Saturday, July 26, 2014
How to beat Russia
Geostrategic analysis is so easy, anyone can do it. Just make some historical analogies, lean a little too heavily (but subtly!) on national stereotypes, and try to sound smart. Anyone can get into this game! So why not Yours Truly?
OK, so what is Russia up to in Ukraine, and what can we do about it? Let's think about this.
Thought 1: Historically, Russia is a cautions nation. After their initial burst of expansion, they have made relatively few territorial acquisitions, even after their victories in WW2 and the Napoleonic Wars. Caution makes sense for a big country - you already have a lot, so you have more to lose. Smaller countries, like Germany and Japan and France, have been more tempted to throw the dice.
Thought 2: If Russia is going to expand, it's going to expand to the west. To the east, there are A) some sparsely populated Central Asian countries that Russia already dominates, and B) China, which is now Russia's ally. Russia already has so many resources that further resource-grabbing is much more trouble than it's worth - the only kind of expansion that would really change Russia's status is to absorb some of the populated lands of East Europe. (Why Russia would want to take over these places is not clear, but back to that later).
Thought 3: Russia has a pretty simple strategy for dominating places in Eastern Europe. Basically, take advantage of ethnic divisions (if necessary, stirring them up), and just be by far the biggest, most unified, most powerful ethnic bloc in the area. The weaker ethnic group in any local conflict will naturally look to Russia to be their patron. You can see this strategy at work in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and now in Ukraine. It's a slower, more cautious variant of a very old, very effective imperial strategy used by the Mongols and British, among others. It probably explains why Russia is so keen to keep Russian-speakers in the region from abandoning the Russian language.
Thought 4: Russian institutions are just not that effective. Russia's economy has never been that good. They have never had a smooth system for transferring power. Their property rights are weak, their infrastructure is poor, their industries are uncompetitive, they have poor health, etc. Most importantly, Russia suffered massive political collapses twice during the 20th century, and no one really knows if Putin has built anything more durable than the Romanov and Soviet systems.
So what can we do to stymie Russia's expansion into Ukraine and (in the future) elsewhere? First, the current strategy of creating high and uncertain costs for Russian intervention seems to have worked OK - Russia has so far refrained from sending troops into East Ukraine, despite Ukrainian successes against the rebels. Increasing our military forces in Poland and the Baltics may also be necessary.
Second, we should try to boost the economies of countries surrounding Russia, in the hope of encouraging greater popular solidarity with the central governments of those countries. The way for us to boost their economies is to implement free trade agreements between the U.S. and those countries. Ukraine, unfortunately, is already too chaotic to do this, but Romania, Poland, and the Baltic countries are perfect candidates. Also, countries traditionally allied with Russia, like Serbia, Belarus, and Armenia, are good targets for FTAs. (Update: As a commenter pointed out, we're actually not allowed to negotiate bilateral FTAs with EU countries, so we really just have to conclude an FTA with the EU itself as fast as possible.)
But third, and most importantly, what we should do is just wait. Russia's system is not robust to shocks. Putin will grow older and die, leaving no robust, stable system in his wake. Energy prices will fluctuate, wreaking havoc on Russia's economy. Low fertility will put a massive strain on the government's finances. And as Russia absorbs the costs of newly acquired satellite states and territories, without reaping any economic benefit, additional strain will be put on the Russian economy. Even if Russia takes half of Ukraine, reabsorbs Belarus, and slices off a couple pieces of Georgia, it will just collapse again before it ever becomes a real threat to the core of Europe.
And in the meantime, we should of course try to destabilize Russia by creating disruptive cheap energy technologies. Another option is to welcome mass immigration from Russia, thus decreasing the size and power of the Russian ethnic group in the long term.
I think Obama has realized the wisdom of the basic "just wait" approach, and is carrying it out. The key is not to worry - unless you're part of one of the tiny squabbling impoverished ethnic groups on Russia's intentionally chaotic border, you're safe from the bear.