South Ossetia is at the crossroads of Russia’s geopolitical ambitions and the United States’ efforts to contain the Kremlin. Recent events there are the butting of heads of a regional power with global aspirations and a global superpower. To effectively thwart the Russian challenge the US needs to pursue two strategic goals: restoring its respectability amongst NATO and EU nations and encouraging European energy independence from Russia.
The Russian incursion into South Ossetia is a well-timed operation that takes advantage of the US’s distraction in the Middle East. With the majority of US troops busy in Iraq and Afghanistan there are few to spare for operations elsewhere in the world. Moscow also realizes that its close ties with Tehran are of strategic importance due to Tehran’s ability to incite Sunni violence in Iraq. This trump card is one which Russia’s President Medvedev could ask Iran’s President Ahmadinejad to play. With Russia holding a flush Bush has little leverage. We have seen this situation play out with the US only applying strong diplomatic pressures to Russia but doing little more. This reflects United States’ weak bargaining position.
To gain against Russian resistance the US needs military might and a united Europe to push back against the eastern power. There are a number of avenues that the US could pursue to increase its military power, some more viable than others. Current operation in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue for many years, with Afghanistan absorbing many of the troops relieved of duty in Iraq. As such, the only way to increase US ground power is to increase the size of the Army and Marines through aggressive recruitment or institution of a draft. Neither of these options are viable in the current political climate. Therefore, if the US is to increase its hardpower it must rely on its allies. To do this it is necessary for the US restore its respectability amongst NATO and EU countries. By doing so, military collaboration will be an option with a large number of troops at disposal.
This move alone is not sufficient to counter Russia though. The US must also push for European energy independence from Russia. Our European allies, much like us, largely disapprove of Russia’s unilateral military intervention. Nevertheless, these countries have done little to respond. France and Germany for example have hardly chastised the Kremlin; their response has been described as “soft on Moscow” according to the Polish president. The reason for this lackluster denouncement is the European dependence on Russian energy. Such dependency gives Russia the upper hand; if Russia feels affronted it can turn off the flow of natural gas, like it did to Ukraine in 2006. Such an action would throw much of Europe into turmoil. If the US wants to bolster Europe’s position at the bargaining table, it must do so by altering or diversifying Europe’s sources of energy.
If the US pursues these two goals successfully—restoring its image/strengthening NATO and helping Europe achieve energy independence—Europe will not only be united in its disapproval of Russia but will form a cohesive and willing challenger to Russia’s increasingly belligerent foreign policy.