Atlantic Council Senior Fellow, Dr. Agnia Grigas authored a report this month entitled: “Frozen Conflicts: A Toolkit for U.S. Policy Makers”, that laid the foundation for the dialogue which took place in the Cannon House Office Building on July 6th. Garnering more attention than anticipated, the small room was packed, with every seat taken, the central walkway and sides of the panelists occupied by interns and experts alike; there was even a sizable crowd waiting outside for space to open up. The interest in frozen conflicts comes with good reason: the reasons Russia has acted how it has, how to anticipate its moves, and what to do about them, is still not entirely obvious. To consider these issues, Dr. Agnia Grigas was joined by Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia; former Ambassador to Belarus (‘94-’97) and Georgia (‘98-’01), Kenneth Yalowitz; and former Ambassador to Uzbekistan (‘00-’03) and Ukraine (‘03-’06), John Herbst, respectively. First, consider the historical parallels for the current Russian aggression. Ivan the Great ended the dominance of the Golden Horde over the Rus’, laying the foundation for the Russian Empire; Lenin ousted the Tsarist regime in the October Revolution of 1917, and saw the birth of the Soviet Union; similarly, unwilling to submit to the Western dominated post-Cold War era, Putin has plans to launch a Third Empire, which I have taken the liberty to transliterate from Russian as Tret’ya Imperiya. Ambassador Herbst made the point that by ignoring the Budapest Memorandum and the Paris Charters, Putin has chosen to “renew the empire”, rather than continue the normalization policies of Yeltsin. The stark contrast is clear anecdotally. Mayor of Moscow throughout the 1990s, Yury Luzhkov once publicly advocated for the annexation of Crimea. “President Clinton called Yeltsin and the problem was resolved; however, that was a very different Russia,” Ambassador Herbst concluded. Putin’s Russia is not satisfied with the Western-centric global order which has developed in the last quarter century, as evidenced by trends in Mr. Putin’s approval ratings: the only times Putin’s popularity has spiked was during his military campaigns—Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine. Russia’s proud history of conquest is clearly a central factor in its expansionary policies, but how Moscow decides where to act next is a more nuanced topic. According to Dr. Grigas, there are three factors that constitute a vulnerable state: first, a sizable presence of persons who speak, or are ethnically, Russian; second, the state borders Russia; and third, they are susceptible to Moscow’s influence culturally. “Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Belarus are vulnerable,” Ambassador Valowitz commented, and while the Baltic states fall into the category as well, with NATO bolstering its presence there, he does not think they will “pick a fight.” Moreover, where there have been separatist movements, Russia has tried to exacerbate them. For example, prior to taking formal action, Moscow was helping to train Eastern Ukrainian rebels, and was handing out Russian passports in Crimea. Conversely, the United States has an interest in maintaining order. “Our goals are laudable,” Valowitz answered, responding to a query from an Azerbaijani diplomat, “but they just are not pursued very vigorously.” Besides the overarching principle of territorial sovereignty, Washington knows that with conflict come setbacks to democracy, human rights, and economic reform. Moscow correctly fears that with enough economic progress, countries that used to be within its sphere of influence will align themselves with the West. As a result, they have taken up a policy of destabilization, promoting conflict in countries—like Ukraine—that are on the verge of slipping out of their grip. This strategy has not always had the desired effect. Ambassador Valowitz claims that because of the steps Putin has taken, “Ukraine will not be a close ally [to Russia] for the next 100 years.” If they cannot pull them back into the fold—which appears to be the case in Ukraine—Russia has shown that it is content to propagate perpetual turmoil. The widespread corruption of Ukrainian government officials has not helped to solve the problem. “We have seen substantial positive change,” Valowitz observed, “and I expect more to come in the months ahead.” They will need to win back trust for the separatist movements to end. Russian relations will continue to be important for the next U.S. administration. Importantly, American bureaucrats are not communicating with their Russian counterparts: that has to change. If it does not, the massive policy differences the two countries have will persist indefinitely, if not in reality—supposing Putin acquiesces to Western sanctions—in spirit, with national interests remaining considerably different. Foreign policy is a game of choices, and for Putin to back off, he will need an acceptable alternative. Until one arises, frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space will not abate.   Read the Atlantic Council report by Dr. Agnia Grigas here.

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.