At first blush, Putin certainly would seem to have the better board position with his strongest pieces controlling the center. But the outcome is not a sure thing. Obama has a strong move or two available to him as well. Whether he will, eventually, maneuver from strength remains to be seen.
Putin’s strength derives from the vulnerable chess pieces (territory) that seem to be his for the taking. He can probably pluck off several pieces with only minimal risk to his immediate position. For example, many in the key eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, especially among the older population, still are very conflicted about the split from the old Soviet Union.
Furthermore, the Donbass, a strong industrial region surrounding Donetsk, would be an attractive offset to the financial drain Crimea represents to Russia. There is generally (but not uniformly) strong pro Russian sentiment in other cities in the eastern region of Ukraine, such as in Kharkiv. With an estimated 50,000 Russian troops now massed near the border with eastern Ukraine, it looks to us as though Putin could parry with Obama and the EU in this area of the chessboard with relative impunity.
Economically depressed Moldova, at least its eastern region, could be picked off with little risk, as it has no protective treaties with neighbors or with NATO. Transdniester, a Russian-speaking region in eastern Moldova, would welcome annexation by Russia, but Putin would have to send troops across 400 miles of hostile Ukrainian territory to pocket this piece of real estate. While taking all or part of Moldova would offer some buffer protection for Russia, it offers little else of value. Nonetheless, just last week NATO’s top military official, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, warned of a possible Russian incursion across Ukraine to occupy Transdniester.
Another potentially interesting and bold move Russia might find tempting would be to thrust southwest and occupy the position on the chessboard we know as Odessa. There is some pro Russian sentiment in Odessa, although not to the extent found in Crimea. Nonetheless, grabbing Odessa would be a dramatic and rewarding move, and devastating to Ukraine. Odessa could be easy pickings by Russia’s Black Sea fleet and losing Odessa would deprive Ukraine of its only remaining seaborne access to trade.
Estonia and the rest of the Balkan nations (Latvia and Lithuania) are probably safe, wrapped somewhat securely in NATO treaties.
Putin, however, does have more powerful chessmen of his own to play. A critical pipeline known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN)—runs through Russia, several Russian-allied nations, and down to Afghanistan, and (get this) it carries 52 percent of all supplies to coalition forces including US forces. The United States relies heavily on this network as it winds down its military presence in Afghanistan. Putin can disrupt that lifeline with a phone call. So far, America and our allies have received more than 2 million tons of equipment through that pipeline. The long and short of it is that the U.S. still needs this distribution network as it winds down its commitment in Afghanistan through the balance of 2014.
Ironically, the most likely alternate supply routes available to us would be through Georgia and Azerbaijan, where Putin could also interfere. Then there is the very serious matter of the drone bases the US wants to build to keep al Qaeda in Pakistan in its crosshairs. The bases are all in Central Asia (think five republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). Loss of cooperation from these countries, would pose a serious security gap for the United States in the region, including our ability to monitor and take action against al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Obama still has some strong moves available to him, although his willingness to “strike decisively” is open to question. Thus far, he has evidenced a strategy of incrementalism, betting that the threat of bolder moves in the future will prove a deterrent to Putin’s more audacious thrusts in the present.
Obama was very quick to take the military option off the table. We previously reported on the movement of the powerful US warship Truxton into the area, but it has already departed from this part of the board. Some military observers think we should have kept the Truxton and one or two additional ships there and have vessels from other NATO allies such as Bulgaria and Romania join US ships in the region. While this would require rotating US warships, as there is a 21-day limit on visits by warships to the Black Sea from nations outside of the region, warships conducting exercises in an international waterway such as the Black Sea is neither an act of war nor much of a provocation. It would, however, certainly cramp Putin’s maneuverability, especially where Odessa is concerned. Having NATO ships in the area would forestall a Russian blockade of Odessa at little cost or risk to the United States or our allies.
Should Russia decide, however, to blockade Odessa before we had ships in the area, there would be little, after the fact, we could do about it.
Some military strategists believe a few NATO vessels engaging in routine exercises would serve as an effective tripwire to deter a Russian naval move on Odessa. NATO ships have as much right to cruise close to Odessa as Russian ships do.
So, as in Iran, we are betting very heavily on economic sanctions alone. A concerted sanctions regimen by the world community would be potentially devastating to Russia, but that isn’t about to happen. Russia’s UN veto checkmated any uniform collective sanctions by America and its allies. In the final analysis, each nation will have to decide independently whether to impose sanctions and to what extent. This is no small matter. There is now no way to apply global sanctions against Russia.
A dose of reality:
Without the support of key European allies, especially Germany, there are limitations to what we can do unilaterally. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she is “not interested in escalation” of tensions with Russia…on the contrary, Merkel announced, “I am working on de-escalation of the situation.” Merkel does not believe the West “has reached a stage that implies the imposition of economic sanctions” against Russia, advocated by President Obama. “And,” she said, “I hope we will be able to avoid it.”
No one should be surprised. Berlin is extremely dependent on economic ties with Russia with bilateral trade of some 76 billion Euros last year. There are today around 6,000 German firms, representing over 300,000, jobs that are dependent on trade with Russian partners. All in all, these economic ties account for an investment of about 20 billion Euros.
According to Russia’s RT News, Germany is currently the European Union’s biggest exporter to Russia. German car manufacturers including Volkswagen, BMW, and lorry maker MAN all have Russian operations. Germany is also heavily dependent on Russian energy with around 35 percent of its natural gas imports coming from Russia.
France and Britain also have substantial economic ties to Russia and it is doubtful how much commerce they would put at risk on behalf of the non-NATO former soviet republics.
President Obama is, however, far from weaponless. He has signed an executive order that allows him to apply future sanctions against a variety of industries including financial services, metals and mining, energy, defense and related material, and engineering. Make no mistake about it; these sanctions could have a huge impact on the Russian economy.
The boldest board move the President could make would be to begin exporting natural gas to Europe as quickly as possible. That would mean getting on with full development of our shale resources, which would, simultaneously, alienate the environmental corner of the Democrats’ constituency. It would, however, be a very powerful tactical move. Natural gas export is big money for Russia – a fifth of its total earnings, some $100bn (£60bn) a year, says Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute. If Europe stopped (or substantially reduced) its buying it would introduce massive instability to the already weakening Russian economy.
At present the US offers a limited number of permits to export natural gas. So far, the Obama White House says it has no plans to change the current energy policy. “It’s not something you could just switch overnight,” says Aslund. That may be true, but seriously gearing up for the effort could well do the trick.
Other moves we have made such as freezing the assets of the Russian elites’ holdings in America and cancelling and/or turning down visa applications submitted by Russian officials, are mostly symbolic, but post-cold-war Moscow doesn’t like being isolated, and is especially sensitive to visa bans affecting its elite.
So far, our rhetoric has been strong and our action rather minimal. The first move Obama made was to cancel a scheduled joint military exercise with Russia and Norway. That was a weak opening move that only served to show how limited our options have been.
Russia (and the world) has been informed that there will be no military moves in this dust off between east and west, and our European allies seem to have little stomach for joining the US in an economic squeeze play. No one has yet been checked, but to us the board looks rather ominous.