The Not-So Great Game: The US and Russia in Post-Soviet Space

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Lots of people have been asking lately if the recent developments in Ukraine signify a return to a Cold War between the United States and Russia. I would say no. This is why:

The Cold War was fought on ideological grounds. This is not the case with the US and Russia today, who battle mainly over commercial interests and political influence. In this respect, American-Russian relations over the past two decades remind me much more of Russian-British relations during the late nineteenth century. The 'Great Game,' as people call it, led to a series of proxy battles between the two empires across the Balkans, Middle East and Eurasia.
So great they named a game after it

In the game that successive US governments have played with Russia since the early 1990s, the United States is clearly playing with house money. As I've discussed recently, since the end of the Cold War American economic and political influence has spread exponentially throughout territories that, for much of the 20th century and often earlier, were in Russia's sphere of influence. Not only has most of the former Warsaw Pact become part of a US-based military alliance, but so have three former republics of the USSR. Meanwhile, former Soviet client states in the Middle East have similarly been overthrown or severely compromised in recent years.

In the present conflict over Ukraine, what does Russia get in the end? Let's say Russia ends up with Crimea and nothing else. Such a victory, I believe, would be a Pyrrhic one. While Russia would have Crimea, the United States will become increasingly important to the defense futures of literally dozens of countries that are terrified of Russia. Countries in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the Baltic states, have already begun to seek out closer military integration with NATO and the United States in particular. My guess is that this will also be the case within other regions of the former USSR. I also wonder to what degree people in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and elsewhere have looked at recent Russian behavior and wondered if it might be a good idea to move just a bit closer towards Washington.

On the other hand, Russia may end up getting bogged down in a civil war in Ukraine. This would be an even worse development for Russia, where ethnic and religious conflict in the region could end up rebounding within the Russian Federation's collection of ethnic and religious-based republics.

Putin's course is a losing one no matter what happens in eastern Ukraine. While some people have called for more chest-beating from the White House, I think the Obama administration is smart to sit tight and work behind the scenes. That's a much better idea than entering into a competition with Putin over eastern Ukraine simply for the sake of competing. 

Also see:

Bad Idea Jeans: Ukraine Edition

Will he or won't he? Putin and Eastern Ukraine

Crimea and Eastern Ukraine: Things Can Always Get Worse

Tough Options

Russia and the Politics of Citizenship

The Crimea: More Than Just a War

More Thoughts on the Crimea

Crimea on the Brink: What's Going On?

South Ossetia and the Fate of the Mini-Republics

More thoughts on South Ossetia

Obama, Russia and the Middle East

Trouble in Ukraine

Beating the War Drums Again

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