Just as happened this past April, Russian troop levels at the border with Ukraine are rising. Next door in Belarus, the embattled government of Alexander Lukashenko is being accused of launching a “hybrid attack” on its neighbor Poland. Meanwhile, to the south, a constitutional crisis been brewing for months in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik apparently taking the final steps toward the Republika Srpska’s separation from the central government. These developments are worrying, particularly the latter two cases. Treaty obligations tie the United States to Poland, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the United States intervened multiple times during the wars of Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the 1990s, are in the last stages of their applications for both NATO and EU membership. It is all too easy to imagine how the United States could wind up involved in a preventable conflict.
Apart from any treaty obligations or historical precedents, the Biden administration’s foreign policy team is dominated by liberal internationalists. And just as their increasingly aggressive, zero-sum approach to China is the wrong one to take in the Indo-Pacific, it has long been counterproductive in eastern and southern Europe. The liberal internationalist desire to control the world is a dangerous delusion where the interests of other nuclear-armed great powers are concerned, and it alienates powerful minority populations who feel locked unwillingly into their existing states by the threat of American intervention or retaliation.
So while the US military, national security, and foreign policy establishment will likely feel the need for the US to be involved in the various concurrent crisis spots in the region, the only realistic policy for peace and stability in the region (so the US government can go back to focusing on the Indo-Pacific and antagonizing China) is one based on de-escalation, decentralization, and a tacit or overt acceptance of a Russian sphere of influence in its immediate neighborhood. For this to even be possible, however, US policy makers need to realistically reflect on how their various actions since the end of the Cold War must look from the Russian perspective, because while Russia and its allies are almost always portrayed as ominous encroachers on Europe’s peace, the reality is that Russia sees its moves as defensive, not offensive, and as direct responses to US and European actions and policies.
From NATO and EU expansion deep into eastern and southern Europe to covert and overt support for color revolutions in places like Georgia and Ukraine, to the bombing of Serbia and the waging of economic warfare, Russia feels as though it has been relentlessly battered and beset by the US and its allies since the end of the Cold War. Russians resent having been humiliated during their period of weakness following the Soviet Union’s collapse, though they had received assurances from the United States that it would not move its military forces, NATO’s forces, into the former Soviet sphere. For most Russians, then and now, the 1990s were a period of predatory “privatization,” organized crime, Western debt traps, shortages, poverty, depression, and death. And while Vladimir Putin does repress political opposition, reliable external polling and reporting leaves little doubt about his genuine popularity among a large swathe of the population.
And even though Putin is an authoritarian, contrary to one of the legitimating pillars of liberal internationalism, that democracies do not fight one another, states of every kind compete. Those competitions can intensify, turn violent, and there is no reason to think it’s just Putin that the US has a problem with. Any large and powerful Russian state, whether a dictatorship or a democracy, has, does, and would naturally seek to assert its influence in its region to realize its maximal potential. The reality is that it is the United States that is acting as an outside balancer in a region regularly dominated by Moscow for a century and a half. Therefore, if it doesn’t get out of the region entirely, what the United States most needs to do to decrease conflict, or the likelihood of future conflict, is accept that Russia has valid interests in eastern Europe and in the Balkans. The only other option is another Cold War we must all pray doesn’t inadvertently go hot.
In the three cases at hand, Ukraine, Belarus, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia will continue to act forwardly and intentionally so long as it perceives the US as motivated to prevent its influence or harm its interests. Ukraine can’t be a part of NATO or the EU without a larger war than already exists in the country, one that involves the two major powers directly. In the absence of Western interference, Lukashenko will remain in Belarus, poking at Poland, a rude but not terribly destructive situation, save the several hundred unfortunate refugees. If left to themselves, Dodik and the Bosnian Serbs will likely gain at least their de facto independence from the corrupt Bosniak- and Croat-dominated central government. There is no need to escalate any of these situations with provocative statements or stances by the Biden administration.
Putin, or any realist Russian government, could live with an independent array of variously aligned Balkan countries and an independent and westward-facing Poland, but not with a hostile Georgia, Ukraine, or Belarus. Think how the US would feel if Canada started inviting the Chinese military to put bases in Ontario: no matter what any Chinese government said about its intentions, Washington would reject this as utterly unacceptable and intolerable. This leaves the former Soviet and now NATO member Baltic states as the one region where there isn’t an obvious solution as things stand. Russia isn’t happy, but perhaps the situation would be tolerable to Moscow were US foreign policy to begin taking shape along the lines described above. And it begins by recognizing that—compared to other regimes—Putin’s Russia isn’t “evil,” or an especially bad actor. Rather, the Russian regime is like most other regimes. The difference is, unlike many regimes, it has the military, economic, technological, and diplomatic capacity to pursue the respect it wants and the security it believes it deserves. In the case of the Russians, they believe their blood, spilled in the grueling, solo, eastern-front defeat of the best the Nazi war machine had to offer, bought the right to demand such international prerogatives.