and economic sphere while being wary of overstretching itself.
Responding to Heras’ question of whether the U.S. should “die on the hill” of the Ukraine issue, Rose explains that the U.S. will seek to counter Russian encroachment indirectly in Eastern Europe, increasing its rotational deployments with partner countries like Poland and Germany while building up its conventional capabilities there and improving operational readiness. She asserts that this speaks to a larger U.S. strategy that seeks to return to the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and a larger, incremental withdrawal from other theaters such as the Middle East. Hawn builds upon this and states that the Biden administration recognizes that Russian troop movements are part of a broader trend of conventional confrontation.
Newlines’ three guests conclude with their respective “bottom lines.” For Rose, this is that the buildup along the Russia-Ukraine border reflects a larger, long-term recalibration of the balance of power in Eastern Europe, a development that will inevitably draw in greater U.S. and NATO conventional presence. For Chausovsky, it is that Russia’s build-up in Ukraine is by no means just an exercise but that it will not likely culminate into any short-term direct conflict between Russian forces, separatists, and Ukrainian forces. For Hawn, the buildup reflects a Russian imperative to increase its political and military leverage in the ongoing conflict with Ukraine and posture itself for conventional confrontation in the broader European theater.
Nicholas Heras: Hello everyone and welcome to today’s segment of the Contours podcast hosted by the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy. I am Nick Heras, the Senior Analyst and Program Head for Authoritarianism at the Newlines Institute.
Today, we will be discussing what could become a big crisis in Ukraine, which would be the first huge test of the Biden administration’s policy on Europe and NATO. Of course, the crisis in Ukraine has been simmering for the better part of a decade now, since 2014, with the Ukrainian government locked into a conflict with Russian-backed separatist forces that have seized large areas of Ukraine’s eastern and Russia-bordering Donbass region.
Russia has also militarily occupied and annexed the Crimea region on the Black Sea from Ukraine while the Donbass conflict erupted in 2014. The so-called “Donbass War” has seen multiple failed attempts by the international community — and especially Western European countries — to obtain a cease-fire that would end the fighting and create a mechanism to return Russian-backed separatist controlled areas of the Donbass back into Ukraine.
The United States maintains a small, forward-deployed military presence in western Ukraine, reportedly no more than 300 U.S. troops, to train and build the capacity of the Ukrainian armed forces to resist further Russian-backed separatist campaigns. The U.S. has also provided lethal assistance in the form of weapons, including the advanced Javelin anti-tank missile system, to give the Ukrainian government a more level playing field in its conflict against Russian-backed separatists and Russian forces in the Donbass region.
While the U.S. presence in Ukraine is small, a renewed Russian-backed military campaign in the Donbass region would impact the more than 72,000 U.S. military personnel who are deployed in Europe. It would also be an enormous stress test on the Biden team’s ability to initiate a European and NATO counter to Russian military activities in Europe and in Europe’s near abroad.
Where things stand now is dangerous. The most recent, internationally backed cease-fire that was struck in July 2020, which had been previously broken but not to the sheer amount that it has been over the recent weeks, is seemingly in tatters as the Russian-backed separatist forces and Ukrainian government forces have re-engaged in persistent fighting in the Donbass region. Further, over the last week, the Russian military has moved forces — including reportedly combat brigades, artillery, armor, and logistical units — from different parts of Russia to within close proximity of the Russian border with the Donbass.
In response, the Ukrainian government has begun deploying additional military units, including heavy armor, from western Ukraine to government-controlled areas of the Donbass region, and the Ukrainian government has called on NATO, which Ukraine is not a member of, to begin conducting training exercises inside Ukraine, a move that has been a political red line for both Russia and Ukraine’s Western European partners.
These Russian moves have been concerning enough to the U.S. that President Joe Biden has spoken with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to reaffirm Biden’s support for Ukraine,
and senior Biden administration officials including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have spoken urgently with their Ukrainian government counterparts in recent days. The U.S. European Command, which is responsible for U.S. military activities in Europe, has reportedly raised its watch level to the highest, “potential imminent crisis,” and America’s Western European and NATO allies seem prepared for the worst in Ukraine.
To discuss this unfolding situation in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, I am joined today by three top-rate analysts who work with the Newlines Institute — Caroline Rose, Eugene Chausovsky, and Jeff Hawn — to discuss the local, regional, and geopolitical dynamics of this crisis in Eastern Europe and to forecast the potential consequences of a new Russian campaign in Ukraine.
Caroline Rose is a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy. She is a foreign policy specialist on the Middle East and Europe. Caroline is the head of the Strategic Vacuums Program at the Newlines Institute, which produces work on the geopolitical effects of contested territories, ungoverned spaces, and government deficits of interest to U.S. national security and strategy.
Eugene Chausovsky is a non-resident Fellow with the Newlines Institute. His work focuses on the political, economic, and security issues pertaining to Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East.
Jeff Hawn is an independent geopolitical risk consultant based in London. He has published extensively on U.S.-Russian relations and the evolution of Russian domestic and foreign policy. Jeff is also a Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics, Department of International History, where his research focuses on the emergence of the post-Cold War order.
Caroline, Jeff, and Eugene, thank you for joining us today.
Nicholas Heras: Jeff, I would like to start off with you. Why is this seeming Russian military escalation happening now?
Jeff Hawn: Hi Nick, thank you for having me today. There is likely a variety of reasons we are currently witnessing these Russian troop movements. Some of them are very practical; others are very political. If we start with the practical, this is part of a broader shift in Russia’s military force posturing and Russia’s military reform. The units we are witnessing moving are likely part of the Southern and Western Military Districts, specifically the 8th and 20th combined guards’ armies — two formations that have been recently reactivated and are building out their combat capabilities. It is also a time in spring, where the weather has turned favorable to conducting large-scale exercises, and the choice to conduct these large-scale exercises when negotiations have stalled with Ukraine likely gets into the political aspect of these movements. It is meant to illustrate to Ukraine that Russia is still highly militarily capable and potentially capable of inflecting serious damage on it if negotiations do not shift back to a favorable state.
That said, though, Russia’s position in Ukraine illustrates both its strength and its inherent weakness. They are not actively losing the situation, but they are not actively winning either. They are essentially stuck in a strategic quagmire. At this time, I do not see any strong evidence that renewed conflict is likely. Although there have been renewed skirmishes along the line of contact, we have not seen several indicators that would point towards a resumption of open
hostilities. Though there have been movements on the Ukrainian border, there have been no movements of troops that we have been able to find within Ukrainian territory. There has been increased fighting between separatists and Ukrainian forces, but those units have mainly remained in their position — there has been no attempt by the separatists to launch new offensives. And we have also not seen targeting of mid-level Ukrainian command-and –control, which is something that happened in advance of previous escalations.
What is concerning about this, especially for the Biden administration, is these troop movements are part of a larger shift in Russia’s military posture toward the potential resumption of peer-to-peer military conflict in Europe. And that is something that in the long term has serious potential implications.
NH: Thank you very much, Jeff. I appreciate that detailed examination of the indicators that we would need to look for in order to assess the extent to which Russia might be serious about actually carrying off a military campaign in Ukraine. Caroline and Eugene, I would like to ask you, what is the impact that this potential crisis could have on Eastern Europe and especially the U.S. approach to Eastern Europe and stability in this region. Eugene?
Eugene Chausovsky: Yeah, thanks Nick. So, I think before looking at the broader impact on Eastern Europe we have to keep a few things in mind, a few things in context as it pertains to Ukraine. So, as Jeff mentioned, this conflict is nothing new, we have been seeing this happen for the past better part of a decade, and I think that the recent cease-fire violations, while they are stronger in recent weeks than they have been for probably a year or so, cease-fire breakdowns have been a persistent part of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. And I think that is not a coincidence, when they first struck the Minsk Protocol, which was essentially the peace agreement between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatist forces, that never really got off the ground because there are some fundamental features that are in conflict. From the Ukrainian perspective, they want to reestablish their control of territory in eastern Ukraine. Now, Russia views this conflict as an internal civil war of sorts between Ukraine and the separatists, whereas Ukraine and the West view it as a Russian act of aggression and the separatists are merely just proxies for Russia.
So, when they strike an agreement, there is still a different interpretation of the conflict itself and how to resolve the conflict. So, when we get into aspects of the Minsk Protocols, which have everything to do with both security and political components in terms of granting more control or granting more autonomy to the separatist territories in exchange for some security concessions like the restoration of the border, none of these can actually be reached until a cease-fire is in place, which as I have mentioned has been broken several times. So, this is essentially a long-term, frozen, simmering conflict of sorts between Ukraine and Russia that probably is not going to be resolved any time soon. Having said that, I do not see any major military escalation happening or military invasion on the part of Russia because it prefers to leave that in the gray zone and leave the separatists the ones to serve Russia’s interests. I think to your original question, that applies to a lot of different conflicts in the post-Soviet space, whether we are talking about the conflict in Georgia, even Nagorno-Karabakh, which we have seen escalate recently, and then throughout Eastern Europe with the Baltic states being contested between Russia on one hand and NATO on the other and seeing military buildup. So, I think what this does is raise the potential for some miscalculations — you can never rule out completely some
kind of accident or tripwire that causes a bigger conflict — but essentially this is a longer-term geopolitical tussle that will probably stay within this gray area.
Caroline Rose: Just to piggyback off of Eugene, Eugene I think you made a really great point here in that this is not entirely a sign of any kind of imminent offensive, although I think the memory of Georgia is hanging very prevalently over the European community and over the West and the United States. That being said, this is not saber-rattling either. I think this is Russia trying to recalibrate some of the balance of power and the security landscape along the Russian-Ukrainian border, and by sending nearly 4,000 personnel to the border, including a lot of heavy armored equipment and artillery units, this does signal that Russia is trying to reassert some of its control along the border region, and on top of that it is also a clear message to the United States.
Nick, you mentioned that this is going to be a stress test for the Biden administration; that is absolutely correct, particularly as Biden reassess his European strategy. And this is very important. There have been mixed messages with the Biden administration as to how they are going to react to European defense spending, how they are going to recalibrate its strategy, particularly in the Eastern European periphery, how they are going to interact with Polish forces, with Estonia, with Latvia, while of course balancing out the relationship with Germany. And I think Russia recognizes that there are some fractures that still exist in the U.S.-European relationship and with the U.S.’s larger trans-Atlantic strategy, and Russia is capitalizing on that. They are recognizing that these are the early days of the Biden administration, there is a wish to, of course, increase its rotational presence in eastern Europe, but they have not acted on it yet and they haven’t drawn up the plans to enact this. So, this is the perfect time to try to change the balance of power in Ukraine and along the border region.
JH: I would just like to comment on what Caroline and Eugene have said in regard to the 2008 Georgia war, or the “August War” as it is sometimes called. That was a good example of a frozen conflict which Russia had been managing for the better part of a decade and a half, perhaps longer, that rapidly spiraled into an all-out shooting war due to a variety of miscalculations and mistakes by both sides. And while these current troop movements are not indicative of a potential Russian offensive, we should not kid ourselves in thinking that they will do anything to ease tensions or de-escalate the situation. Indeed, moving more forces into close proximity raises the risk of escalation by one side or the other in the very near future and raises the real potential of a full-scale, state-on-state conflict in Europe, something that has not happened, really, for decades. So, we do need to be aware to the possibility.
And we should note on the Ukrainian side, these escalations are an opportunity to further entrench support in Western capitals and to push their case for eventual integration into NATO, something that they have been making great strides towards. And they have been reforming and preparing their military as part of a long-term strategy to better defend the remaining territory against Russia.
NH: Thank you very much, Eugene, Caroline, and Jeff, that was an excellent examination of not only how we could see Russia’s campaign potentially unfold but also begin to get at some of the second- and third-order effects that a renewed crisis in Ukraine could have on Europe and on NATO.
I want to build on this discussion a little bit. Jeff, you recently published an analysis with the Newlines Institute where you examined in depth Russia’s global military strategy and you created some very interesting categories to describe how Russia approaches its military campaigns in different world theaters. So I want to ask you to build on your work for Newlines. How would a Russian military escalation in the Ukraine, or a crisis situation that extends for several months or the better part of this year, help fit into Russia’s global military strategy? And then I want to ask you, related to that, how does a renewed conflict or crisis in the Donbass support Putin’s goals, domestic and foreign?
JH: Well, Nick in answer to your question, Ukraine is a very difficult quandary for Russia and its global military strategy. As I noted in my piece, Russia likes to act as a chronic disruptor to U.S. global and Western global interests, but it also likes to maintain a high degree of flexibility so as not to get trapped in a strategic quagmire. I think the Russian military’s experience in Afghanistan really informs this, where it is essentially getting stuck in strategic mud, you are not making progress and you lose room to maneuver.
Ukraine, like I said earlier, is a good example of Russia not losing a conflict, but it is also not winning it, either. It is essentially stuck. It cannot withdraw its support from Donbass, and it cannot withdraw from Crimea without seriously losing face. There is a strong argument to be made that the 2014 seizure of those territories was an overreaction on Russia’s part and a strategic miscalculation because while they did secure their interest of the Black Sea Fleet and they did help support those separatist regions, thus disrupting Ukraine’s ability to rapidly integrate into Western structures such as NATO or the EU, the cost, especially over the long term, has been very high. Russia has essentially been cut off from the Western systems, and round after round of sanctions only reinforce that. The Russian economy was growing very strongly before 2014, but since then it has remained in a stagnant state.
So, as far as from a domestic perspective though, it is in Putin’s interest to maintain control of Crimea for a variety of reasons. There is the historic aspects of it, there is the strategic aspects as home of the Black Sea Fleet and Russia’s traditional gateway to the Mediterranean and to the open seas. There is also just the fact that building a new Black Sea fleet base somewhere in the Caucasus would be extremely expensive and time-consuming. So, there is the practical considerations.
I would say though that they would prefer that this conflict be resolved in some manner that would allow them an honorable peace. But I do not see a roadmap out of that that would be satisfactory to all parties. Ukraine will continue to want the return of its territory. The United States will continue to want Russia to respect international protocols and precedent that territorial borders should not change. But Russia also does not want to give up Crimea or abandon its friends in the Donbass because that could significantly undermine its interventions elsewhere in the world.
EC: I would follow up on something that Jeff mentioned that I thought was a really good point in terms of framing Russia’s thinking. Jeff brought up the war in Afghanistan during the Soviet era and how that really bogged Russia down, sapped resources, it was an overstretch, and you could argue a key factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union, amongst other things. I think Putin has learned from interventions like that. So, when we look at a case like Ukraine or really any Russian military intervention that its undertaken in the Putin era, whether its Georgia, even
Syria, Putin is very mindful of the limitations of Russia. And so when we look at Ukraine, I do not think Russia’s goal is to invade Ukraine, which is why I do not really take very seriously the assertions from some that Russia is about to launch this large-scale invasion with its troops amassing on the border. I think ultimately Russia’s goal is to pull Ukraine back into its orbit. Which it lost following the Euromaidan revolution back in 2014, and that is a key reason why Russia made the moves that it did in the Crimea and in Donbass.
But, because Ukraine has been very much Western-oriented since then and is trying to integrate with institutions like the EU and NATO, ultimately what Russia is trying to do is kind of what Jeff said — to disrupt, to undermine the pro-Western government in Ukraine, to make it as difficult as possible to pursue that integration, and to basically bleed the Ukrainian state as long as necessary.
I think that yes, it is true that Russia has not been successful in terms of flipping Ukraine or getting it back into its orbit, but I think that the costs to Russia are worth it for strategic reasons. It has the direct supply routes into eastern Ukraine, it does not cost that much to back up these separatist territories in Donbass, just the same as it is the same in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. These are worthy costs for Russia in order to undermine these countries. But at the same time, Russia is wary of overstretch, Russia has suffered from sanctions, but these are all things that Putin calculates strategically. So, when we look at what Russia is doing right now in Ukraine, or what Russia could do in the future from Ukraine and throughout the European and Eurasian border lands, I think we need to keep those kinds of strategic interests in mind in terms of understanding what Russia is doing and what it could do in the future.
NH: Thank you very much, Jeff and Eugene. That is very interesting assessment on Putin’s goals and what Russia could achieve. Eugene, I want to actually follow up on some of the points you made here. As you know, the U.S. National Defense Strategy is quite concerned with this concept of a “fait accompli,” that U.S. great power rivals, China and Russia in particular, but also regional rivals such as Iran in the Middle East and North Korea in East Asia, could force this fait accompli on the U.S. or its partners and allies, and essentially achieve the goals that our great power competitors want without actually going into conflict. So, I want to ask to build off your point, Eugene, what is a feasible fait accompli that Russia could force on Ukraine as part of a renewed crisis? Would that type of fait accompli also extend beyond the Donbass region, for example into the Sea of Azov, and what type of effect could that have on Zelensky and the stability of the Ukrainian government?
EC: I think that Russia certainly has in the past, and you could argue currently, trying to bait Ukraine into taking some kind of actions to undermine its own position, and that does relate to the U.S. factor as well. If we are looking from the U.S. perspective, certainly the U.S. has provided backing to the Ukrainian government in recent years, whether that’s political support, economic support, and even direct military support in things like lethal weapons. But ultimately, the U.S. is only willing to go so far in supporting Ukraine. This is the reason why I do not think that Ukraine’s accession into NATO, and you can throw in Georgia here as well, is going to happen anytime soon because essentially while these frozen conflicts or not-so-frozen conflicts are simmering, that would pretty much pull other NATO countries, including the U.S. into directly backing them militarily according to Article V. Now, we do not know if that would actually happen, but that is I think the strategic thinking in terms of why there has been resistance or at least delays in meaningful integration on those fronts.
So, ultimately, the U.S. sees Ukraine as part of its containment effort of Russia. It wants to support countries along Russia’s periphery from Ukraine to the Baltic States to the Caucasus, but ultimately the U.S. is still involved heavily in the Middle East, although it is trying to extricate itself there, there is the case of a rising China, so these issues like Ukraine do not exactly top the U.S. agenda, although they are important. And this is something that Russia knows very well, and this is something that Russia plays within a bigger strategic context, and so we can see Russia’s involvement in Syria, for example, or even Russia’s growing relationship with China, there are direct Russian reasons for doing so that meet its interests, but it is also a means to gain leverage in the broader negotiation process with the U.S.
NH: Thank you very much Eugene for that nuanced answer, and it is interesting for us to look forward and to see how Russia could benefit in Eastern Europe and to continue to try to play on a sort of reshuffling of U.S. defense priorities globally as the Biden administration looks to pivot away from the Middle East and in particular put a focus on Asia.
Caroline, I want to build on this point of U.S. policy that Eugene raised and also sort of game out a little bit how the potential second- and third-order effects of a crisis in Ukraine or in Eastern Europe could impact how the U.S. approaches an important but still nascent policy on Europe and on NATO. From your point of view, what could be some of the second- or third-order effects of a crisis in Ukraine or Eastern Europe on the new administration’s Europe and NATO policy? And I would like to ask you, point blank, should the Biden team die on the hill of backing Ukraine against Russia this early in its administration?
CR: I think I agree with Eugene and Jeff both in that there is no imminent and high-stakes offensive unfolding right now in Ukraine. I think it is more of a long-term buildup along the periphery of Eastern Europe — and again, this factors into Russia’s behavior over the past year alone, with the escalation we saw with Belarus, some of the political dynamism that Russia tried to assert control over some of its former Soviet satellite states. This is about, and Eugene touched upon this before, this is about Russia reclaiming its influence in this periphery, it is about it turning back its attention towards Eastern Europe, recognizing some of the limitations it had in the Middle East, it had with mercenaries in Libya, it had with Syria, and refocusing its efforts there.
And so, in terms of the aftershocks with the United States and NATO, I think you are going to see a far more hawkish Eastern European lobby with the United States, you are going to see Poland lobbying for more defensive support, you are going to see Estonia, Latvia, all of the countries that are on Russia’s doorstep trying to get the United States to lend a better hand at trying to defend its borders and its sovereignty from Russian encroachment. And at the same time, I think you are going to see the United States take its European defense strategy a bit more, I do not want to necessarily say seriously, but I think it is going to become one of the top agenda items.
But of course, Nick, you mentioned that the United States is looking to increase its efforts with the National Security Strategy, with the National Defense Strategy, the 2018 NDS, and it is, and it is slowly trying to incrementally withdraw from the Middle East region. But I think this is also going to put the pressure on the U.S. increasing its rotational presence, particularly in Poland.
During the Trump administration there was a controversy over whether the United States would build a permanent base there or whether it would change some of its rotational presence closer to the Belarus border, and I think that this will raise that question again in a Biden administration, potentially. I also think that it is going to convince the United States to watch other blind spots in Eastern Europe as well. I think that Belarus is also going to be a country to watch here. I think that as a client state of Russia, it is quite possible that Russian forces and Russian influence through Belarus will also apply pressure, not only to Ukraine but also to U.S. allies in Eastern Europe.
So, I think that the U.S. is going to try to look at this from a bird’s eye view, it’s going to reassess some of its rotational presence, it’s going to continue building on an agile force around calvary brigades and heavy conventional forces, and I think that it’s going to really convince the U.S. to double down on some of these efforts. Now whether the U.S. is going to die on the hill of Ukraine, certainly Ukraine I think is more of an existential question for Russia rather than it is for the United States, but it certainly is a key that unlocks a lot of the security landscape questions within Eastern Europe, and it is a top priority not only to the United States but also of course in the EU and to the NATO alliance. So, I think the U.S. is going to take this very seriously. If there is escalation, I do not think the U.S. will necessarily try and engage on a parallel level, I do not think we are going to necessarily see the U.S. become very hawkish over Ukraine, but I think the U.S. is going to try and pinpoint different pressure spots that can convince Russia to of course deescalate and to reconsider some of the moves that it is making along the Russian-Ukrainian border.
JH: I think Caroline’s made some excellent points there, especially on U.S. force posture. I would just add that in the long term, U.S. relations with Russia have oscillated between three points: coexistence, confrontation, or cooperation, and it is usually somewhere between two of those, but rarely between all three. Since 2014, we have definitely seen a sharp shift towards confrontation. So, the Biden administration is really just building on what has happened before, and it needs to make a decision of whether it wants to continue on this path of confrontation or if it wants to try to shift its relationship with Russia. And I do not currently see an opening for that. Certainly, the Biden administration likely feels that it needs to protect Ukraine because not doing so raises the risk of other U.S. allies growing very concerned with their own security in Europe.
I would just add, though, that on a macro scale, these Russian troop movements are somewhat alarming. They are part of a broader trend we have seen growing, essentially over the last 10 years. We have seen, as Caroline was mentioning, we have seen an American military which has shifted its mindset from fighting non-state actors in rural areas like Iraq or Afghanistan towards once again fighting on the battlefields of Europe. And we have seen the U.S. increasing its drills and force rotations in Europe. And we have also started to see European countries, which for decades after the Cold War consistently cut their defense spending, begin to increase it once again. And Russia has also expanded its joint military drills, specifically with China and with its Central Asian state partners. So, the risk of peer-to-peer military conflict once again seems to be a real possibility in the not-too-distant future.
But unlike the Cold War, which was not that long ago, there seems to be much less concern about potential escalation from conventional to nonconventional conflict, and that is something I personally find very concerning. The Cold War did not escalate because both sides wanted to
avoid absolute escalation at all cost, but they became closer than we would all like to admit several times. So, U.S.-Russia relations will be a very critical part of the 21st and even the next century of international affairs. And the Biden administration will need to make a decision on whether they want to continue to pursue a policy of aggressive confrontation or try to move back towards a state of perhaps mutual distrust and dislike, but mutual coexistence.
NH: Thank you. Caroline, I really do agree with your point when you talk about the pressures that the Biden administration is going to have to think through when it looks at its policy toward Europe, NATO, and Eastern Europe. And the point that you raise about Poland, and how during the Trump administration, Poland became this sort of nexus through which the U.S. policy debate and discussion on how a future U.S. force posture should be arranged in Europe is well-taken. And I think you have raised that excellent point. In fact, you can also see it play out in the congressional debate, where you had different camps on Capitol Hill trying to put different types of policy pressure on the then-Trump administration, and we see it now in the early part of the Biden administration. How should the U.S. orient itself in its policy on Europe and NATO? Is it useful for the U.S. to put a strong focus on Ukraine, or is it better for the U.S. to try to shore up that flank, that frontline posture in Poland, and to shore up that flank on the Baltic Sea and let the Ukraine sort of play itself out?
We even saw this in terms of the chatter in how the Biden administration, the incoming Biden team, was trying to game out with European allies how should an effective, U.S.-led, European-powered global strategy to counter Russia’s activities be designed? There is some very credible reporting that the U.S. wanted to focus very much on a global messaging campaign, and essentially to take a strong push in support of a global alliance of democracies versus authoritarian competitors. And the European allies wanted to focus more on the down and dirty, in the mud, gritty details of situations in Eastern Europe that could flare up very quickly and could provide a very difficult decision point for Western European countries on how to respond, and whether they can collectively respond, in the face of a quickly moving and rapidly deteriorating crisis. So, these are all excellent points.
Well, I want to give each of you the opportunity now to offer us some final thoughts on this discussion. So, I would like to turn to Caroline first, and thank you Caroline again for very interesting assessment on how the U.S. can develop its approach.
CR: Of course. Thank you, Nick, for some great questions and some points to really think about. I do want to make a quick point about Poland before I move onto some of my final thoughts. I think Poland is where we are going to see a lot of U.S.-Russian contestation unfold. We started to see it a bit in the Trump administration, but I think the Biden administration, which has improved trans-Atlantic ties, I think that we are going to see that really start to unfold in the next two to four years. Now, of course, the U.S. has already started to increase its rotational presence in Poland, especially with short-term deployments within eastern and central Poland. But the U.S. is also reviving V Corps, which focuses on a very conventional cavalry brigade that can be rapidly deployed and it will conduct forward operations, and I think that speaks very much to the unfolding U.S. strategy of trying to return to a more conventional operational focus and increase its operational capacity in Europe.
Right now, we have got a series of divergences with Europe that we really do need to start to patch up. Nordstream II is of course one of them with Germany. We also have some disagreements over defense spending and budgetary allocations and proper political strategy between the United States and Europe. But I think that Russian encroachment in Eastern Europe and a potential escalation along the Russian-Ukrainian border, I think that certainly will help unify some of these divisions within the European defense community, NATO, and the United States.
In terms of my final thoughts, I think that this is an important stress test for the Biden administration, but in some cases, there are opportunities that the Biden administration can capitalize on. It helps them plan, it helps them really find out where are the blind spots that exist in their Europe strategy, and I think it will quicken their response time, especially when designing a particular strategy with NATO and designing their defense strategy in a return to the 2018 NDS. I also think that this will help Europe as well increase some of their defense spending, even in the wake of COVID-19, and try to get on the same page with their Eastern European counterparts and the United States. So, I think there are some windows of opportunity that the United States can work on here. And also, like Eugene said, and Nick you mentioned this as well, find spots of collaboration with Russia, with trying to get them to the table. I do not necessarily think that at least in the short term that Russia is going to try and return to any kind of peace format in Ukraine, but there are spaces for opportunity and spaces for cooperation with Russia that the U.S. really should try and return to in Europe and in the international order more broadly.
EC: I think Caroline makes some very great points. I would just conclude by saying that we can learn a lot about the Ukraine conflict by actually looking at another conflict in the former Soviet space in the form of Nagorno-Karabakh, which we saw flare up into a major military confrontation last year and is still ongoing in some form, although it has become more peaceful. But I think what that showed is that these so-called “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet space are never truly frozen. So, with Ukraine, this is something that has been on the back burner, it has been something that has been very low level in recent years, but it never truly ended. Now we are seeing these cease-fire violations and potential escalation flare-up. So, I think that shows these conflicts are always in play to some degree.
Another point related to Nagorno-Karabakh is that Russia’s ultimate interest and concern in these territories is to try to entrench its own influence and prevent the influence of other powers or other players. In Ukraine, it is the U.S., it is NATO, it is the EU In Nagorno-Karabakh, we saw the emergence of an important player there, which was Turkey. Now, Turkey and Azerbaijan have long had a strategic relationship, they have long been allies, but Turkey’s role was largely rhetorical. What we saw over the course of the last year was that support for Azerbaijan increased substantially, everything from drones to even allegedly facilitating mercenaries from Syria into the conflict, and that was huge in tipping the scales toward Azerbaijan and against Armenia, which has a Russian military presence. And while Russia ending up coming out pretty good in the conflict — it was able to deploy 2,000 peacekeepers, it solidified its presence — it really had to factor in the growing presence of Turkey there.
And so, this I think points to the longer-term concerns of Russia. Because its demographic outlook and its econom
its presence in these territories right now. But ultimately Russia faces an uphill struggle in that longer term. So, what I think that means is that whether it is in Ukraine or Nagorno-Karabakh or any number of these Soviet periphery territories, these regions can be expected to become quite dynamic in the coming months and years.
JH: I would just close by saying that I think Eugene and Caroline have both made valuable points and I think maybe we should change the vocabulary we are using. Rather than referring to these as “frozen conflicts,” we should refer to them as simmering conflicts which risk boiling over at any point in the near future. There are many of them, and they do seem to be proliferating on the Russian border. Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former Russian prime minister, famously said of the 1990s, “We wanted the best, but it turned out the same as always.” And it appears that in the long run, the U.S. and Russia are on a course for a 21st century which will see them more as adversaries and less as potential collaborators, or even friends. So, looking ahead, the peace in Europe that has lasted since the end of World War II looks doubtful, but hopefully it is something that the Biden and future administrations can continue to manage and contain. And potentially bring Russia to the negotiating table and bring about a sustained peace that all sides can potentially live with.
NH: Thank you very much, Caroline, Eugene, and Jeff, for a detailed, nuanced, and timely discussion on a potentially large crisis that could erupt in Eastern Europe in the Donbass region of Ukraine. I want to thank everyone for listening today, and we will continue to maintain our sentinel stare on the situation in Donbass, in Eastern Europe, and Russia’s military activities in Eurasia. All the best.