The situation in Ukraine is creating some consternation among the deep thinkers in the Think Tanks and while I think there is some cause for concern I think that at least some of this consternation is not only misplaced, I think it includes at least some underlying view that America is imperialistic. However, while it is tempting to beat that tired old liberal drum once again, it is probably more productive to take a strategic view.
The underlying attitude seems to be that the Ukraine is a buffer state between Russia and the west with the west being NATO. Many of the former Soviet States have already joined NATO and others may join in the future – possibly Ukraine. With NATO sitting on its western border, Russia would then be defenseless and surrounded by American spheres of influence to the west and south. This is an untenable position for Russia so they cannot allow Ukraine to move into a western orientation – i.e. join NATO, but is this conclusion valid?
Certainly, Russia would like to restore its former power and once again become a power capable of balancing American power. The Ukraine is vital to that strategy for two reasons. First it was the intellectual capital of the USSR and secondly, it also was the breadbasket. It also formed a buffer state between central Russia and the West and it is this fact that seems uppermost in the minds of the think tankers, but is it relevant?
I think the idea of buffer states is a little quaint and has little relevance in modern warfare. This idea is predicated on the idea that wars of the future will be fought between nation states using vast armies of men moving en masse as they have in the past. Personally, I think the Gulf War was the last of the wars of big battalions. We have aircraft capable of flying nonstop to anywhere in the world and returning. We have missiles that can strike at will anywhere in the world – as do the Russians. So what role does a buffer state have in that type of scenario? Increasingly battles are fought with special forces at strategic points, not using massed divisions sweeping across territories like the Mongol Horde. At one time irregulars were viewed as poor soldiers not capable of inflicting great harm or overcoming organized opposition, but this is no longer true.
In Viet Nam the special forces – or irregulars played an important role and began to change the face of warfare. Since that time these irregulars have become mainstream and SecDef Rumsfeld is remaking the American Army with these special forces as the core. This is being copied by military worldwide. The current battles in Iraq are largely being fought with irregulars and certainly the major threat today is the Islamic radicals who are an irregular force. Therefore, the idea that Russia needs and must have a buffer state between its borders and NATO doesn’t seem to be a crucial or strategic issue, but a political and economic one.
The real strategic threat to Russia – if there is one – is the EU. Some of the former Soviet Republics have joined the EU and if the Ukraine were to look westward the EU would represent a greater threat than NATO. While it is true NATO is a military organization it was originally created as a counterweight to the USSR. Since that no longer exists, NATO has much less relevance and it increasingly viewed as a sort of central police force. The real threat to Russia is from the EU and the economic power it represents. If the Ukraine orients itself to the West and Europe then economic ties to the EU are unavoidable. Russia is struggling to throw off the shackles of communism but as anyone can see they are having a difficult time. Putin is increasingly becoming a dictator – a virtual Tsar in the making. The economy of the country is in a shambles through corruption and the legal system continues to be just as corrupt as it was under the communists. With the Ukraine under the influence of Russia then the Ukraine does indeed become a buffer state but not necessarily a military one but an economic one. If the Ukraine forges ties with the EU then capitalism – or at least what passes for capitalism in Europe – will bring greater economic growth to Ukraine as well as social and political order. This event will not be wasted on the Russians and thus the Russian government could become unstable – meaning that the reformed communists and their criminal allies could be in jeopardy.
So while the deep thinkers are not totally wrong in their geo-political thinking I think the real threat to Russia is more pragmatic and rooted not in military issues but economic ones.