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Russia Has Bigger Plans Beyond Ukraine and Belarus

Russia
Image: Creative Commons.

During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, after learning Nikita Khrushchev had broken his commitment not to deploy nuclear-capable ballistic missiles on the island, John F. Kennedy called Khrushchev a “f*cking liar” and an “immoral gangster.” Hours later, JFK told his senior advisors, “we certainly have been wrong about what he’s trying to do in Cuba.”

So too with Vladimir Putin and Ukraine. Despite wide-ranging debate in the West, Russia’s objectives remain obscure, as do Putin’s and Alexander Lukashenko’s goals in next-door Belarus.  In fact, Putin is pursuing a macro strategy throughout Russia’s “near abroad,” while the West’s approach is micro. Never forget Putin’s lamentation about the USSR dissolving, or that thirty years ago observers said of now-Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “he’s not a Communist, he’s a czarist.”

Moscow is probing the entire “grey zone” between NATO’s eastern border and Russia’s western border: not just Ukraine and Belarus, but also Moldova and the Caucasus republics. Moldova’s “frozen conflict” with the Russian-created Trans-Dniester Republic; Russia’s ongoing occupation of two Georgian provinces;  and Moscow’s recent pro-Azeri intervention in its conflict with Armenia, all demonstrate the Kremlin’s hegemonic or outrightly annexationist policies entangling the six grey-zone states. (The five Central Asian former Soviet republics face their own Russia problems, worthy of separate consideration.) Treating each conflict singly rather than strategically falls into Putin’s trap.

The Kremlin’s wider perspective is exemplified by its increases in Black Sea naval drills, and rising complaints about the U.S. Navy’s “provocative” presence there. Black Sea dominance would threaten not only Ukraine but also Georgia, intimidate NATO members Bulgaria and Romania, and induce angst in Erdogan’s increasingly erratic Turkey. Which of the several Russian threats are imminent and which less so is unclear, as in 1962 when Kennedy feared Khrushchev was holding Berlin hostage to dissuade a strong U.S. response to Russia’s Cuban adventurism.

The West’s collective inability to muster effective opposition policies underscores our nearsightedness. Confronted with widespread Kremlin misbehavior, Washington is responding by agonizing whether NATO exercises are the issue. Coming from Joe Biden, this is ironic, recalling Trumpian solicitude for Kim Jung-un’s criticism of U.S.-South Korean joint exercises, while belittling Kim’s far more serious threats.

Meanwhile, Europe continues navel-gazing. Berlin’s new governing coalition’s agreement doesn’t mention NATO’s pledge that members spend at least 2% of GDP on defense, but strikingly supports more cooperation among EU militaries, a long-standing European chimera. The new Franco-Italian Quirinale Treaty similarly commits to strengthening EU defense strategy instead of stressing NATO.

This persistent inattention and introversion obviously give Putin substantial maneuvering room for hybrid-warfare tactics suiting Moscow’s interim objectives, particularly on sequence and timing, and setting the stage for future struggles.  Today, new provocations may come sooner rather than later not because of Russian strength, but because it fears impending political or economic weakness. An aggressor can conclude it has only temporary advantages, thus encouraging striking before the balance shifts. Even worse, Putin could be coordinating with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with one regime’s rhetoric (say, China on Taiwan) intended to divert attention from the threat in Europe, in exchange for similar reciprocal aid from Putin to Xi later. Or vice versa.

Effective Western responses must recognize Moscow is pursuing a broader, more-interrelated, longer-term agenda than we have heretofore acknowledged. Even if Putin is improvising as he goes, and he almost certainly is, it is to seize targets of opportunity as they arise, manifesting Russia’s nimbleness, unfortunately, not strategic uncertainty. So, while increased military assistance to Ukraine, shutting down Nord Stream II, boycotting Russian oil, and other diplomatic and economic sanctions are all warranted, they will never be enough.

Washington must move beyond reacting to Russian provocations one by one, and through NATO, not the EU. Russia’s game, while whole-of-government in implementation, is far more politico-military than economic. NATO’s central geostrategic question is how to deal with the grey zone as an integrated problem-set. The Alliance’s eastern expansion never adequately considered where to stop, or the consequences for states left beyond NATO’s treaty guarantees, in the grey zone. The immediate task is not levying blame for this history, but deciding now which grey-zone countries are serious NATO candidates, loosening whatever grip the Kremlin has on them, and preventing new constraints from being imposed (such as a potential coup in Ukraine). Moscow must unambiguously hear both our intentions and our will to achieve them.

For those still not making the cut, NATO must decide how to protect our interests and deter Russia, while acknowledging that, by definition, the remaining grey-zone states are more vulnerable than NATO members (as all six are now at risk from unrelenting Kremlin efforts). While we grapple with these fateful decisions, NATO should tell Russia (yet again) that military changes to the status quo are unacceptable. After years of similar rhetoric, whether Putin will believe us is uncertain.

Once decided, NATO should begin unraveling the “frozen conflicts” and other entanglements Russia has imposed on prospective new NATO members. One case that should be a priority is eliminating the Trans-Dniester Republic, an artificial entity entirely dependent politically on Russia. Pressuring Moscow for the full reunification of Moldova would divert Putin’s attention from Ukraine.  Another distraction would be increasing international attention to Georgia’s seized provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The West’s failure to stand up to Russia’s 2008 attack on Georgia led directly to Russia’s later seizure of Crimea and the Donbass. Returning the favor to Moscow would alleviate stress on Ukraine, and also highlight the pattern of Russian behavior NATO needs to reverse.

Obviously, there is much more to do. Clearly, merely assuming defensive postures against belligerent Kremlin moves is neither the grey zone’s road to peace and security nor NATO’s.  Especially in the wake of the catastrophic U.S.-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, now is the Alliance’s time to show it is alive and well in its own heartland. The message to Moscow should be:  there are no easy days ahead.

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.

Written By

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. informedvoter

    November 26, 2021 at 7:31 pm

    You also cannot discount the importance of US politics, with the Republicans gaining ground and the potential that a 2024-28 Trump administration would be “very tough on Russia” i.e., would likely allow Putin to do whatever he wanted.

  2. Sanel

    November 27, 2021 at 7:22 am

    What is proposed here will require significant nato presence in the Black sea. For that having Turkey on board is essential. However that is probably unlikely due to incompetent hypocrites such as the author of this article. You see it’s just impossible to call for action of this type while at same time lead an organisation with such a name as Turkey Democracy Project which promotes neither Turkey nor democracy. It is a project to meddle domestically in other’s affairs and instigate chaos. The likes of Bolton here are not qualified for what is requested here. The most they could be entrusted with are perhaps local agricultural issues and the like. International politics is just above their mental capacity

  3. Sanel

    November 27, 2021 at 7:42 am

    I think the one thing that mustn’t be discounted is that such prospects as suggested in the article could blow in one’s face to such degree that recent Afghanistan debacle will seem like spelling contest. An average dose of reality seems like science fiction to some of these authors for too long unfortunately

  4. Joe comment

    November 27, 2021 at 11:15 am

    Bolton’s description of what happened in the Cuban Missile Crisis is not correct. (1) Russia said it would not place offensive missiles in Cuba, but it was not a “commitment.” (2) In 1962, Russia cared a lot more about Berlin than about Cuba. The missiles in Cuba were to help them threaten Berlin, not the other way round. Of course it doesn’t directly affect his main argument here, but it does undermine his credibility.

  5. ttt

    November 27, 2021 at 11:40 am

    Kissinger is dead. Its about time Bolton should hurry to join him.

  6. Slack

    November 27, 2021 at 4:59 pm

    Ukraine and Belarus are 2 entities NATO & USA want to swallow and turn into minions.

    After the US state dept 2014 coup in ukraine, the nation became neo-fascist and then used massive firepower on civilians in Donbas region.

    But in Aug 2014, donbass rebels inflicted a heavy defeat on ukrainian units at Ilovaisk and then in Feb 2015, rebels wiped out elite units in the battle of Debaltseve thus giving them a taste of their own medicine.

    Now, NATO and USA are whining about ukraine and belarus strictly because of the past failures in 2014 and in 2015.

  7. Gud

    November 27, 2021 at 7:28 pm

    I think that the author is not trying to do his job

  8. Joe Comment

    November 28, 2021 at 1:45 am

    There is a vicious cycle here. Russia feels threatened by NATO expansion and takes actions to prevent it. This in turn threatens the potential future NATO members and makes them more motivated to join it. Bolton’s solution is for NATO to try to impose its will. But this means Russia’s solution also will be to try to impose its will. This is a highly dangerous game of chicken. What’s needed is a way for both sides to back off. For example, Russia would probably be more open to resolving the crisis in the Ukraine if permanent non-NATO status of Ukraine were part of the deal.

  9. Sanel

    November 28, 2021 at 7:10 am

    Nothing radical can be achieved for Ukraine in terms of Russia threat in short term. Everyone knows that. The author of this article knows that better than all of us. I’m just sick and tired of these overpaid wastes of space playing with American lives like we’re all expendable. And for what. The phrase ‘skin in the game’ means alot. And other than further self benefit this author has none. When the day comes when both him and Michael Rubin volunteer for any service will be the day I’ll be willing to hear what they have to say. Until then gentleman please keep your propaganda to yourselves

  10. MrRussian

    November 28, 2021 at 9:40 am

    This article is a bit delusional.
    Khrushchev decided to put missiles to Cuba in RESPONSE to American nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy of that time. Kennedy obviously freaked out and demanded to turn the ships with missiles around. Khrushchev agreed but only after Kennedy promised to remove the missiles from Turkey, which he did (carefully omitted fact by the majority of American politicians).
    “NATO’s Eastern board” became that close to Russia only after the US broken its promise to Gorbachev not to expand NATO to the East, also often omitted fact. And now the US wants Ukraine to be part of NATO and Russia says “that our red line”.

  11. Richard Schulman

    November 28, 2021 at 9:54 am

    Ambassador Bolton writes: “Moscow’s recent pro-Azeri intervention in its conflict with Armenia.”

    This is way off. Moscow supported the Armenians, not the Azeris (Azerbaijan).

    I suggest the ambassador asks for a briefing from Hudson’s Mike Doran.

  12. Joe Comment

    November 28, 2021 at 10:55 am

    The biggest flaw in the author’s argument here is: “NATO should tell Russia (yet again) that military changes to the status quo are unacceptable.” Russia told NATO that before the Kosovo incident, before Gulf War II, and tells it when some people (including the author himself) advocate potential war with Iran. Actions speak louder than words. If Bolton wants to tell Russia that military changes to the status quo are unacceptable, he can start by agreeing that military force is not a potential solution to the Iran question. Otherwise his position is, “Our military changes to status quo good, their military changes to status quo bad” and I see no reason for Russia to accept that.

  13. Frank Blangeard

    November 28, 2021 at 11:24 am

    I was going to read this article. Then I saw it was by Bolton and I realized it was drek.

  14. Alex

    November 28, 2021 at 12:33 pm

    People like Bolton really want war. Just because of people like him, ordinary Americans will have to pay. Only Russia is able to erase the whole of North America from the map. Bolton will be responsible for this?

  15. Tony

    November 28, 2021 at 6:35 pm

    Kick Germany out of NATO.

  16. Des InDublin

    December 8, 2021 at 9:19 am

    I enjoyed reading this article. But I think there is a flaw. Russia is going to invade nowhere. It simply will not happen…. however China will invade Taiwan and that is going to happen. So is it possible that Belarus will be ‘used’ as the proxy for a war with Ukraine?…..yes. A ‘false flag’ or take your pick of excuses, if there is a Ukraine government attack on the separatists and breaking of the Minsk agreement and Belarus (armed to the teeth by Russia & Russian private armies) may intervene. This ‘war’ would see NO military response from EU states and a frustrated America & GB (Northern Ireland to busy with internal divisions). Such a war would be the prelude to an invasion of Taiwan (can America co-ordinate opinion in favour of two wars – east & west?). But the question remains what are Putins ambition? To Russia, this is a chess game still. I believe the ambition is to make NATO irrelevant & obsolete. Encouraging an EU military (which would be no match against Russia) would allow Russia back into the ‘great game’ of the 18th & 19th century. Mark my words – Russia will not invade any of these countries if it destroys its central abominations in its relationship with the EU. Remember, Russia is Christian, & renascence in Culture, Art, Music, Science, Literature and in many other aspects it is western. It is an evolving democracy. It is likely to become a much more democratised country after Putin. China already has territorial claims on parts of Russia’s Far East. In this Far Eastern part of Russia there is both fear and resentment of China seeking & plundering it’s natural resources. Russia has a healthy fear of China but is not so foolish as to offend the Chinese Dragon. Watching Putin (the extraordinary Politician of our time) develop and balance Relationships with India and without an option, China, suggests strongly to me that military actions against America & allied democracies lies to the Far East. Politics, relationships and engagement are the answer to Russia. …. I mean this with the upmost respect, but like our favourite pet dog, Russia just wants to be loved and part of the ‘family’ of western nations but treated with respect & equality – this is an exaggeration of course, but unfortunately the American view of Russia is practically toxic and there is now a gulf in understanding between an American ‘fantasy’ view of Russia and the actual reality of what Russia and Russians are really like.

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