The protests in Ukraine that have been proceeding for many weeks have major strategic implications. The proximate question is whether Ukraine will become an integral part of the Western economic community and, by extension, the Western security community, or whether Russia will succeed in co-opting it into its own political and economic space. The larger issue is whether Ukraine will remain an independent country, or whether it will eventually be fully absorbed into the Russian empire.
It is no secret what Vladimir Putin and the bosses of his power ministries want. They are suffering from an intense imperial nostalgia. They lament the collapse of the USSR and its breakup into its various constituent parts. They continue to celebrate on an annual basis the founding of the Cheka, which later became the OGPU, the NKVD, the KGB, and today a combination of several agencies, most notably the FSB and the SVR — organizations that are completely incompatible with democracy.
Ever since Russia articulated the first versions of its post-Soviet national security doctrine, starting as early as 1992, it has reserved for itself the right of military intervention into any neighboring country to protect “Russian-speaking people” whom it considers have been mistreated. The problem is that most people in the former Soviet republics speak Russian — and so, how does one distinguish between a Russian citizen is from a non-Russian? In any event, this particular doctrine is incompatible with international law, and it represents an ongoing threat to each of those countries in what the Russians call “the near abroad.”
Russia’s attempts to re-absorb many of its surrounding territories involve numerous maneuvers, most notably its infiltration of these lands with its agents of influence, many of whom are associated with major Russian corporations that are associated with Putin’s oligarchy. Sometimes these corporations buy or control companies in these neighboring lands. Insofar as some of these corporations are mafia-controlled, they use strong-arm tactics to assert their influence or control. The SVR and FSB have dossiers on hundreds if not thousands of individuals in the near abroad whom they can manipulate to serve Russian strategic interests.
Russia also has long used energy blackmail as means of extending its influence, particularly against Ukraine. It uses divide-and-conquer tactics that principally involve pitting different ethnic and religious groups against one another in neighboring lands. This is what it has done in most of its neighboring countries, with the most dramatic example being in Georgia, where Russia has aggravated relations between the Abkhazians and the Ossetians on the one hand and the central Georgian government on the other.
They also famously use propaganda and “active measures” (i.e. disinformation, forgeries, and covert influence operations) to influence opinion and policy in those countries.
And they work mightily to resist any attempts by these countries to associate themselves with the NATO alliance.
If Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia have been able to see clearly the geostrategic implications of the expansion of the Russian political and economic space, why cannot the United States?
One of the reasons why the new NATO members from the former communist countries of East/Central Europe are so committed to the NATO alliance is their fear of Russian revanchism and their intense desire to retain that liberty which was so long denied them when they were under the Soviet yoke.
Two world wars centered heavily around geostrategic competition for the lands between Western Europe and the USSR/Russia. The decision to expand NATO into these lands was precisely with an eye to preventing that strategic competition from continuing: namely, by placing those lands firmly in the sphere of the West without being under the thumb of any imperial power.
The United States would do well to support Ukrainian independence. Failure to do so will only encourage Russia’s expansionism and instability surrounding its borders. It could threaten the independence of our East-Central European NATO allies, and ultimately distract the United States from other major security threats. Supporting Ukraine means abandoning feckless attempts to “reset” relations with Russia on the basis of ignoring its regional expansionist ambitions. If U.S.-Russian relations are to improve, it will have to be on the basis of exploring and cooperating on areas of genuinely mutual national interests, such as resistance to Islamist terrorism and Chinese expansionism.