As I discussed last week, the fundamental problem that Ukraine poses for Russia,  beyond a long-term geographical threat, is a crisis  in internal legitimacy. Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent his  time in power rebuilding the authority of the Russian state within Russia and the authority  of Russia within the former Soviet Union. The events in Ukraine  undermine the second strategy and potentially the first. If Putin cannot  maintain at least Ukrainian neutrality, then the world’s perception of  him as a master strategist is shattered, and the legitimacy and authority  he has built for the Russian state is, at best, shaken. 

Whatever the origins of the events in Ukraine, the United States is now engaged in a confrontation with Russia. The Russians believe that the United  States was the prime mover behind regime change in Ukraine. At the very least,  the Russians intend to reverse events in Ukraine. At most, the Russians have  reached the conclusion that the United States intends to undermine Russia’s  power. They will resist. The United States has the option of declining  confrontation, engaging in meaningless  sanctions against individuals and allowing events to take their course.  Alternatively, the United States can choose to engage and confront the  Russians. 

A failure to engage at this point would cause countries around Russia’s  periphery, from Estonia to Azerbaijan, to conclude that with the United States  withdrawn and Europe fragmented, they must reach an accommodation with Russia.  This will expand Russian power and open the door to Russian influence spreading  on the European Peninsula itself. The United  States has fought three wars (World War I, World War II and the Cold War) to  prevent hegemonic domination of the region. Failure to engage would be a  reversal of a century-old strategy.

The American dilemma is how to address the strategic context in a global  setting in which it is less involved in the Middle East and is continuing to  work toward a “pivot  to Asia.” Nor can the United States simply allow events to take their  course. The United States needs a strategy that is economical and coherent  militarily, politically and financially. It has two advantages. Some  of the countries on Russia’s periphery do not want to be dominated by her.  Russia, in spite of some strengths, is inherently weak and does not  require U.S. exertion on the order of the two World Wars, the Cold War or  even the Middle East engagements of the past decade. 

The Russian and U.S. Positions

I discussed Russian options on Ukraine last week. Putin is now in a position  where, in order to retain with confidence his domestic authority, he must act  decisively to reverse the outcome. The problem is there is no single decisive  action that would reverse events. Eventually, the inherent divisions in Ukraine  might reverse events. However, a direct invasion of eastern Ukraine would simply  solidify opposition to Russia in Kiev and trigger responses internationally that  he cannot predict. In the end, it would simply drive home that although the  Russians once held a dominant position in all of Ukraine, they now hold it in  less than half. In the long run, this option — like other short-term options —  would not solve the Russian conundrum.

Whatever Putin does in Ukraine, he has two choices. One is simply to accept  the reversal, which I would argue that he cannot do. The second is to  take action in places where he might achieve rapid diplomatic and political  victories against the West — the Baltics, Moldova or the Caucasus — while  encouraging Ukraine’s government to collapse into gridlock and developing  bilateral relations along the Estonia-Azerbaijan line. This would prevent a U.S.  strategy of containment — a strategy that worked during the Cold War and one  that the Europeans are incapable of implementing on their own. This comes down  to the Americans.

The United States has been developing, almost by default, a strategy not of  disengagement but of indirect  engagement. Between 1989 and 2008, the U.S. strategy has been the use  of U.S. troops as the default for dealing with foreign issues. From Panama to  Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States followed a policy of  direct and early involvement of U.S. military forces. However, this was not the  U.S. strategy from 1914 to 1989. Then, the strategy was to provide political  support to allies, followed by economic and military aid, followed by advisers  and limited forces, and in some cases pre-positioned forces. The United States  kept its main force in reserve for circumstances in which (as in 1917 and  1942 and, to a lesser degree, in Korea and Vietnam) allies could not  contain the potential hegemon. Main force was the last resort. 

This was primarily a strategy of maintaining the balance of power. The  containment of the Soviet Union involved creating an alliance system comprising  countries at risk of Soviet attack. Containment was a balance of power  strategy that did not seek the capitulation of the Soviet Union as  much as increasing the risks of offensive action using allied countries as the  first barrier. The threat of full U.S. intervention, potentially including  nuclear weapons, coupled with the alliance structure, constrained Soviet  risk-taking.

Because the current Russian Federation is much weaker than the Soviet Union  was at its height and because the general geographic principle in the region  remains the same, a somewhat analogous balance of power strategy is likely to  emerge after the events in Ukraine. Similar to the containment policy of  1945-1989, again in principle if not in detail, it would combine economy of  force and finance and limit the development of Russia as a hegemonic power while  exposing the United States to limited and controlled risk.

The coalescence of this strategy is a development I forecast in two books,  The Next Decade and The Next 100 Years, as a concept I called  the Intermarium. The Intermarium was a plan pursued after World War I by  Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski for a federation, under Poland’s aegis, of Central  and Eastern European countries. What is now emerging is not the Intermarium, but  it is close. And it is now transforming from an abstract forecast to a concrete,  if still emergent, reality.

Forces Leading to the Alliance’s Emergence

A direct military intervention by the United States in Ukraine is not  possible. First, Ukraine is a large country, and the force required to protect  it would outstrip U.S. capabilities. Second, supplying such a force would  require a logistics system that does not exist and would take a long time to  build. Finally, such an intervention would be inconceivable without a strong  alliance system extending to the West and around the Black Sea. The  United States can supply economic and political support, but Ukraine  cannot counterbalance Russia and the United States cannot escalate to the  point of using its own forces. Ukraine is a battleground on which Russian  forces would have an advantage and a U.S. defeat would be possible. 

If the United States chooses to confront Russia with a military component, it  must be on a stable perimeter and on as broad a front as possible to extend  Russian resources and decrease the probability of Russian attack at any one  point out of fear of retaliation elsewhere. The ideal mechanism for such a  strategy would be NATO, which contains almost all of the critical countries save  Azerbaijan and Georgia. The problem is that NATO is not a functional  alliance. It was designed to fight the Cold War on a line far to the west of the  current line. More important, there was unity on the principle that the Soviet  Union represented an existential threat to Western Europe. 

That consensus is no longer there. Different countries have different  perceptions of Russia and different concerns. For many, a replay of the Cold  War, even in the face of Russian actions in Ukraine, is worse than  accommodation. In addition, the end of the Cold War has led to a massive  drawdown of forces in Europe. NATO simply lacks the force unless there is a  massive and sudden buildup. That will not occur because of the financial crisis,  among other reasons. NATO requires unanimity to act, and that unanimity is not there. 

The countries that were at risk from 1945 to 1989 are not the same as those  at risk today. Many of these countries were part of the Soviet Union then,  and the rest were Soviet satellites. The old alliance system was not built for  this confrontation. The Estonia-Azerbaijan line has as its primary interest  retaining sovereignty in the face of Russian power. The rest of Europe is not in  jeopardy, and these countries are not prepared to commit financial and military  efforts to a problem they believe can be managed with little risk to them.  Therefore, any American strategy must bypass NATO or at the very least  create new structures to organize the region.

Characteristics of the Alliance

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Each of the various countries involved is unique and has to be addressed that  way. But these countries share the common danger that events in Ukraine could  spread and directly affect their national security interests, including internal  stability. As I observed, the Baltics, Moldova and the Caucasus are areas where  the Russians could seek to compensate for their defeat. Because of this, and  also because of their intrinsic importance, Poland, Romania and Azerbaijan must  be the posts around which this alliance is built.

The Baltic salient, 145 kilometers (90 miles) from St. Petersburg in Estonia,  would be a target for Russian destabilization. Poland borders the Baltics and is the leading figure in the Visegrad battlegroup, an  organization within the European Union. Poland is eager for a closer military  relationship with the United States, as its national strategy has long been  based on third-power guarantees against aggressors. The Poles cannot defend  themselves and the Baltics, given the combat capabilities necessary for the  task. 

The Dniester River is 80 kilometers from Odessa, the main port on the Black  Sea for Ukraine and an important one for Russia. The Prut River is about 200  kilometers from Bucharest, the capital of Romania. Moldova is between these two rivers. It is a battleground region, at least of competing  political factions. Romania must be armed  and supported in protecting Moldova and in organizing southeastern Europe. In  Western hands, Moldova threatens Odessa, Ukraine’s major port also used by  Russia on the Black Sea. In Russian hands, Moldova threatens Bucharest.

At the far end of the alliance structure I am envisioning is Azerbaijan,  on the Caspian Sea bordering Russia and Iran. Should Dagestan and Chechnya  destabilize, Azerbaijan — which is Islamic and majority Shiite but  secular — would become critical for limiting the regional spread of jihadists.  Azerbaijan also would support the alliance’s position in the Black Sea by  supporting Georgia and would serve as a bridge for relations (and energy) should  Western relations with Iran continue to improve. To the southwest, the very  pro-Russian Armenia — which has a Russian troop presence and a long-term  treaty with Moscow — could escalate tensions with Azerbaijan in  Nagorno-Karabakh. Previously, this was not a pressing issue for the United  States. Now it is. The security of Georgia and its ports on the Black Sea  requires Azerbaijan’s inclusion in the alliance.

Azerbaijan serves a more strategic purpose. Most of the countries in the  alliance are heavy  importers of Russian energy; for instance, 91 percent of Poland’s energy  imports and 86 percent of Hungary’s come from Russia. There is no short-term  solution to this problem, but Russia needs the revenue from these exports as  much as these countries need the energy. Developing European shale  and importing U.S. energy is a long-term solution. A medium-term  solution, depending on pipeline developments that Russia has tended to block in  the past, is sending natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe. Until now, this has  been a commercial issue, but it has become a strategically critical issue. The  Caspian region, of which Azerbaijan is the lynchpin, is the only major  alternative to Russia for energy. Therefore, rapid expansion of pipelines to the  heart of Europe is as essential as providing Azerbaijan with the military  capability to defend itself (a capability it is prepared to pay for and, unlike  other allied countries, does not need to be underwritten).

The key to the pipeline will be Turkey’s willingness to permit transit. I  have not included Turkey as a member  of this alliance. Its internal politics, complex relations and heavy energy  dependence on Russia make such participation difficult. I view Turkey in this  alliance structure as France in the Cold War. It was aligned yet independent,  militarily self-sufficient yet dependent on the effective functioning of others.  Turkey, inside or outside of the formal structure, will play this role because  the future of the Black Sea, the Caucasus and southeastern Europe is essential  to Ankara. 

These countries, diverse as they are, share a desire not to be dominated by  the Russians. That commonality is a basis for forging them into a functional  military alliance. This is not an offensive force but a force designed to deter  Russian expansion. All of these countries need modern military equipment,  particularly air defense, anti-tank and mobile infantry. In each case, the  willingness of the United States to supply these weapons, for cash or credit as  the situation requires, will strengthen pro-U.S. political forces in each  country and create a wall behind which Western investment can take place. And it  is an organization that others can join, which unlike NATO does not allow each  member the right to veto.

The Practicality of the U.S. Strategy

There are those who would criticize this alliance for including members who  do not share all the democratic values of the U.S. State Department. This may be  true. It is also true that during the Cold War the United States was allied with  the Shah’s Iran, Turkey and Greece under dictatorship and Mao’s China after  1971. Having encouraged Ukrainian independence, the United States — in trying  to protect that independence and the independence of other countries in the  region — is creating an alliance structure that will include countries, such as  Azerbaijan, that have been criticized. However, if energy does not come from  Azerbaijan, it will come from Russia, and then the Ukrainian events will  dissolve into tragic farce. The State Department must grapple with the  harsh forces its own policies have unleashed. This suggests that the  high-mindedness borne of benign assumptions now proven to be illusions must make  way for realpolitik calculations.

The balance of power strategy allows the United States to use the natural  inclination of allies to bolster its own position and take various steps, of  which military intervention is the last, not the first. It recognizes that the  United States, as nearly 25 percent of the world’s economy and the global  maritime hegemon, cannot evade involvement. Its very size and existence involves  it. Nor can the United States confine itself to gestures like sanctions on  20 people. This is not seen as a sign of resolve as much as weakness. It does  mean that as the United States engages in issues like Ukraine and must make  strategic decisions, there are alternatives to intervention — such as  alliances. In this case, a natural alliance structure presents itself — a  descendant of NATO but shaped for this crisis, much like the alliance I forecast  previously. 

In my view, Russian power is limited and has flourished while the United  States was distracted by its wars in the Middle East and while Europe struggled  with its economic crisis. That does not mean Russia is not dangerous. It has  short-term advantages, and its insecurity means that it will take risks. Weak  and insecure states with temporary advantages are dangerous. The United States  has an interest in acting early because early action is cheaper than acting in  the last extremity. This is a case of anti-air missiles, attack helicopters,  communications systems and training, among other things. These are things the  United States has in abundance. It is not a case of deploying divisions, of  which it has few. The Poles, Romanians, Azerbaijanis and certainly the Turks can  defend themselves. They need weapons and training, and that will keep Russia  contained within its cauldron as it plays out a last hand as a great power.


george-3 0George Friedman is the Chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in 1996 that  is now a leader in the field of global intelligence. Friedman guides Stratfor’s  strategic vision and oversees the development and training of the company’s  intelligence unit.

 “From Estonia to Azerbaijan: American Strategy After Ukraine is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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