First off, I am not an expert on Russia or even a political scientist. In the first case, I do not care and in the second, I prefer to be relevant. This treatise is independent of the current conflict other than as an example. There lots of cool theories and a well read scholar could talk about pragmatic politics and the relevancy of various theoretical strategies in inter-state conflict. I am not so interested in that line of thinking. When you are a politician there is an inherent requirements that you “do something” even when doing nothing is just as valid a course of action.
When thinking about the Crimea and Russian nexus of issues there is a political divide between those who think the United States should at all costs engage in if required military action. A group thinks that doing nothing is just as valid of response. The middle ground is people who think the response should be to engage in diplomacy through economic and political levers of power. I look at the levers of power and the concept of grand strategy slightly differently. A friend once referred to me as an isolationist but I do not personally describe myself that way. I am more about not allowing other countries choices to define my choices. I do not have a cute international relations theory to toss behind that, but I see strategy directed by an adversary acting upon my resources as a negative.
Treaties and agreements hold sway only when both parties abide by the letter of the agreements. The violation of a treaty gives the bad actor the ability to define the when and where of an international incident. The domestic up swell in forcing some if any action can catastrophically destroy the strategic advantage of choosing place and time of adversarial action. The decision to not react on a field of conflict defined by an adversary has negative consequences in the domestic political environment. In my view those who say response must be immediate and swift have given up the narrative of action for political pandering. I would rather have a discussion of how to build the requisite resources to solve the underlying problem rather than the incident du jour.
The strategic underpinning of my philosophy of action is that there are things that I control as a nation state, there are things that the adversary controls as a nation state, and there are shared resources where control balances between myself and the adversary. Laying aside the left v. right or conservative v. liberal pandering of action helps to understand that unilateral action is not just at the nation state level. More pointed there is action without consideration of consequence in the words of most pundits.
Though not an exhaustive list each entity in the conflict controls their own:
- Disposition of military forces
- Internal political processes
- Natural resources and policies of those resources
- Economic trade and sanctions
- Foreign aid expenditures
- Banking and monetary system
- Technology uptake and adoption
The shared resources with others
- Allied and opposed military force disposition
- External political processes
- Corporate hegemony
- International shared governance (UN, ITU, etc)
- Associated treaty and economic agreements (WTO, G11, etc.)
- Disaster recovery and incident response
- Social good will
The overt mechanisms of power are those that are controlled directly and act upon the mechanisms of power that an adversary directly controls. A simplistic example is military on military altercation. A more subtle mechanism of power is advisory and mutual training of two militaries where the overt mechanism is suborned to an external control. This is where strategic action and strategic influence often are mistaken for each other.
How do these levers and mechanisms of power work in a situation like Crimea? The overt utilization of power would be to activate military response and attack Russia. Few would suggest that. Similarly, some would say “saber rattling” which to me sounds hollow. The shorter the strategic vision horizon of response the hollower the response sounds. Tariffs and seizure of assets is economic pressure but shortly those items become integral to the cost of doing business and lose effectiveness. In wildly different economic models the efficacy of tariffs and asset seizures are often not aligned with strategic goals, and in many cases they backfire on the instigating entity.
To overcome the current crisis a strategic evaluation of the mechanisms and likely results of activation of those mechanisms gives a few interesting though not exhaustive scenarios. Looking at those things directly controlled and the indirect elements of response helps. It is suggested that Russia exerts direct control over the oil it supplies to Europe and any direct action against Russia will result in response against Europe through economic means. In other words, act against Russia directly, and Europe gets to pay a lot more for oil. Looking at what Russia directly controls in oil, gas, military, and you must look at the levers that can be used against those assets. Energy export is the lifeblood of the economic resurgence in Russia in m opinion.
Absent direct action against Russia what is a nation state to do? Ignoring the obvious, a series of energy policies with short life spans, working on energy independence of Europe would be interesting. The economic infusion to halve crude imports into Europe from Russia in 3 to 5 years would have more impact on Russia than a small turf war. Complete oil independence in a decade would have strategic level impacts near term, cripple Russia expansion, and defenestrate the wobbling smaller countries. Is this too aggressive of time line and politically sensitive? Costs for energy independence and closing the risk loophole for Europe are likely substantially less than a war and incredibly better environmentally.
Part of the strategic imperative is to create a toothless, crippled, and decrepit adversary as a lesson to others who might transgress. Crippling the direct action that an adversary has on your national influence is step one. Creating a self replicating reduction in capability so that direct action is never needed against that adversary is the necessary fulcrum. Those kinds of goals are not achieved through a strategic horizon that ends at the tip of your nose. Careful consideration of the dependence of Russia interests and interdiction of those capabilities should allow for long-term reduction in Russian influence.
Some will say “globalization’ as a panacea or overriding influence of Russian interests. What I am suggesting is the use of those same principles of globalization as strategic levers and controlling mechanisms for adversarial action. Rather than a refutation of the principles of globalization I am suggesting a utilization of those principles to knock the knees out from under Russia. As an example, who would Russia sell energy to if not Europe? Syria? Getting bulk energy into China will be an interesting trick.
In the end the policy debate is likely moot as actual action is difficult to create when pandering to political processes over ride the strategic imperative