The struggle for some of the most strategic territory in the world took an interesting twist this week. Last week we discussed what appeared to be a significant shift in German national strategy in which Berlin seemed to declare a new doctrine of increased assertiveness in the world -- a shift that followed intense German interest in Ukraine. This week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, in a now-famous cell phone conversation, declared her strong contempt for the European Union and its weakness and counseled the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine to proceed quickly and without the Europeans to piece together a specific opposition coalition before the Russians saw what was happening and took action.
This is a new twist not because it makes clear that the United States is not the only country intercepting phone calls, but because it puts U.S. policy in Ukraine in a new light and forces us to reconsider U.S. strategy toward Russia and Germany. Nuland's cell phone conversation is hardly definitive, but it is an additional indicator of American strategic thinking.
Recent U.S. Foreign Policy Shifts
U.S. foreign policy has evolved during the past few years. Previously, the United States was focused heavily on the Islamic world and, more important, tended to regard the use of force as an early option in the execution of U.S. policy rather than as a last resort. This was true not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Africa and elsewhere. The strategy was successful when its goal was to destroy an enemy military force. It proved far more difficult to use in occupying countries and shaping their internal and foreign policies. Military force has intrinsic limits.
The alternative has been a shift to a balance-of-power strategy in which the United States relies on the natural schisms that exist in every region to block the emergence of regional hegemons and contain unrest and groups that could threaten U.S. interests. The best example of the old policy is Libya, where the United States directly intervened with air power and special operations forces on the ground to unseat Moammar Gadhafi. Western efforts to replace him with a regime favorable to the United States and its allies have not succeeded. The new strategy can be seen in Syria, where rather than directly intervening the United States has stood back and allowed the warring factions to expend their energy on each other, preventing either side from diverting resources to activities that might challenge U.S. interests.
Behind this is a schism in U.S. foreign policy that has more to do with motivation than actual action. On one side, there are those who consciously support the Syria model for the United States as not necessarily the best moral option but the only practical option there is. On the other, there are those who argue on behalf of moral interventions, as we saw in Libya, and removing tyrants as an end in itself. Given the outcome in Libya, this faction is on the defensive, as it must explain how an intervention will actually improve the moral situation. Given that this faction also tended to oppose Iraq, it must show how an intervention will not degenerate into Iraqi-type warfare. That is hard to do, so for all the rhetoric, the United States is by default falling into a balance-of-power model.
The Geopolitical Battle in Ukraine
Russia emerged as a problem for the United States after the Orange Revolution in 2004, when the United States, supporting anti-Russian factions in Ukraine, succeeded in crafting a relatively pro-Western, anti-Russian government. The Russians read this as U.S. intelligence operations designed to create an anti-Russian Ukraine that, as we have written, would directly challenge Russian strategic and economic interests. Moreover, Moscow saw the Orange Revolution (along with the Rose Revolution) as a dress rehearsal for something that could occur in Russia next. The Russian response was to use its own covert capabilities, in conjunction with economic pressure from natural gas cutoffs, to undermine Ukraine's government and to use its war with Georgia as a striking reminder of the resurrection of Russian military capabilities. These moves, plus disappointment with Western aid, allowed a more pro-Russian government to emerge in Kiev, reducing the Russians' fears and increasing their confidence. In time, Moscow became more effective and assertive in playing its cards right in the Middle East -- giving rise to the current situations in Syria and Iran and elsewhere.
Washington had two options. One was to allow the balance of power to assert itself, in this case relying on the Europeans to contain the Russians. The other was to continue to follow the balance of power model but at a notch higher than pure passivity. As Nuland's call shows, U.S. confidence in Europe's will for and interest in blocking the Russians was low; hence a purely passive model would not work. The next step was the lowest possible level of involvement to contain the Russians and counter their moves in the Middle East. This meant a very limited and not too covert support for anti-Russian, pro-European demonstrators -- the re-creation of a pro-Western, anti-Russian government in Ukraine. To a considerable degree, the U.S. talks with Iran also allow Washington to deny the Russians an Iranian card, although the Syrian theater still allows the Kremlin some room to maneuver.