Several recent events along a geographical line of unofficial demarcation in the tension-addled zone of influence currently contested by both the Russian government and the governments of the Western alliance (including the United States, Canada, and the members of the European Union) have once again altered the character of the conflict itself. So what is going on? Why do countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia matter to United States policymakers? What in the world (or at least Eurasia) is going on over there, and why is such a complicated situation of concern to the U.S. and Europe?
Instead of bludgeoning you, the reader, with quotes and references, this article is designed to be a small explainer piece—something to help the reader understand, in a generic sense, the conflict between Russia and the West. It’s not a thorough historical analysis of ethnic territorial battles, wars of nationalism, or a high-minded academic piece on the causes of war. It’s meant for you, the reader, to find a bit more clarity as to why events in the past year seem to lead from one into the next.
Some interesting byproducts of the conflicts beginning to boil throughout Europe are a rise in far-right parties in the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Finland, and Sweden. In this respect, the economic effects of the conflict are leading into political effects. The changing landscape of the conflict between Russia and the West is eliciting great consequences for the near and distant future of the European continent and Eurasia.
Former Soviet Republics
To begin, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are former Soviet republics. Each traces its modern independence to the period following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Moldova is a good example of why recent political agreements are consequential to the events in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.
Recently, the European Union’s parliament has ratified an association agreement (AA) with Moldova, effectively placing Moldova on the path to membership in the European Union. In order for the AA to be officially recognized and implemented, it must now be ratified by the parliaments of the 28 member states. If a state votes against ratification of the AA, Moldova will remain outside of a clear path to membership status.
Given the recent parliamentary election in Moldova, one that eventually saw a slim margin of victory for pro-EU parties and a loss for those calling for closer ties with Russia, the former Soviet republic will require significant reforms in its political, judicial, and economic infrastructure to clear all of the hurdles required for eventual membership in the European Union. The AA provides a roadmap to that membership, outlining specific policy reforms that will ensure democratic governance, increase transparency, strengthen the judicial branch, and improve the economy of Moldova.
Both Moldova and Georgia signed association agreements with the EU on June 27, 2014. Ukraine had previously signed its AA on March 21, 2014 and finalized it along with Moldova and Georgia on June 27. Since the signings of these agreements, the war in Ukraine has continued to drive a wedge between Russia and the West. Russian officials have consistently reinforced and reiterated their opposition to the integration of former Soviet republics, the countries Russia considers its near-abroad, into the European community.
Termed loosely, the European community here refers to institutions most prominently represented by the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It is important to distinguish between the two organizations. The EU is a supra-national political and economic organization that groups 28 member states under the same leadership. While many states participate in the organization’s common economic zone (called the Eurozone) and use a common currency, some do not. NATO is a military alliance that acts as a collective-defense organization for its member states. While NATO has also conducted operations best characterized as collective-security missions, its mission is defense of members against external attack.
Gaining membership in the EU is considered much more difficult and time-consuming than obtaining membership in NATO. This is attributable to many factors, the most important of which are high standards for political, judicial, and economic infrastructure that ensures that the member state will contribute to the overall strength of the EU instead of drain its resources as a weak member. Obviously, many states suffering from economic turmoil have recently become significant weak points for the EU as a collective.
So why has conflict seemingly emerged in the past 12 months, with the EU and the U.S. on one side and Russia on the other? The easy answer is that the conflict does not originate in the last 12 months, but has escalated, and can be traced to the protests in Ukraine and Euromaidan last fall/winter. Culminating in the annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine has been ground zero for the conflict between the West and Russia since its sparked last winter. The conflict in Ukraine is a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and during the subsequent years of national economic restructuring often referred to as ‘shock therapy’, Russia’s economy has become increasingly dependent on the extraction and export of its natural resources than it was at the outset of the creation of the Russian Federation. Even if Russia pivots to the Middle East, Central Asia, and East Asia as its economic priority, the failure of the Kremlin to diversify the economic base of the country beyond the overwhelming reliance on energy and natural resources ensures longer-lasting susceptibility to financial disruption and decline.
The failure of Russian policymakers to expand the economic and financial base of the country in the years following the shock-therapy policies has let an important moment in Russia’s history pass by; the failure to take advantage of the profits garnered from energy exports to diversify in the form of a manufacturing base has relegated Russia to a subordinate position in its dealings with the West. The U.S. and the EU continue to find it rather easy to affect Russian power by waging economic warfare in the form of trade sanctions, the control of foreign investment capital, and manipulation of Western companies’ participation in Russian business.
For many observers, the origins of the somewhat sudden but deliberate heightened profile of the Russian state in international affairs is best explained in the context of the Syrian chemical-weapons crisis of August and September, 2013. When traced to the events following the chemical-weapons event in Syria on August 21, 2013, the political wrangling in the aftermath is said by many observers to have catalyzed a series of Western responses designed to mitigate the challenge of a geo-strategic competitor in the Middle East.
While in the aftermath Russia became embroiled in the war in Eastern Ukraine, the U.S. and EU found it easy to implement sanctions on the auspices that Russian aggression in Eastern Europe was unjustified and illegal. The sanctions that were implemented in the aftermath, coupled with the fast decline in oil revenue due to decreased market prices, have augmented and accentuated the devaluation of the Russian Ruble and intensified inflation.
These factors have contributed mightily to the perceived struggle by the government of President Vladimir Putin to utilize its quickly eroding international power effectively, losing overt influence in Syria and driving Russian strategists to instead pursue affecting prospective NATO members Ukraine and Georgia by strengthening the regimes of the breakaway regions in Donbass, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia with Russian support. These actions may soon be duplicated in an aspiring EU candidate state, Moldova.
According to many reports, Moldova’s breakaway region, Transnistria (the Pridnestrovian Moldavan Republic or PDR) has been the recipient of intensified Russian intelligence and logistical support for a possible renewed break from Moldova’s administrative control. The ‘humanitarian convoys’ so ubiquitous throughout the conflict in Donbass have been reported arriving in Moldova. Subsequently, convoys have been reported arriving in Donbass originating from Abkhazia. The intensified support of Russia for a separatist break in Transnistria from Moldova would represent an escalation in the conflict between the U.S./EU and Russia, and would increase the likelihood of violent upheavals and warfare in the breakaway regions of Moldova and Georgia.
Many agree that a conflict with Russia was inevitable after the breakup of the Soviet Union. In the context of history, Russia has consistently projected its power outward in an effort to dominate its near-abroad. Conflicts with the Chechen people, Dagestanis, and other minorities in the Russian Federation are less a consequence of the breakup of the Soviet Union and more just the latest battles in an ongoing effort to assert their right to self-determination.
As Russia again asserts its influence over its near-abroad in places such as the breakaway regions of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, it is important to remember that these conflicts are not new. But they are consequential for U.S. policy. And they are quickly rising among the priorities of the national security strategists as war appears more and more likely in the next decade in areas of significant political and economic interests to the U.S.
In an article next week, I’ll investigate what war would look like if the small fires burning from Ukraine to Georgia suddenly engulfed the region in all-out war. For the time being, the conflict between Russia and the West continues to produce intrigue and elicit apprehension from observers on both sides. It is likely, however, that the conflict is only in its earliest stages.
(Featured Image Courtesy: BBC)
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