Crimea, a Pyrrhic Victory?

However the Ukraine crisis ends, it is now clear that Russia is not the partner America has expected. Both countries have crossed a Rubicon, and there is no going back. So the United States needs a new game plan for managing Russia.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, America was charitable; to compensate the Kremlin for its loss of superpower status, we ignored its foibles and gave it an outsize role on the world stage. When the United States met resistance to plans for its war in Iraq in 2003, Condoleezza Rice counseled: “Punish France, ignore Germany, forgive Russia.”

But after Russia’s grab for Crimea, America is done forgiving. This is not the start of a new Cold War, but Americans now know they will contend with a troublesome Russia over the coming years — one that fears American encroachment on its turf in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, and is confident that it can defy the West.

President Vladimir V. Putin may well have overplayed his hand, however. If he gets his way in Ukraine, as he seems to expect, that would be a Pyrrhic victory; America has the upper hand in the broader competition for power and influence that will follow. However much Russian ambition profited from American inattention as tension in Ukraine built, the Kremlin will not do as well when it faces American competition.

America’s immediate concern now must be to contain the crisis; its current mix of diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions, combined with its strong support for the government in Kiev, is a good start. But to change Mr. Putin’s strategic calculus, America must expose his hubris and convince him of the high cost to Russia of his foreign policy.

First, we must counter his overconfidence in the growing dependence of Europe and Asia on Russia’s vast energy reserves. Europe has invested its future in natural gas, which Russia alone can provide at prices and quantities that can keep European economies competitive. But the United States can rewrite its laws to allow energy exports and invest in liquefied natural gas terminals for ships carrying the fuel to Europe. America’s gas would be more expensive than Russia’s, but the mere fact of an alternative would sap Russia’s leverage to blackmail Europe with threats of price rises or cutoffs.

After Russia, Iran has the world’s second-largest gas reserves, and it, too, might compete with Russia to supply Europe and Asia. Mr. Putin understands this; in 2007, he went to Iran offering to temper the international pressures on that country, to give Iran an incentive to shun two proposed pipeline projects pointing toward Europe. Russia has since offered financial support for pipelines to Armenia and Pakistan, as an alternative. The last thing Mr. Putin wants for Iran is an end to its isolation from the Western economies.

Indeed, an Iran in conflict with the West has been a strategic godsend to him. So long as Iran’s rich gas reserves remain off limits to Europe, Russia can hold the Continent hostage. Meanwhile, he can barter with the West for concessions to Russia’s own interests, in exchange for his collaboration on matters like Iran’s nuclear program.

The West has to change that equation, and use Iran to its advantage instead. The merest hint that Iranian gas might soon flow to Europe and Asia would begin to do that. And if nuclear talks succeeded in bringing Iran fully back into the global economy, Russia’s hold on Europe would be a thing of the past.

The United States has never recognized Russia’s claim to its “near abroad”; since the 1990s, Washington has encouraged the European Union and NATO to move east. Washington should now apply that principle to the Caucasus and Central Asia and seek closer partnerships there. Russia will resist, as it did in Georgia in 2008, but it would do so at a growing cost, especially if it no longer had Iran as a partner.

In addition, Russia’s problems with Muslim societies are bigger than the West’s. Some of its restless Muslim regions are turning to extremism; that is why Russia has always looked at the Arab Spring with suspicion, fearing that successful Arab rebellions would inspire Islamic risings in Russia. From the start, Russia saw the Syrian uprising as a black-and-white choice between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and a takeover by Sunni Islamic extremists, and put its bets on Mr. Assad’s butchery. That has won it few other friends in the Middle East, but until now, American acceptance of Russia as a partner has protected it from much damage to its relationships in the region. America must free its Syria policy from the drag of its Russian anchor.

The deal brokered by Moscow to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons was an achievement, but it came at the cost of legitimating Russia’s position on Syria. In reality, Russia has been no help in finding a political solution that would end the killing there. It has no intention of pushing Mr. Assad into a deal. And after Ukraine, it should come as no surprise if Syria starts to backtrack on its chemical weapons promises.

The United States should declare an end to its partnership with Russia on Syria, escalate diplomatic and military pressure on Mr. Assad and seek a diplomatic solution on its own. There is precedent for doing without Russia; NATO did so in Kosovo.
For too long, America has played down its difficulties with Russia. But Russia now poses a clear and present strategic challenge to the United States that is at least on par with any from Iran or China. American foreign policy needs to accept the challenge and pivot to Russia.

Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.

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