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Foreign Policy

The Ukraine Crisis and US-Russia Relations

Jun 25 , 2014
  • Zheng Yu

    Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Russia’s plan to establish a “Eurasian Union” has prompted the United States to pick up its policy of seeking the strategic containment of Russia. In this regard, a news story entitled “Clinton vows to thwart new Soviet Union” appearing on the Financial Times website on 6 December 2011 had caught much attention. Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, told a news conference in Dublin that the US was trying to prevent Russia from recreating a new version of the Soviet Union under the ruse of economic integration. She warned, “There is a move to re-Sovietise the region. … It’s going to be called a customs union, it will be called Eurasian Union and all of that. … We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it”. Her tone signaled that the US was rethinking its “reset” in relations with Russia as declared in 2009. 

A key motivation of the “reset” policy is the eastward shift of the world’s center of gravity and the recognition that China is the biggest challenge to US global leadership. However, the Obama administration has at the same time been weary and cynical about the Russian government under Putin, which has a number of sticking points with the US. To keep a potential strategic competitor at bay and preserve a uni-polar world order under Pax Americana, Washington must prevent Moscow from building a Eurasian Union that includes Ukraine – and thus thwart any chance of a revived Soviet Union. America’s strategic interests demand that it does this, even at the risk of further straining relations with the Kremlin. 

So, the containment of Russia is not driven by impulse. But this is not to deny that the US has made serious mistakes in handling the Ukraine crisis: it thought Russia would be resigned to the removal of Viktor Yanukovich on 22 February, just as it did following Viktor Yushchenko’s lead over Yanukovich, who had won more votes in the first round, in the January 2005 presidential run-off. Washington calculated that removing Yanukovich could kill any chance of Ukraine joining the Eurasian Union in the near term, end the Ukraine crisis and enable itself to focus on the shifting strategic balance in the world. Unexpectedly for the US, Russia responded by taking over Crimea and supporting insubordination by eastern and southern Ukraine against the interim government in Kiev. This set the scene for lingering instability, one from which the US cannot extricate itself in the short term. At the end of the day, Washington finds itself in a strategic dilemma of having to fight on both the eastern and western fronts. 

Striking an agreement akin to the Austrian State Treaty of 1955, whereby the US, the Soviet Union, Britain and France supported the neutrality of Austria is what will most likely solve the crisis in Ukraine. Under this scenario, the US, Russia, and the European Union would jointly guarantee the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. By accepting neutrality, Ukraine could avoid becoming a pawn in the military and security contest between the East and the West. This is a far more appealing prospect than the federal system that Russia desires for Ukraine, and one that would sow the seeds for the further disintegration of the country. 

As for Russia, it cannot endure Western economic sanctions for long. (In the first quarter of 2014, even before Western sanctions set in, capital flight from Russia reached 60-70 billion US dollars, more than the total of 2013. The EU estimate is even higher at 200-220 billion US dollars.) The time will come for Moscow to consider some concessions: greater local autonomy in eastern and southern Ukraine in exchange for Russia’s special place in the external economic ties of these pro-Russia regions. Moreover, Russia’s significant leverage in the energy sector and the equities it holds in Ukraine’s financial sector and real economy will ensure its continuing influence in Ukraine even after the crisis ends. 

On the other hand, the current crisis has taught the US and other Western countries how central the issue of Ukraine is in the eyes of Russia. Should Ukraine join NATO, it would put Washington and Moscow in an intense and sustained military confrontation, a scenario that would greatly restrain US freedom of maneuver around the world. So the US is potentially also amenable to the neutrality of Ukraine, since it would meet its fundamental objective: preventing Ukraine from joining the Eurasian Union. The EU, needless to say, is more ready to embrace a neutral Ukraine. 

On 4 March, the Pentagon released The Quadrennial Defense Review, which stressed, “US interests remain inextricably linked to the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region. The Department [of Defense] is committed to implementing the President’s objective of rebalancing US engagement toward this critical region.” The US will not back away from its strategic decision to devote more resources to counter China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific. Its deep involvement in the Ukraine crisis suggests that in its view, a Russia-dominated supra-national union without Ukraine is not in a position to shake the political and security landscape of Eastern Europe. 

In the first half of this year, the US began to deploy more military assets to Eastern Europe. This, coupled with the second-phase implementation of the missile defense program in Europe to be expected in 2015, precludes any chance of a thaw in US-Russia relations even after the Ukraine crisis passes off. But in the longer term, the closer ties being built between China and Russia will prompt Washington and Moscow to “agree to disagree” on certain issues and embrace deeper cooperation in more areas. 

Zheng Yu is a Professor at the Institute of Russian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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