With Putin’s paramilitary/military thugs on the ground observing the secession vote, the province of Crimea voted to secede with over 95% of the voters favoring secession. Opportunistic conservatives and neoconservatives, along with their allies, will decry this as a massive failure of the Obama Administration.
But in truth, there is very little that the President of the United States can do when it comes to the matter of Russia’s near-abroad. Any country on the European periphery simply isn’t worth the massive political and economic capital needed to deter/neutralize Russia’s forays into the region. The only states that have the protection of the US military umbrella are NATO treaty states, so Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia might be tense, but can breathe easy.
Not that Putin won’t try and probe and feel out any weakness in the transatlantic military alliance. If he senses that the US is unwilling to act to protect a NATO treaty member, things could get very interesting. However, unlike Syria, there is a very real red line here. NATO falls apart without decisive US action, and if that happens, the geopolitical stage is completely upended. There is so much at stake that it will be impossible for any sitting President to fail to act.
With that out of the way, what’s worth noting is that Russia is on borrowed time. Demography is destiny, and it definitely does not smile favorably upon Russia. Alcoholism is rampant. The birth rate has been below replacement level since Gorbachev opened East Germany to the West. Russia is experiencing drastic and possibly irreversible decline in its population.
Combine that with the petrostate economy that is so heavily reliant on volatile commodity markets, and it is impossible for Russia’s hegemonic ambitions to stretch much beyond miniscule land grabs in Eastern Europe. Those gains will prove short lived if the world plunges into another recession, which will sink oil prices and destabilize the Russian economy and government.
When you consider all the problems that plague Russia, and its inability to establish a thriving industry outside of oil and natural gas, it becomes clear that the new Russia Empire will face the same exact problems as the old Soviet Union and will fall in a similar fashion.
However, fragile empires know their weaknesses. And they usually tend to stir conflict in other regions to distract their enemies from direct attacks. This makes Russia’s support of unsavory regimes in the Middle East much more logical. Tensions in the Middle East make oil markets uneasy, which boosts prices, which boosts Russian oil and gas revenues.
The United States has the strongest hand in the game. All it needs to do is wait for the Russian Empire to overextend itself without committing any costly and expensive interventions in the Middle East or Eastern Europe. That being said, it is imperative that the US does not appear weak in back channel diplomacy. Assurances must be made, and actions must back up those assurances.
Military aid packages to NATO treaty states in Eastern Europe would be a good first step, starting with Poland and the Baltic states. After that, just sit and whistle while Russia hustles and bustles to an early grave.