Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


APRIL 2014

Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea, its military buildup along Ukraine's eastern borders, and Vladimir Putin's defense of those actions in his March 18 Kremlin speech should convince doubters that aggressive nationalism is surging in Russia. The question is: Will the European countries, especially Germany, summon the will to resist Putin's ambitions, not just in Ukraine but in other neighboring countries?

Three major poles of power are pivotal in this crisis The first is Moscow, where Vladimir Putin is intent on reversing Ukraine's overthrow of an elected government headed by a pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. The second pole is Washington, where Barack Obama prefers to use diplomacy and economic sanctions instead of military pressure to convince Putin that he will pay a heavy price if his troops enter Russian-speaking cities of eastern/southern Ukraine.

The third pole is Europe whose proximity to Ukraine and its reliance on Russian oil and gas imports places the European Union (EU) in a dilemma as the crisis unfolds. Among the EU's twenty-eight members, Germany carries the most weight, both economically and politically, and Chancellor Angela Merkel emerges as Europe's principal leader in fashioning EU policy toward Russia and Ukraine.

This international struggle for power in eastern Europe can be understood by assessing the national interests, or goals, of the key players: Russia, Germany as Europe's principal voice, and the United States.


Vladimir Putin's short-term interest, objective, is to gain international recognition of his seizure of Crimea, ensure that any new government in Ukraine is on friendly terms with Moscow, and prevent NATO from expanding eastward. After the outcome of May elections in Ukraine, Putin might accept some form of Ukraine association with the EU, in order to get desperately needed financial assistance;. But he will demand that Kiev also agree to close economic ties with Russia and not attempt to join NATO.

Putin's long-term goals are apparent from his March 18 speech and other recent statements: Russia is a great power that was humiliated by the West in the 1990s; it has a right to reestablish a security zone in eastern Europe, including Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus, and it will use his acquisition of Crimea to extend its influence in the Black Sea area. While he may also covet control of the Baltic States, they are now NATO members.


The EU finds it difficult to speak with one voice on many issues, but in economic matters it increasingly defers to Germany because of its growing economic and political strength. On Ukraine, Berlin's and the EU's short-term goals are similar: Avoid conflicts that could result in war; negotiate a solution with Russia,, and maintain U.S. support for NATO to ensure its own security.

Germany's long-term goals in eastern Europe, however, are different from those of Britain, France, and other EU members: German industry has major markets in Ukraine and Russia., and Berlin's diplomacy is constrained by Germany's dependence on energy imports from Russia (one-third of its oil and natural gas). Also, German public opinion is opposed to military moves by NATO on Ukraine.

United States

President Obama's short-term objective is to use economic and political pressure to dissuade President Putin from invading Ukraine's eastern and southern provinces and refrain from undermining its new government. To accomplish it, Obama needs to ensure full support from the EU, especially Germany. Because of Europe's reluctance to send troops to reassure NATO members in the east, he must be wary of advice from "defense hawks" in both parties who insist that he display U.S. power to deter the Russian leader.

The western world now waits for Mr. Putin to make his next move. Some experts argue that he uses a troop buildup on Ukraine's borders to pressure the U.S. and EU to give Russia special rights in the eastern provinces, for example, a federal constitution that gives semi-autonomy to areas with a majority ethnic Russians or Russian -speaking population.

Others, however, are convinced that Putin is preparing to invade eastern and southern Ukraine and face the west with a fait accompli, as he did in Crimea. This view holds that Ukraine is only part of Putin's larger plan to recreate a Russian sphere of influence to the west and southward into the Black Sea region.

Ukraine's current crisis will be resolved, in my view, with an international agreement among Russia, the EU, and the United States to neutralize the country politically and let a new government work out economic ties with both Moscow and the West to obtain financial help to avoid bankruptcy. This will not prevent Russia from continuing its pressure on Kiev, but it may give Ukraine time to put its economic house in order, and offer political stability in place of the chaos that occurred in Kiev in February.

File last modified on Friday, 7-MAR-2014 3:57 PM EST

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