Eastern Europe at Russia’s Mercy

The consequences of the U.S. power vacuum.

timthumbThe Obama administration’s constant stream of foreign policy blunders has seen the United States alienate old allies while cozying up with other countries whose motives seem, at the least, questionable. Nowhere is this pattern more clear than in Eastern Europe, where the United States has largely abandoned any attempt to maintain its influence, granting Russia free hand to impose its will on smaller European neighbors to an extent unseen since the Soviet era.

There is much reason to be content with the United States’ current retreat from the world stage. As our country recently stood on the brink of making the disastrous decision to enter the fray in Syria, many Americans rightly asked what business it is of ours what happens in a forgotten corner of the Middle East. Does the United States really have a responsibility to intervene in a bloody and complex civil war over 9,000 miles away? It is difficult to make the case that we do.

While the Syria debacle has hopefully forced Obama to recognize that U.S. citizens do not want to get embroiled in pointless military interventions (especially when this means siding with militants who then turn on us, desecrating our flag and burning our embassies), maintaining our influence around the world is just as essential as ever.

Much of this influence comes through the image our country has abroad. After 8 years of what was largely viewed as a massive decline in the United States’ international reputation under George W. Bush, Obama sought to win over the hearts and minds of our foreign detractors with several choice speeches, in Berlin and, as President, in Cairo. What the Obama administration failed to understand, though, is that strength is a much more important trait than likeability on the world stage. Bill Clinton was one of the most popular U.S. Presidents abroad that we ever had, but did his likeability stop the 9/11 attacks from occurring less than 9 months into his successor’s term?

More than anything, world leaders want to see an American President who delivers on his promises, someone who can get things done. It is this quality in particular that Barack Obama lost after his calamitous handling of the Syria crisis, having promised rebel groups U.S. support if the “red line” of chemical weapons use was crossed. Once this arbitrary red line was crossed, however, Obama backed away from his promises in the face of public opinion. While this writer, and doubtless many readers, will feel relieved that our country has thus far avoided a new war in the Middle East, there is little comfort to be felt in the consequent loss of U.S. credibility in the international arena.

It is exactly this international credibility that is currently allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin to wreak havoc in Eastern Europe. Inspired by his decisive foreign policy win on the Syria issue, Putin has doubled down on the smaller ex-Soviet countries around Russia, keen to bring them back under Moscow’s control. The most recent example is Ukraine, whose government declared its firm ambition to break its dependence on Russian gas by signing an Association Agreement with the European Union despite fierce pressure from the Kremlin to back away from such a deal.

Over the last 6 months, Russia has charged Ukraine exorbitant gas prices, suddenly banned key Ukrainian imports from entering Russian territory (letting trade between the two countries fall by 25%) and even threatened to back Russian-speaking Eastern regions of Ukraine that favor reunification with their former Soviet masters.

Russia’s use of such aggressive negotiating techniques is nothing new. Another frequent victim in recent history has been the small country of Georgia, which until recently was led by the pro-U.S. President Mikheil Saakashvili. In 2006, after Georgia refused to support Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Kremlin promptly implemented a blanket ban on Georgian wine, a product for which the small ex-Soviet country has become famous and on which many Georgians depend, because of reported health concerns. Levan Gachechiladze, the founder of Georgia’s most successful wine company, a former presidential candidate and now the head of the NGO Defend Georgia, which seeks to support and protect Georgian industry, said at the time that the idea of Georgian wine suddenly failing to meet health and safety standards was “absurd” and masked a more logical “political reason”.

One might reasonably asked how Russia is allowed to bully its neighbors with such impunity. The answer is that the U.S.’s gradual withdrawal from its position of leadership on the world stage has allowed other ‘great powers’ to fill the void. While many Americans do not want their country to be the ‘global policeman’, responsible for maintaining law and order in chaotic regions, much can be gained from engaging effectively with other countries, whether it be trade or strategic partnership. As a country, let’s not make promises we can’t keep but let’s not retreat from the world either.

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