Streetwise Professor

June 21, 2014

Stephen Blank Called It in 2008

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:06 pm

Stephen Blank, formerly of the Army War College and now of the American Foreign Policy Council, is one of my favorite analysts of Russia. And not just because he is a Chicago PhD. He has written some of the most incisive analyses of Russian foreign policy in the Putin era that I have read.

As an illustration, consider this piece written in 2008. Read it, and you’ll have a very good understanding of what Putin is doing in Ukraine and why.

Two things stand out in Blank’s analysis that are particularly apposite today.

The first relates to Putin’s objectives. Blank shows quite clearly that Putin does not accept the post-Soviet settlement in Europe, and will not countenance any FSU state entering into a formal relationship with the EU, let alone NATO. (Indeed, Putin and the Russian elite do not really recognize Ukraine or Georgia or Armenia or Moldova as sovereign states.)

The second relates to means. The Russians have used frozen conflicts-not war, not peace-to make these places unsuitable for closer integration with Europe.

Both elements are clearly present in Ukraine. Ukraine’s move towards the EU is what precipitated the current crisis. What is going on in Donbas is creating a frozen conflict there. It is more on the not peace end of the not war, not peace spectrum, but Putin has abstained from outright invasion. But as long as the conflict persists, Ukraine will find it very difficult to make the changes necessary to integrate more closely with Europe, and Europe will be reluctant to embrace Ukraine closely.

So Putin does not need to rule Ukraine in order to achieve his primary objective: he just needs to keep it away from Europe. Low level conflict is a proven way of achieving that objective. Putin has employed this in Moldova/Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s worked before, and it is working now. Expect Putin to continue to use this method as long as it continues to work.

He will certainly continue to use it in Ukraine. One needs to ask whether he will attempt to employ it elsewhere. Like the Baltics.

Russia has apparently been developing and implementing the doctrine of low intensity, frozen conflict since the mid-2000s.  The west has proved utterly unable to deal with this. Unless that changes, and NATO develops an effective counter-doctrine, the FSU and eastern Europe may experience an ice age of conflict. Stephen Blank recognized this years ago, and too few paid attention to him. It would be wise to pay heed to him now.

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