Before Russia started pressuring Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin's motive was clear: Counter Europe and NATO by securing the "near abroad" countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Ukraine into a Eurasian Customs Union. Putin worried these countries would tie themselves to Europe's economies and join NATO.
In 2008-09, Russia used the conflict between Georgia and the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to neutralize Georgia. Georgia sought to expand economic relations with the European Union and with NATO. Since then, Putin has been consolidating these "near abroad" nations by manipulating the price of natural gas they get from Russia to keep their economies (and governments) in tow. He's also made Europe impotent by keeping it reliant on Russia for natural gas. Europe gets 33 percent of its natural gas from Russia. Even former Soviet states like the Baltic republics remain heavily dependent on Russia for their natural gas, despite being in NATO. In Central Asia, as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia remains the dominant trading partner.
Where is the U.S.? The Obama administration has shown little interest in Europe or NATO, let alone actions by Russia. It blamed both sides for the problems in Georgia, and then it did nothing. It canceled the ballistic missile defense systems the U.S. was to place in NATO members Hungary and Poland. The "reset" of relations with Russia brought the U.S. nothing because it didn't require Russia to guarantee the independence or borders of countries in its region. And the U.S. has done little to support Europe's need to diversify its energy sources beyond Russia. This last failure is the worst because several natural gas pipelines run through Ukraine. Not only is the Ukraine the most economically powerful of all of Russia's neighbors, but it is especially vulnerable to Russian action.
Why does this matter? Roughly 45 percent of the world's GDP comes out of Europe and the U.S. - $32 trillion. These two regions account for 40 percent of global trade. A slowdown in Europe will hurt recovery in the U.S. What is anemic growth now in America will become a comatose economy if Europe's energy supply is cut. That will mean higher prices, fewer investments, and less job creation at home.
Putin's strategic objective is for Russia to be a regional economic power. A Eurasian Customs Union touts a respectable $3 trillion GDP against countries like China at $7.2 trillion, Japan at $5.8 trillion, and India at $1.9 trillion. Russia will push hard against Moldova, while continuing to do so against Ukraine. Putin will also threaten the Baltic states. They have sizable Russian populations, and are members of both the European Union and NATO. He will leave the Eastern Europeans alone.
The Obama administration's options are limited because of their neglect. Nevertheless, here are a few recommendations: NATO military exercises (in the Baltic and Black seas, and in Eastern Europe); continued energy assistance to Ukraine, Moldova, and Baltic states; diplomatic outreach to the countries of Central Asia and Armenia and Azerbaijan; and help on the upcoming Ukrainian elections in May. The Obama administration should also reverse itself and implement the ballistic missile defense systems in Hungary and Poland. This will show the U.S. is committed to NATO and to the region down the road.
Ackerman teaches political science and economics at the College of Idaho and Westwood College Online. He was an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Air Force and an analyst with the President's Commission on Defense Base Closure and Realignment.