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The Need for Strategic Thinking in Ukraine and Beyond

By Ambassador Edward Djerejian, Baker Institute Director

Vladimir Putin’s brazen decision to invade Ukraine to effect regime change and have a compliant country in Russia’s orbit has major geopolitical implications for the post-World War II security structure in Europe and beyond.

In retrospect, Putin’s calculations should be no surprise. The springboards of Russia’s policy toward Ukraine were spelled out years ago in the so-called Gerasimov or Primakov Doctrine. Valery Gerasimov is the current chief of staff of Russia’s armed forces and Yevgeny Primakov was a former prime minister and chief of the intelligence services. The doctrine states that Russia should strive to create a multipolar world to counter the United States; Russia should have primacy in the post-Soviet space; and Russia should oppose NATO’s eastward expansion. Foreign policy experts in both Republican and Democratic administrations have been aware of this Russian policy direction. It and other Russian policy indicators should have been the basis of anticipating contingency crisis scenarios such as what we are witnessing now in Ukraine and of constructing U.S. policies to deal with them in a manner that addressed our and our allies’ national security interests. One important part of such contingency planning would have been to engage Russia in a frank and direct dialogue to make clear our redlines and resolve. Such dialogue with adversaries is critical to protect and advance our interests globally. This means understanding your interlocutors’ interests and situation thoroughly, determining if there is any common ground, and then planning policies to address various contingencies, including accommodation of interests or, if necessary, confrontation.

No one can predict the outcome of Putin’s “march of folly” but it may very well turn out to be a major miscalculation, given the heroic resistance of Ukraine’s leadership under President Volodymyr Zelensky and the unity of the Western alliance to counter Putin’s ambitions.

After the fog of war has passed, our policymakers must look ahead and focus on the regional “frozen conflicts” that have the real potential to blow up, like the current crisis, at any time not of one’s choosing. For example, in Russia’s near abroad there remains Georgia and the contentious issues of Ossetia and Abkhazia. In the South Caucasus there is the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh that led to war in 2020 and that involves Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey and Iran in a complex destabilizing situation with final status issues unresolved. Domestic political dynamics in Central Asian countries are a focus of Russian interests and intervention. In the broader Middle East and North Africa, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved with no negotiations on the horizon; it is a classic example of where, in recent years, process for the sake of process in negotiations has led nowhere. The Western Sahara issue pits Morocco and Algeria against one another. Cyprus is a classic example of a frozen conflict since the 1970s. Kashmir is a dangerous conflict situation pitting two nuclear states — Pakistan and India — against one another. And further afield in Asia, the Taiwan issue looms large as a major regional issue with global implications.

The foreign policy establishment of both parties should be focusing on these issues on a sustained and active basis; where required, it should reassess our policy approaches to these conflicts and thereby enhance our government’s ability to anticipate crises and fulfill the critical responsibility to serve U.S. national security and foreign policy interests in a manner worthy of a world power.

In the post-World War II era, then-Secretary of State George Marshall underscored the importance of strategic thinking by our policymakers “far enough ahead to see the emerging form of things to come and outline what should be done to meet or anticipate them.” He understood that our policy planners should also do something else — "constantly reappraise what [is] being done.” Marshall was acutely aware that “policies acquire their own momentum and [go] on after the reasons that inspired them cease.” His wise insights are most relevant today.