President Obama has dismissed Russia as a “regional” power that “leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology.” But the Obama administration has consistently underestimated Vladimir Putin and continues to do so by asserting that Russia is isolated. Putin has laid the groundwork to assemble a powerful alternative to the transatlantic alliance.
Russia stands at the center of dozens of nations uncomfortable with or unsuited to the Western principles that President Obama described as “self-evident.” They chafe at Western control of global institutions and norms. Putin aims to offer them alternatives and is strengthening key relationships that will allow him to do so — with disgruntled mid-powers such as India, with regimes that have been kept at arm’s length for their behavior and with certain European political elites.
It is wrong to think that Crimea is Moscow’s only strategic objective. As Putin’s stock at home soars, he is likely to methodically challenge the European Union and, especially, NATO. Russia’s willingness to use overwhelming force and the West’s inability to effectively respond give him two key advantages.
As the real possibility of force hangs over Russia’s neighbors, Putin will focus resources on the launch of the Eurasian Union next year. This new alliance is not a Soviet reunion tour — it is far more geographically ambitious. Russian exports of military equipment and oil will help the Eurasian Union assemble geopolitical capital far beyond Europe’s borders.
Very few nations can produce the arms and energy they need. This is where Russia comes in. India and China, for example, have large militaries that depend on Russian technology. Gazprom is finalizing a massive gas supply deal with China that builds on an earlier oil agreement, and Rosneft is seeking a long-term oil deal with India. Neither nation has a history of disagreeing with Russia on the international stage; both were among the 69 nations that did not vote to condemn the Crimean “referendum” at the U.N.
Another Russian export — ideology — aims to erode the European Union. The Russo-Orthodox morality that shrouds Putin’s union also has been deployed tactically to build political relationships in Europe, particularly with far-right parties.
Putin’s fascist allies in Europe contest the inclusive democratic basis of the European Union and even its very existence. They are the vanguard of excuse-making for Crimea — witness Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party saying the E.U. has “blood on its hands” for “provoking” Putin, and insisting that the union should have no organized defense or foreign policy. Farage’s party is no fringe element: It’s expected to take about 20 percent of the vote in May’s European Parliament elections.
Far-right parties in France, Greece, Italy, Hungary and elsewhere share the anti-minority fervor of Putin’s United Russia. They are expected to rise sharply in the May European Parliament vote and form a disruptive anti-E.U., pro-Russia bloc — a fear reinforced Sunday when France’s National Front did much better than expected in local elections. These parties amplify the voices of Putin apologists already on the payroll across Europe’s political spectrum, notably former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, now of Gazprom, who has praised Putin as a “flawless democrat.” Some openly wonder whether E.U. member states might also join the Eurasian Union.
A demoralized and divided E.U. would stand in contrast to the promise of the newly launched Eurasian Union. Its appeal would go well beyond trade and travel benefits, perhaps by promoting an alternative reserve currency as a way to undermine Western-dominated international institutions.
This idea has fascinated Moscow for years. In 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev even showed fellow Group of 8 leaders a sample coin of a “united future world currency ”; more recently, Moscow has touted the Chinese yuan for the role. Creating an alternative to the dollar and euro is no simple task, but the financial impact on the United States would be enormous.
Putin’s recent foreign policy projects provide a list of recruits for such a project. He has actively redefined ties with Cold War allies, including India, China and Vietnam; offered material support to high-profile “bad actor” regimes such as Syria, Iran and Venezuela; and championed relationships with members of the BRICS emerging markets group, which last week condemned the G-7’s treatment of Russia. These are potential core stakeholders in a new economic system parallel to one that has under-served, sanctioned and ignored them.
This economic partnership would not be merely a second coming of the Non-Aligned Movement. Together these states represent more than 20 percent of global economic output. Their cooperation could morph into the values-free military alliance with expeditionary capacity and ambition that Putin wants so desperately to stand up to NATO.
Russia’s current foreign base in Syria is a simple model: a small foreign presence, loads of Russian armaments, serious capacity to alter regional dynamics. Only “footprints” are needed to project Putin’s version of “responsibility to protect”— support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ilk, but under obligations like those found in NATO’s Article 5 that compel group members to come to each other’s defense.
This alliance would begin to give Putin the validation he craves and the bipolar world he insists is essential for stability. The Eurasian Union is the core and the linchpin; his further alliances add economic and military clout that encourages smaller partners to coalesce toward these benefits.
Meanwhile, more crises are triggered in the transatlantic partnership. In minimizing the scale of the Russian threat, Obama has put transatlantic policy in reverse by downplaying support for NATO aspirants. He has weakened the alliances we need to protect us and defend the values he advocated so eloquently — even while we face an opponent seeking a self-defined counter-alliance that might be easier to assemble than we hope.
We were blindsided in Georgia in 2008; it is happening again in 2014. Everyone still hopes Putin will stop at Crimea. But hope is not a strategy. Waiting and reacting to each move by a revanchist leader is a losing proposition; we must anticipate and deflect his moves. It would be a grave mistake not to plan for a prolonged, multi-layered confrontation. Failing to do so will undercut the values that generations of Europeans, Americans and their allies have rightly fought to advance.
Molly K. McKew and Gregory A. Maniatis were advisers to Georgia’s government during and after the 2008 war with Russia. They are independent consultants who advise governments, foundations and international organizations on foreign policy and strategic communications.