Foreign Policy Blogs

Russia’s Incursion into Ukraine


Russian Army troops and vehicles in the Crimean town of Balaclava.

Editor’s Note:

Ian Bremmer is President of Eurasia Group, the world’s leading global political risk research and consulting firm. Dr. Bremmer is also Global Research Professor at the New York University (NYU) and author, most recently, of Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World.

by Ian Bremmer

As Russia conducts direct military intervention in Ukraine, the US and Europe condemn it, and the Ukrainian army goes on high alert, we’re witnessing the most seismic geopolitical events since 9/11.

A big part of the problem is that Russia is a declining power, and it’s in the West’s best interest to let that slowly play out over time. But the recent response on Ukraine pushed too hard, prompting President Vladimir Putin to retaliate with a decisive response. To say the US-Russia relationship is presently broken is an understatement.  Going forward, there are three central questions that should prove most interesting.

First, what will the West’s direct response be?  We won’t see much, although there will certainly be some very significant finger-pointing. President Obama will cancel his trip to Sochi for the upcoming G-8 summit, and it’s possible that enough of the other leaders will join him that the meeting will need to be scratched. It’s conceivable the G-7 nations would vote to remove Russia from the club. US Secretary of State John Kerry warned: “There’s a unified view by all of the foreign ministers I talked with yesterday – all of the G-8 and more –that they’re simply going to isolate Russia; that they’re not going to engage with Russia in a normal business-as-usual manner.” It’s possible we see an emergency United Nations Security Council session to denounce the intervention–which the Russians would no doubt veto—but it would be very interesting to see if the Chinese join them, and to see who abstains in voting.

Ian image

Ian Bremmer

NATO will have to fashion some response, possibly by sending ships into the Black Sea. But given the depth of economic ties, it is very hard to see significant European powers actually breaking relations with Russia at this point. In fact, it’s hard to envision serious sanctions coming together, given the coordination it would take between the US and the various European powers (Germany in particular). In short, shots won’t be fired, but markets will get fired up.

Second, what international complications can Russia stir up?  Events in Ukraine will significantly complicate all areas of US-Russia ties. Russia doesn’t want an Iranian nuclear weapon, but they’ll be somewhat less cooperative with the Americans and Europeans around Iranian negotiations, possibly making them more likely to offer a “third way” down the road that undermines the American deal. On Syria, an intransigent Russia will become very intransigent, making it more difficult to implement the chemical weapons agreement; Moscow will provide greater direct financial and military support for Bashar Assad’s regime. And if Russia were to invade Eastern Ukraine, a host of other issues would surface, including energy concerns surrounding major pipelines and the maintained flow of natural gas.

Lastly, will events in Ukraine result in a broader geopolitical shift? Russia will see its key opportunity as closing ranks more tightly with China. While we may see symbolic coordination from Beijing, particularly if there’s a Security Council vote (where the Chinese are reasonably likely to vote with the Russians), the Chinese are trying hard to maintain a balanced relationship with the United States, and accordingly won’t directly support Russian actions that could undermine that relationship. Leaving aside China, Russia’s ability to get other third party states on board with their Ukrainian engagement is largely limited to the “near abroad”—Armenia, Belarus, and Tajikistan—which is not a group the West is particularly concerned with.

But it is, more broadly, a significant hit to American foreign policy credibility. Coming only days after Secretary of State John Kerry took strong exception to “asinine, “isolationist” views in Congress that were framed as if the United States is a “poor country,” a direct admonition from the United States and its key allies was willfully and immediately ignored by the Russian president. That will send a message of weakness and bring concerns about American commitment to allies around the world. All of this reinforces the prevailing global geopolitical dynamic: we are in a world with a distinct and dangerous lack of global, coordinated leadership.