Why you should care

Ukraine might be only the beginning. 

It’s been almost a year since trouble began in Ukraine. It all started with protests against a decision the government made under pressure from Moscow to abandon a trade agreement with the European Union. Since then, the Ukrainian government has turned over, Russia has reclaimed Crimea, and the conflict it sparked by invading Ukraine’s east has settled into a “frozen state” with Russian forces parked there — in violation of the cease-fire terms — for the foreseeable future.

What will next year hold? That will be determined by developments in a few arenas. Among them:

Ukrainian Vulnerability

One of the things that made Ukraine vulnerable to Russian pressure is two decades of neglected reform since the country’s independence in 1991. Ukraine remains an economic basket case: Growth is down 5 percent, inflation’s risen above 14 percent and public debt has spiraled upward toward the IMF’s “high risk” level. President Petro Poroshenko’s government, which came to power in June, will be under great pressure in the next year to stamp out corruption, lift the economy out of the doldrums and ease the country’s energy shortages.

The Russian public traditionally responds well to a strong leader and nationalistic appeals.

Some good news: The parliament elected in October is the most pro-reform government Ukraine has ever seen. But the new regime won’t easily or immediately meet public expectations. If it fails, Ukraine will be weak and more vulnerable to Russian pressure and will stand little chance of repelling the Kremlin’s pressure.

Putin’s Iron Fist

Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has brought him record popularity — around 85 percent of his citizens feel favorably about him. So he has little political incentive to change course. Moreover, he continues to tighten control of the media; he replaced even the state news agency with a Kremlin mouthpiece. Even if people wished otherwise, the Russian public can hear only his message.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (front C) and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (front L)  walk to watch military exercises upon his arrival at the Kirillovsky firing ground in the Leningrad region, on March 3, 2014. Crimea, the strategic host to tsarist a

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (front center) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (front left) at the Kirillovsky firing ground in the Leningrad region on March 3, 2014

Source Mikhail KliImentyev/Getty

What about sanctions? The United States, the European Union and several other countries began them in March. And yes, they have begun to pinch the Russian economy: Inflation is rising, shortages abound, money is fleeing and businesses are struggling. Plus, estimates of sluggish growth prospects for 2015 vary from 0.5 percent to a full-on contraction. This week the ruble hit an all-time low. On face, conditions could look ripe for the public to turn against its leader. But the Russian public is famously stoic in the face of hardship and traditionally responds well to a strong leader and nationalistic appeals. And it’s doubtful any of those conditions will push Putin off course in 2015. With the media in his pocket, he can blame everything on the U.S. and Europe.

So what next? Within Ukraine, many have speculated that Russia will grab more territory to create a land bridge from the Russian mainland to Crimea. And then there’s the question of other former Soviet states: Russia is doing all in its power to isolate them from the West. Moscow has been putting pressure on Moldova to step back from association talks with the European Union (which sounds like a replay of the Ukraine drama). And Russia may go so far as to encourage Moldova’s separatist region, Transnistria, to go independent. Yet again, old habits die hard: That move is taken directly from the playbook Moscow used with two separatist regions in Georgia in a 2008 conflict. Russia has also been using its economic clout to caution Balkan countries, especially Serbia, against closer ties to Europe. It’s working: Serbia gave Putin its highest state award in October. Meanwhile, Moscow’s using its energy leverage to build influence with NATO member Bulgaria, its closest Eastern European satellite during the Soviet period.

Even if we see a quieter Putin in the coming weeks and months, remember the size of his arsenal and the scope of his ambitions.

But so far, Putin has not intruded into a NATO country with Ukraine-like tactics. One imagines the Baltic member states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — tempt him. In Estonia, for example, the economically depressed city of Narva on the Russian border is 80 percent ethnic Russian, and 36 percent already hold Russian passports. It would not be hard for Putin to add fuel to already resentful citizens’ grievances there — they have to learn Estonian to qualify for citizenship or state jobs — and claim a need to “help” them on humanitarian grounds.

NATO’s Outlook

Which takes us to NATO policy, the third major factor that will determine the next year’s course. NATO would face a crisis if, say, even one Russian soldier (the “little green men,” as the Ukrainians called the Crimean invaders) crossed the Estonian border. Estonia would surely invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which calls for all members to come to the defense of any member attacked. And that would be a difficult decision for the 28-member alliance, some of whom have deep economic ties to Russia and have been the subject of Russian diplomatic wooing in recent months.

NATO is already turning up the heat in Europe, according to the U.S. Army’s top commander on the continent, who said recently that the Alliance will be rotating small units continuously through Eastern Europe and the Baltics during the next year. Additionally, a 4,000-troop force will stand ready to rapidly join prepositioned armaments in the east, or even to move a heavy tank brigade into an East European or Baltic country — should the need arise.

But tragically, these moves may be too conventional to thwart Putin’s “hybrid warfare” strategy, which subtly combines special forces, cyber tactics, propaganda, media control, mainline troops and manipulative public statements. So even if we see a quieter Putin in the coming weeks and months, we’ll do well to remember the size of his arsenal and the scope of his ambitions. The expansion of Russia’s “sphere of influence” seems to have only just begun.

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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