In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on USNews.com
In 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote the famous “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.” It became the bible for the Washington navalists that dominated the Theodore Roosevelt administration. It was a codified version of what had been discovered by both the Athenian and Roman Empires: Power projection in international affairs occurs at the end of a battle fleet.
But in order for a battle fleet to operate, a nation needs ports. Imperial Russian foreign policy, Soviet foreign policy and modern Russian foreign policy have been hostage to this reality in a way like no other great power: How do you become and remain a great power without access to the world’s oceans?
The media, which have already primarily shifted focus from Ukraine to the lost Malaysian airliner, seems to have grown weary with events in Eastern Europe. This seems true even when a famous Russian anchor stated that Russia could “turn the U.S into radioactive ash.” One hypothesis is that the media are bored when the question is complex and historical.
It’s worth remembering, though, that Crimea has been part of the broader grand strategy of tsars and commissars for centuries. It goes well beyond the artificial confines of the 20th and 21st centuries. This is geopolitical reality in its crystal clear form; it is stripped bare of ideological trappings and grounded in geographical and strategic necessity that is both organic and binding. It even goes beyond the traditional debates inside Russian history pitting so called Slavophile contractionists against Westernizing expansionists and combinations thereof.
When a situation is steeped in historical geopolitics, it becomes difficult to pinpoint a point of departure. There will be some who will point to the establishment of Keivan Rus, the Mongol invasion or Ivan the Terrible. However, if pressed, a good beginning would be Peter the Great.
The Azov Campaigns from 1694 to 1696 were launched to secure the Crimea and the Black Sea in order to fulfill the dream of creating a Russian navy that would project power into the Mediterranean and beyond. Russia’s first naval base at Taganrog was established as a stepping stone to gain the Crimea in 1698. Sevastopol would follow suit in 1783 and would, as it is today, be the base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. This drive for a maritime breakout to the Mediterranean led Russia into many foreign policy misadventures, including the Crimean War of 1853 and an on again, off again dalliance with Syria over the ports of Latakia and Tartus (among many others).
Russia annexed Crimea in 1783; it has done so again as of yesterday. But Russian grand strategy is a trap. The country has limited flexibility and limited options.
In contrast, American grand strategy is only hobbled by small thinking and a lack of creativity. America has fewer options today in regards to Crimea because we failed to exploit the trap that Russian grand strategy created. The Clinton years created the failure of not having a grand strategy from the fall of the Soviet Union onward. American opportunities were rife, but had to be taken quickly and decisively at the time. There were windows of opportunity when the USSR fell and nations inside the USSR declared independence. There were further opportunities when both the Ukraine and Georgia expressed interest in NATO membership. In both cases, the United States only wanted to react, minimally, after the Russians were forced by their own historical snare to take military actions.
The United States has run headlong into the so called “Putin Doctrine,” part of which is the reassertion of Russian regional hegemony. This is nothing new; as with most organic grand strategies, they return time and time again, just with different names. During the 1990s the term was the “near abroad,” and Ukraine was definitely in the near and the abroad. In fact, it was the heart of it. Thus, American grand strategy first had to recognize that Russian foreign policy and strategic goals are historical and long standing. It is exactly at this time that Russia is reasserting traditional trajectories that the United States should have had contingency planning to counter.
The American presidential administration is hamstrung only by its own inability to prioritize and recognize American national and vital interests, and pursue those with a proactive plan before we are overcome by events on the geopolitical stage. The Russian stance on Crimea should come as no surprise to anyone; it was predictable from the moment that Ukraine gained independence, let alone the events of this year. It serves as a harsh reminder that whether or not the United States concentrates on grand strategy, other nations must, and will.