Making a stand against the raging bear
On the 6th of April 2016, a referendum was held in the Netherlands about whether or not the European Union should enter into an association treaty with Ukraine. At the time, I wrote an article giving a voting advice to Dutch voters for that referendum from an international relations point of view. The following is an extract from that article.
Although it is not a party to the treaty, Russia is an important factor to consider when voting for this referendum. For years now, Russia has been expanding its sphere of influence towards the west. In 2008, Russia fought a war against Georgia followed by the formal Russian recognition of the independence for Georgian breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia. (1) Thereby taking what seem like steps towards annexation of those regions. After no meaningful response was given by the west against this Russian aggression towards Georgia, Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea on March 18 in 2014.(2) And at present, Russia is allegedly assisting rebel groups in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine by providing them with weapons and troops.(3)
The most important reason for Russia to expand its sphere of influence westward is that it’s a strategic necessity because its heartland lacks natural barriers, such as rivers, oceans, swamps or mountains that can do service as natural state borders. As history has shown, this lack of natural barriers leaves the Russian heartland very vulnerable to invasions.(4) By expanding its sphere of influence westward, either by annexation or other means, Russia is trying to secure itself to regions that do have these natural barriers. In East Ukraine, for example, flows the Dnieper river which would be a great natural barrier for Russia’s southwest border. In addition to providing Russia with natural barriers, those regions can also serve as geographic buffers for the heartland.(5) These buffers are a great line of defense because they can be used to stretch enemy supply lines and wage attrition warfare.(6)
Russia is paying a heavy economic and political price for this aggressive expansion policy.(7) But Russia’s calculation is based on pure realpolitik and, for the sake of its defense, although heavy, that price is worth paying. It may seem unlikely that contemporary Europe will launch an invasion on Russia. But states plan for the worst-case scenario so that unlikelihood is irrelevant to Russia.
Just entering into this association treaty with Ukraine will certainly not be enough for Europe to stop Russia from expanding its sphere of influence because the geopolitical imperative for Russia is too strong for it to be deterred by such a treaty. But, if Europe backs out of this treaty, Putin will probably interpret that as a sign of weakness and take it as a carte blanche to continue Russia’s expansion. Just like the absence of a meaningful western response to the Russo-Georgian war helped Putin gain the confidence to annex Crimea in 2014. Therefore, if the Dutch want to make a stand against this expansion, so Europe can promote open democracy in its neighboring states to the east and prevent further disturbance of the balance of power in Eurasia, voting in favor of the association treaty with Ukraine is the very least they should do.
(1) Walker, P. (2008, August 9). Georgia declares ‘state of war’ over South Ossetia. Last accessed on march 31, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/aug/09/georgia.russia2 and Tran, M. (2008, August 26). Russia defies west by recognizing Georgian rebels. Last accessed on March 31, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/aug/26/russia.georgia1
(2) BBC. (2014, March 21). Ukraine: Putin signs Crimea annexion. Last accessed on March 31, 2016, from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26686949
(3) Walker, S. (2014 August 28). Ukrainian president: Russian troops have crossed border. Last accessed on March 31, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/28/ukraine-accuses-russia-invadingsouth-east-help-rebels
(4)Reva, G. (2015, September 15). The logic and risks behind Russia’s statelet sponsorship. Last accessed on March 31, 2016, from https://www.stratfor.com/weekly/logic-andrisks-behind-russias-statelet-sponsorship and BBC. (2015, November 20). Russia profile – Timeline. Last accessed on March 31, 2016, from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-17840446
(5)Reva, G. (2015, September 15). The logic and risks behind Russia’s statelet sponsorship. Last accessed on March 31, 2016, from https://www.stratfor.com/weekly/logic-andrisks-behind-russias-statelet-sponsorship
(6) Anastas, K. (1992, Augustus 25). The American way of operational art: attrition or maneuver? P. 3-4. Downloaded on March 30, 2016, from http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a254194.pdf
(7) Thompson, M. (2015, August 15). How badly have sanctions hit Russia? Last accessed on March 31, 2016, from http://money.cnn.com/2015/08/04/news/economy/russiasanctions