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The "Soft War" for Europe's East

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Since the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky on October 25, 2003, and the subsequent seizure of the Yukos oil company, democracy in Russia has entered into free fall. It is obvious in hindsight that the Bush administration badly misread the implications of the nationalization of “strategic industries” and the concomitant return of state-directed show trials to Moscow. In the shorthand of Washington, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continued to “see into the soul” of President Vladimir Putin even as the erstwhile kgb colonel was rounding up the remnants of civic society in Russia and laying the groundwork for economic and political aggression against Russia’s neighbors.

Despite statements at the time by President Putin and Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov that the government intended to recover the great power status of which Russia had been unfairly deprived by the regrettable collapse of the Soviet Union, both Washington and European capitals refused to see any geopolitical calculation in the methodical suppression of political and press freedoms and the takeover of the economy by fsb officers and Kremlin cronies. Russia apologists on the National Security Council staff and in American academe argued that what appeared to be, if not exactly the return of the Stalinist state, at least a lurch in the direction of czarist authoritarianism, was perfectly susceptible to reasonable explanation. These transitory phenomena were attributable to the affinity of the Russian people for “order,” they said, or to the pent-up resentment of the Russian narod against their predominantly Jewish oligarchic oppressors, or to the residual humiliation the voters felt as a consequence of our ill-considered decision to “win” the Cold War. Nothing could convince Western decision makers that something more sinister and more consequential might be underway. This was the counsel of “realism.”

Opinion differs as to precisely when the propensity to see Putin as a necessary partner gave way to the realization that a dangerously revanchist state was on the rise in Europe’s East. For Russian civic society activists it was clear that the relatively brief period of liberalism, Moscow’s fleeting Prague Spring, had ended in the course of 2004 with the suppression of independent journalists, the wholesale replacement of elected regional governors with Kremlin appointees, and the initial attacks on nongovernmental organizations. For the democracy community, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine during the winter of 2005–06 was the watershed event. The repeated assassination attempts on Victor Yushchenko, the blatant involvement of Russian security services in Ukrainian politics, and the provision of massive financing and a troop of political advisors to Moscow-controlled parties presaged the reappearance of a new Comintern in the former Soviet Union. For Europe as a whole, it was the Ukrainian gas crisis in January 2006 that convinced its leaders that a resurgent and menacing Russia had stolen a march on the West and now threatened the independence of Europe’s East with its newly developed energy weapon. With its influence and financial power, the Russian state could reach the German chancellor and into the inner circle around President Bush.

It is not clear when, in the course of the destruction of Russian democracy and the rise of post-Soviet authoritarianism, the U.S. administration realized that its Russia policy had failed. For most of 2005, those senior officials who would discuss the subject pointed to the constructive role that Russia was likely to play in negotiations with North Korea and subsequently in the crisis over Iran’s nuclear pretensions. When these partnerships proved ephemeral, America’s Russian hands fell back on the vaguer argument that Putin was likely to moderate his anti-democratic behavior at home and his growing imperial tendencies abroad as the all-important g–8 summit on July 15–17 in St. Petersburg approached. (It would not be until two months before the summit itself that Vice President Dick Cheney would announce a shift in U.S. policy in a speech in Vilnius, Lithuania.)

In the event, moderation was the furthest thing from the mind of President Putin. By spring 2006, Putin had succeeded in forcing the closure of U.S. bases in Central Asia through the adroit use of the contrived Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), which he created for the purpose of countering Western influence. He had propped up Russian-proxy dictators in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Belarus. His key political advisor, Gleb Pavlovsky, had publicly suggested that it would be advisable for the Georgian people to simply assassinate their president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to avoid a Russian military attack. (Interestingly and perhaps tellingly, Pavlovsky recommended a single-bullet shot, a reminder of the Chekist assassinations in the South Caucasus in 1920–21 as Bolshevik forces moved South.) And in April, less than three months before the g–8 summit itself, Moscow embargoed the import of wine from both Moldova and Georgia, devastating their economies in retaliation for their democratic deviationism.

It is increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that what is underway in and around the former Soviet Union is a struggle between the “soft power” of Russia and the “soft power” of the West for the political orientation of the countries in Europe’s East, for economic influence in these regions, and for the extension of their respective alliance systems and multilateral institutions. The West has a strong preference for liberal democracies, for free market economies integrated into the world trading system, and for countries that work well with the European Union’s Neighborhood Policy, the osce’s peacekeeping and election monitoring missions, and nato. Putin’s Russia seeks a Moscow-dominated system of authoritarian states and the odd dictatorship, a “Near Abroad” economy hostage to Russia’s energy monopoly and trade within the Common Economic Space, and the complete rejection of European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. Both Russia and the West are prepared to organize their “soft power” — from economic and market influence, to democracy support and denial, to aggressive diplomacy — to create a region in their own image.

Let us be cautious in our description here. These developments constitute no return to the days of “superpower rivalry” and Cold War. There is no arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. There are no “proxy wars” raging between Washington and Moscow on continents distant from one or the other. nato is mainly concentrating these days on “out of area” missions ranging from the Balkans to Afghanistan to Sudan, not on supposed invasion routes through the Fulda Gap. The Warsaw Pact is gone beyond hope of reconstitution. Loose talk in Moscow refers to the return of a U.S. policy of “containment,” but the Russia of 2006 is hardly in pursuit of imperial conquest, as in Afghanistan, or the establishment and subsidization of puppet governments far from home; there is no revisionist, expansionist power for the United States to contain, nor does the rise of one on Russian territory seem likely. So we are not facing Cold War redux.

But we should not hesitate to state plainly what we do face: namely, a “soft war” over influence, alignment, and values. Today, one can identify three distinct campaign objectives in the political competition for Europe’s East. The United States seeks to protect and perpetuate democracy in Ukraine and Georgia and potentially extend these democratic developments to the resolution of “frozen conflicts” on Moldovan and Georgian territory. The United States seeks to construct a trans-Caucasian energy route that would link the energy supplies of Central Asia and the Caspian Sea to European markets, breaking the monopoly on transit Moscow currently enjoys and exploits. And the United States seeks to ground the newly independent democratic states of Southeast Europe and the former Soviet Union in Euro-Atlantic institutions, beginning with the entrance of Romania and Bulgaria into the European Union in January 2007 and continuing with invitations to Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Georgia, and Ukraine to join nato before the end of the decade. These three objectives of democracy support, energy independence, and Euro-Atlantic institutional integration define the theater of soft power competition.

Not surprisingly, there are historical precedents for competition in the borderlands of Europe and Russia. The most famous of them is surely the “Great Game” in Central Asia, played by imperial Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Victorian England throughout the nineteenth century and into the first decades of the twentieth. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Black Sea was the Western theater of the Great Game in Asia. Bessarabia (today’s Moldova) and the “Armenian Question” were then the topics of conversation in London society. Military campaigns in the North Caucasus and Crimea were the subjects of Tolstoy’s novels. Odessa was an important cultural and economic center. And European powers struggling to preserve their great power status competed, on occasion romantically but always murderously, to be the ordinating powers in the region. More than 150 years after the Charge of the Light Brigade up the slopes of Balaklava during the siege of Sevastopol, it is the region we are now beginning to call the Greater Black Sea that commands the attention of the West and which will define relations between Russia and Europe in the first decades of the twenty-first century.

Since the nato Istanbul Summit in July 2004, the idea of pursuing an integrated Western strategy towards the Black Sea region has steadily gained ground. Rather surprisingly, this has occurred without a great deal of argument or objection. No one seems to doubt that the greater economic and political integration of the littoral states of the Black Sea would be in the interest of the Euro-Atlantic community. No one questions the attractiveness of nascent regional security arrangements to prevent trafficking and proliferation and to improve border, maritime, and air traffic surveillance.

Indeed, the single greatest impediment to the development of strategy has been the problem of an alphabet soup of ad hoc institutions (guuam, bsec, cdc, and Black Sea Forum) competing to become the executive agent of the Black Sea project. But even Turkey, which traditionally has guarded its historical status as the arbiter of Black Sea geopolitics jealously, has stuck to its own problem of knitting closer ties with the European Union. That is to say, there are no objections to the self-determination of Black Sea states — until we ask the Russian Question.

Actually there are many Russian Questions. How can an integrated Black Sea region be built without the consent of Russia? Should we force an alliance of young European democracies in the Black Sea to accept an imperial Russia, which is neither democratic nor European, as its dominant member? How can we hope for regional economic integration (and ultimately European integration) if Russia continues to drown the beginnings of free trade with energy mercantilism and state-sponsored organized crime? How can we build a region of peace and prosperity, resembling today’s Mediterranean, when Russia obstructs the resolution of frozen conflicts and foments secession and worse throughout the region? This is what is meant by the central question, “But what are we going to do about Russia?”

This article will make the case that a European strategy for the Black Sea region is, by definition, a revisionist strategy and will necessarily be competitive with Russia’s perceived interests. We will examine the aspects of competition with Russia in the political, economic, and security dimensions. Finally, we will outline the necessary components of a Black Sea strategy capable of contending with the problem of Russia.

 

Revisionist objectives

It goes without saying (or should) that states with interests in the Black Sea region can be divided into two camps: those that prefer to keep things as they are, or even as they were in a previous century, and those that propose to change the historic order of things and to create a new and modern geopolitical system in the region. Russia is the preponderant, indeed the sole, exponent of the status quo position, and the littoral states of the region, which have organized such precursor structures as the Black Sea Forum, are the proponents of regional revisionism or, to call things by their true name, democratic revolution.

There is very little in the current status quo, to which Russia is deeply committed and to which Russia is daily contributing, that could serve as a foundation for a geopolitical system of a European character. The new Black Sea strategy seeks to replace the classic nineteenth-century balance-of-power system dividing political, economic, and military control of the Black Sea between the Russian and Ottoman Empires. Just as certainly, the new Black Sea strategy seeks the end of the Soviet-legacy Russian military presence in the region and of ethnic and secessionist conflict. In the economic field, the status quo is inextricably linked to criminal trafficking, gray domestic economies, and predatory Russian business practices and acquisition.

The central tenet of a Black Sea strategy is, therefore, geopolitical revisionism. For this strategy to succeed, it will have to serve to change things — actually, almost everything. At a minimum, this strategy must bring about three major revisions:

  • The replacement of Russian, and to a far lesser extent Turkish, domination with a cooperative, interdependent, and self-determining system of regional democratic states. We wish to replace a hybrid system (nineteenth-century czarist militarism replete with twentieth-century Soviet overtones) with a regional system that recapitulates the evolution of the European Union — from basic economic cooperation, to shared security, to shared governance

  • The replacement of a mercantilist economic system further distorted by its dependence on criminal enterprise and illegal trade with a transparent, transnational free trade system, conforming to the standards of the wto and European Union, in the areas of labor, investment, and safety (both personal and environmental).

  • The demilitarization of the region, including the withdrawal of Russian troops, bases, and weapons, and the replacement of foreign dictat with a shared security system along the model of nato and the European Union. This revision would not only change the military composition of the region, but also would overturn the norms that have permitted an unstable and anachronistic militarization to persist into the twenty-first century, such as the 1936 Montreux Convention establishing Turkish military control over the Dardanelles.

While the vast majority of Europeans and Americans would agree that the Black Sea would be a far more peaceful and prosperous region were the three changes described above to result from our efforts, many object that there is no diplomacy that could persuade Russia to agree to and accept such changes — and that without Russian acquiescence, the strategy is doomed and even dangerous and destabilizing to attempt.

It is certainly true that revisionist strategies are unlikely to accomplish by persuasion, cooperation, and partnership the overthrow of an entrenched, well-armed, and sometimes violent status-quo Russia. But what this criticism really points to is the narrow and unsatisfying limits of a policy of partnership and cooperation with Russia. It is not an argument that the West should abandon its revisionist goals of strengthening democracy, expanding prosperity, and completing the whole of the European peace. If a vacuous partnership with Russia militates against change in the geopolitical circumstances of post-Soviet states, we must consider the possibility of a competitive strategy, one which recognizes that Russian objectives and Western objectives in the Black Sea are fundamentally at odds, and that this contradiction can be resolved only by a test of political will.

 

Competing with Russia

The most important aspect and the greatest difficulty of competing with Russia in the Black Sea is that this competition is and will remain limited in its means and in its aims. We are not talking about the reconstitution of a bipolar, global system which pits Soviet totalitarianism against the Western democracies. Our objectives are limited and the field of competition is relatively constrained. This regional competition does not touch on the military power of Russia and the United States; it is more of a competition in the soft powers of Russia, Europe, and the United States.

In effect, Moscow and the West are competing to be the first to organize a soft-power alliance system in the greater Black Sea region. Moscow is resolved to organize its Near Abroad as a system of economic and autocratic dependencies with itself as the Great Power at the center of the system. The cis and the Common Economic Space were precursor models of the more militant and aggressive model that now confronts us in the Black Sea.

By contrast, the West proposes to organize a more clubby relationship between independent democracies, based on mutually beneficial trade relations, collective security mechanisms, and shared membership in Euro-Atlantic political institutions. Again, this is a Mediterranean-type system.

What defines and limits the competition between these two objectives are their differences. Where they do not differ or where the strategy is silent there is no competition. (They do not obviously differ on terrorism or Islamic extremism, and they are so far silent on counterproliferation and may be assumed not to conflict.) On the other hand, the Russian and the Western strategy profoundly conflict in the major fields of soft power: economy, democracy, and security (including conflict resolution). Let us examine each in turn.

Economic competition. With Russia’s announcement that its “strategic industries” are the exclusive preserve of the state and that energy has become a weapon of state power and a vehicle with which to restore Russia’s Great Power status, it is obvious that the competition is not just between firms according to generally agreed market-based rules but over the rules themselves and the political objectives underlying them. Though this more fundamental competition is not occurring on a global scale, it now defines the political contest in Europe’s East. In response, the United States has developed and proposes to implement a countervailing energy strategy that aims to secure alternative energy supplies for Europe and to break the fsb-directed Gazprom monopoly on the energy security of Europe. This may be a quiet competition in which the creative capacities of nations compete on the playing fields of capital, resources, and markets, but it would require Panglossian self-delusion to believe that this is not a competition.

The largely U.S.-driven energy security strategy is focused on a very limited objective: the development of an alternate Southern transit route for natural gas from the Caspian and Central Asia to Europe. It is not an Anglo-German race for naval mastery; it is not even a discussion of Norwegian supplies or Baltic Sea pipelines. Logically, it is very little more than building out the original Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan concept to include Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Romania. It is little more than the effort of a Western consortium to break Gazprom’s monopoly on the supply of energy and its transit to Europe. Few would disagree that commercial competitions of this sort are a good thing and serve to bring down prices and improve service.

Political competition. Similarly, we are an alliance of democracies with nations and peoples that broadly share our values. Our views on the possibility of democracy in Europe’s East and on the self-determination of post-Soviet states are in direct contrast to Russia’s views. The pro-democracy policies of Washington and Brussels are opposed to the anti-democracy policies and theories of “managed democracy” advanced by Putin. Conceptually, these two views are incompatible. The dispute between them cannot be resolved to the satisfaction of one party without the surrender of principle or the political abdication of the other. While less obvious than the competition for secure energy, the pursuit of democracy in post-Soviet space is unavoidably a competitive strategy.

The Ukrainian and Georgian-inspired Community of Democratic Choice (cdc) is a competitive, but still limited, strategy. The primary emphasis of the cdc lies in the internal reform of these democracies, the resolution of conflicts and the closely related drive to eliminate Soviet-era corruption, and the integration of both Georgia and Ukraine into nato and the European Union. Beyond the expression of solidarity with democratic civic groups in Belarus and Central Asia, the cdc does not aim at the strategic rollback of Russia or the export of democratic revolution to the rest of the post-Soviet space. In fact, it is rather surprising that the cdc is doing little more than asserting the self-determination of democratic states and a commitment to address issues about their future in a European manner (peacefully, collegially, and with a view to seeking an ever closer union). It is a competitive strategy, but in a very small space.

Security competition. As Russia and the West have conflicting economic and political interests, so too do they have divergent interests on security. It is in our interest to resolve the region’s “frozen conflicts” by peaceful means, and it is manifestly in the interest of Russia to perpetuate the instability of secessionist enclaves by sabotage and paramilitary violence if necessary. It is in our interest to project the security institutions of Europe into the Black Sea region (nato’s Membership Action Plan and Active Endeavor, the naval surveillance program aimed at terrorism and trafficking), and it is just as clearly the purpose of Moscow to close the Bosporus to Europe. At its core, the struggle for a European security system in the Black Sea brings the tactics of Trotsky into collision with the political philosophy of Schuman and Monnet.

The Romanian-led Black Sea Forum seeks to build the first skeletal security structures in the Black Sea region, much as the Stability Pact did originally in Southeastern Europe. Much of the discussion will be focused on joint surveillance, border monitoring, and the exchange of data on trafficking and organized crime. Although Russia clearly opposes even these modest initiatives as tantamount to the entry of the Western Powers into the Black Sea, this is not an argument about much. It is highly likely that the Russia-nato Council will continue through the struggle to strengthen Black Sea security and stability and that Russia will have a seat at the Black Sea Forum while the mechanisms to eliminate its coercive influence in the region are being developed.

The overall Black Sea strategy proposed thus has layers of cut-throat commercial competition, direct political rivalry, and a very subdued contest between security bureaucracies around a conference table. True, it signals the end of an era of proposed partnership, at least in the region. But this admission entails no geopolitical brinksmanship, just intellectual honesty. The embrace of a competitive strategy in the Black Sea entails no more risks in the region or to our relations with Russia than we are already running. It only improves our chances for success.

 

Five elements

There are five central components of the overall Black Sea strategy, none of which can be implemented without formally recognizing that the West intends to defeat Russia in the fight for the independence of the Black Sea democracies. These components include:

  • An energy security policy which competes for the ownership and transit of Caspian and Central Asian gas and oil reserves to Europe along a trans-Caucasus corridor into both the Western Ukraine and the Turkish pipeline system. This strategy must be a joint U.S.-eu strategy and, in addition to the construction of trans-Caspian and trans-Black Sea pipelines, would entail the imposition of limits on the import of Russian gas and oil into the eu, barriers to Russian investment in Europe’s energy infrastructure, restrictions on Russian access to European capital and stock markets, and the diversification of Europe’s sources of energy.

  • A vocal democracy strategy which offers financial, military, and political support to post-Soviet democracies in their struggle to break away from Russian imperialism and local authoritarianism. The recent militancy of European and U.S. responses to the dictatorship in Belarus provides a promising beginning. This strategy would aim to counter and undermine the bullying rhetoric of the Kremlin against the “color revolutions” and any post-Soviet state foolish enough to embrace democratic change. This strategy would involve a doubling of funding for democracy promotion in both the U.S. and Europe, and the formal encouragement of ngos to contest the Kremlin’s message.

  • The aggressive championing of front-running democracies in the Black Sea, notably Ukraine and Georgia. If one new Black Sea democracy succeeds in breaking completely free of the Russian geopolitical and economic orbit, then the argument for the Black Sea as part of Russia’s Near Abroad and the key to its claim for great power status collapses. This strategy would require active diplomacy toward these two states and significant foreign aid.

  • An “Open Door” to European institutions. At its heart, a competitive strategy must demonstrate that the countries of the Black Sea have a credible European future as an alternative to political serfdom. nato in its Membership Action Program and the European Union in its Neighborhood Policy and Stabilization and Association Agreement (saa) negotiations must affirm this alternative. This strategy does not ask if Russia will accede to these democracies’ joining nato and the eu; this strategy stands on the certainty that Russia is actively working to keep these countries from reaching Europe.

  • The penetration of European institutions, markets, and investment in the Black Sea. Closely related to the prospect of European integration for Georgia and Ukraine is the reciprocal movement of Western institutions eastward through the Bosporus and across the Black Sea. We should want nato exercises off the coast of Transdnistria. The United States should negotiate a free trade agreement with Ukraine. The Neighborhood Policy should include a permissive visa regime, liberal market access, and incentives for foreign direct investment in both Ukraine and Georgia. And both countries should be welcomed into nato’s Membership Action Plan in November 2006 and into nato in 2008. This strategy calls for the rapid and wholesale institutionalization of heretofore ambiguous post-Soviet space.

It has become evident, particularly in Putin’s second term, that cooperation and partnership with Russia will not and cannot provide a foundation for democracy, peace, and prosperity in the Greater Black Sea. We cannot expect Moscow to be any more constructive in the Black Sea than it was in reuniting the Baltic states with Europe. When Putin embarked on a militant competition with the West on the fringes of Europe and threatened both our democratic objectives and energy security, joining him in this competition became a strategic imperative.

This strategic shift has already begun in the region and in interagency working groups in Brussels and Europe, all of whom are designing component strategies aimed at countering Russian influence. The collective objective is, however, narrowly focused and does not threaten Russia’s vital interests — only its imperial pretensions and its penchant for bullying weaker neighbors. The strategy aims to limit the economic, political, and criminal influence of Russia in Europe’s eastern neighborhood, to open up the Black Sea region to European institutions and the possibilities of European integration, and to safeguard the Euro-Asian energy corridor. This will require competing with Russia along a series of shifting points in the Black Sea and placing Russia on the defensive (as Russia has repeatedly attempted to do to the West).

This is a strategy we have not sought but which has been forced upon us. The only choice is between a grudging and tentative competition, which shies from its objectives and disguises its conviction, and what this paper recommends: a vocal and resolute strategy of competition (and where necessary, confrontation) aimed at ending the instability and poverty of the Black Sea and opening the doors to Europe.

Having argued that a militant competition or “soft war” with Russia in Europe’s East is inevitable, I should also address the question whether it might be desirable. Many liberals in the United States and, perhaps, a majority of our European allies have argued that the exercise of “hard” military power is dangerously counterproductive, even immoral, in a nuclear world, and that legitimacy lies in the organization of the various “soft” powers of Western liberal democracy. Conservatives, in turn, have argued that we should be prepared to defend the central values of Western civilization (representative democracy, free markets, and free trade and association). It would seem that a competitive response to Russia’s soft war against the fragile eastern extent of the Atlantic Alliance meets both conditions. Surely it is not a corollary of faith in “soft power” that one must give up when one’s own soft power collides with that of another.

Moreover, the absence of a competitive defense of the values shared between the United States and Europe will only embolden an irredentist Russia and set the stage for far more unpredictable conflicts between increasingly vulnerable and desperate states. The soft war with Russia offers the United States and its European allies the opportunity to hand Russia a significant defeat of its ideological aspirations without posing an existential threat to Russia itself, its territory, or its people. A successful democracy in Kiev, a competitive European market in gas and oil supplies, and a Georgia in the early stages of nato’s Membership Action Plan will not threaten any legitimate Russian security interests, but it will send an unambiguous message about the power of Western norms and the acceptable standards of international behavior. These are points that could usefully have been made clear to President Putin years ago and now cannot be avoided.