US has repeatedly failed to learn lessons from Russian aggression

Invasion of Ukraine is only the latest move in Putin's long history of imperial ambition

REMARKING ON THE state of postwar Europe in the wake of the Allied victory in the Second World War, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin told a Yugoslav emissary that “whoever occupies a territory also imposes his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach.”

As the picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist machinations became clearer with Russia’s incursion into Ukraine by air, land, and sea, it is important for the United States and the West to recognize that this is not the first time Putin has taken heed of Stalin’s words. In fact, it is only one of many instances of Russia’s use of hybrid warfare against a former Soviet republic in the three decades since the dissolution of the USSR – a playbook which has involved tactics ranging from deploying Russian troops as “peacekeepers” in order to establish a military presence to targeting crippling cyberattacks on public infrastructure and power grids. Russia has become a master practitioner of such “gray-zone” tactics on its neighbors because of their subversive effect on the afflicted victim such as a destabilized military environment or a precarious political climate.

Moscow has employed such techniques as a means to extend its geostrategic reach beyond its borders by upholding pro-Russian groups in the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova, the separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

With each instance of Russian aggression masked under the pretense of protecting the “political position and cultural rights of Russian minorities,” the West has repeatedly failed to learn its lesson in dealing with a Kremlin bent on restoring what was once “Novorossiya” – a vast expanse of territory stretching from Russia’s present western border to Moldova which was once under Imperial Russia’s control. Despite the Russian political-military leadership’s designs for implementing such territorial revisionism, the United States and its Western allies have failed to effectively deter such a scheme from a position of strategic advantage.

Whether Russia rolled its tanks into Georgia in 2008 or deployed “little green men” across the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the West, with Washington at its helm, has demonstrated a lack of transatlantic resolve in dissuading Putin from proceeding along his destructive campaign to “re-exert a sphere of influence over countries that previously were part of the Soviet Union.” In both cases, the West’s imposition of sanctions against Russia had little effect in changing Moscow’s course in forcefully coercing Georgia and Ukraine, respectively, to meet its expansionist interests.

Despite warnings from NATO allies across the eastern flank regarding Russian intentions following the Russo-Georgian War, the Obama administration instead pursued a détente-like “reset” with Russia, which provided Putin the opportunity to bolster the capabilities of his armed forces under the guise of cooperating with the West. When the veil dropped during the early months of 2014 as Russia illegally annexed Crimea and inflamed the internal upheaval across Ukraine, the West offered little more than an impassioned cri de coeur and another futile package of sanctions which only demonstrated how the “West acted too slowly and timidly initially,” according to then-U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.

Eight years later and the United States under President Biden has found itself with a weakened hand in leading the West’s response against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The deployment of US troops and fighter jets across NATO’s eastern flank in recent weeks has been welcomed as reassuring to our transatlantic allies, but such steps only further exemplify how delayed and reactive Washington’s strategic focus is with respect to countering Russian influence in the Black Sea region.

Retired Adm. James G. Foggo III, who last served as commander of the US Naval Forces Europe-Africa, noted in a recent article describing the steep decline in the US Navy’s presence in the Black Sea since 2014, “We are never going to be able to just turn our back…[The Russians] are always going to be there.” Moreover, with the weakening of America’s energy independence from imports of Russian oil and natural gas along with a record spike in inflation rates since Biden took office, the West’s sanctions package as it stands explicitly exempts Moscow’s energy exports, which account for most of its revenues.

Cracks in transatlantic resolve have even formed with respect to severing Russia from the SWIFT international payments system after several European states, including Germany, expressed their reservations due to their own dependence on Russian energy. So far, it is all part of the same dance on behalf of the United States and the West to the same tune of Russian aggression which has been played for years.

Over 30 years ago, my family left Odessa after hurriedly packing their earthly possessions into several luggage cases for the journey to Boston. As the rotting walls of a corrupt and economically stagnant Soviet Union crumbled around them, they joined the exodus of Soviet Jews who were leaving their homeland and the extensive persecution they faced there in search of a better life in the United States.

Once in Massachusetts, they joined their compatriots from other republics across the USSR as far east as Kyrgyzstan and as far north as Estonia in the process of assimilating to the local culture and one day achieving the American Dream. They were no stranger to the experience of living each day under a prejudicial system which did not recognize them for who they truly were and lorded control over every aspect of their lives through a constant state of fear.

It is no surprise then that Putin’s recent incursion into Ukraine and his effort to subjugate the local population to Moscow’s will provided a stark reminder to Soviet immigrants throughout America of how often history repeats itself. While the fortitude and courage of the Ukrainian people in this present crisis is unequivocal, after yet another act of Russian military aggression against one of its neighbors, now more than ever is the time for America to demonstrate similar resolve against this belligerency.

Eliot Usherenko is a Fulbright scholar on the Bulgaria-Romania Joint Research Award whose research analyzes the development of the United States’ relations with both Eastern European states since their respective admission into NATO in 2004. He has spent the past five months conducting research at Sofia University in Bulgaria and is now starting the latter half of his grant at Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. He was born and raised in Boston and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Boston University in May 2021.

Meet the Author

Eliot Usherenko

International relations and economics major, Boston University