The American public and their president are focused on the accelerating nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, and with good reason. Yet while the United States has turned its attention to one urgent strategic challenge, it has taken its eye off another: Russia.
The outside world is only just beginning to get a full understanding of the scale of Moscow’s abuses in the European territory it carved off Ukraine’s southern coast in 2014. According to a report conducted by the United Nations, Russian police, paramilitaries, and the FSB are implicated in grave human-rights abuses and terrorizing the population of Crimea. “The abuses included the extrajudicial killing of at least one pro-Ukrainian activist, the panel found, and while dozens of people abducted from 2014 to 2016 have been released, at least 10 are still missing,” the New York Times reported.
The report detailed how the law in this closed peninsula is arbitrarily applied. It noted the extent to which Russian citizenship imposed on the Crimean people has been used as a weapon, forced on some who did not seek it or denied others, along with rights to state-provided services and enfranchisement. Finally, the report indicated how ethnic and religious discrimination on the peninsula has exploded since 2014.
As is their centuries-old wont, Russian officials are allegedly repressing the peninsula’s Tartar minority, including its political representatives. Russia is also de-registering Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations as officially sanctioned religious groups. A separate report from the human rights organization Agora has confirmed these disturbing revelations and further alleged that the FSB has transformed Crimea into a total surveillance state. Individuals in Russia’s grasp are tracked, and residents are forced to submit fingerprint, DNA, and voice-recording samples to the government.
Russia is transforming Crimea into a Black Sea version of Kaliningrad. In that Baltic enclave, a vast, state-supported criminal enterprise specializes in trafficking drugs, people, and weapons in and out of Europe, which is to say nothing of its status as a forward positioning post for Russian troops and heavy weaponry.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine’s east, a Russian-sponsored “frozen conflict” continues to rage. Since April 2014, more than 34,000 conflict-related casualties have been reported. More than 10,000 have died. Barack Obama vetoed a bill to provide non-defensive weaponry to Ukraine in 2015, but the Republican-led legislature has declined to similarly test Trump’s commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty. Nevertheless, America’s diplomatic and advisory-level military commitments to supporting Ukraine’s side of the contact line in the Donbas region ensure that the U.S. will be drawn further into the fighting in that region if it flares, as it does at Moscow’s fancy.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, a post-civil war Syria is beginning to take shape, but it is one dominated by great powers and not the hollowed out regime in Damascus. On Monday, the United States accused Russian forces of conducting airstrikes in Deir al-Zour province in eastern Syria. The accusation is a revealing one, seeing as Moscow effectively divided Syria into east and west zones of control marked by the Euphrates River following a June clash between U.S. and Syrian air assets. If the U.S. is prepared to accept Russia’s de facto bifurcation of Syria, Russia—and its Iranian allies—are not. “Iran, a strong backer of the Syrian government, needs Deir al-Zour to secure a land corridor from Tehran to its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah,” the Washington Post noted. There’s no room for the United States or the West in Syria in this post-conflict formulation.
The Russo-Iranian axis developed into a frustrating counterbalance to American power in the Middle East in the Obama era, and the Trump administration has failed in its early attempts to destabilize it. Today, Iran and Russia enjoy increased agility in Syria and the ability to deny America and its allies the freedom to act at their will. Alienated Sunni populations see the U.S. as complicit in the rise of Russia and Iran in their backyards. An ominous analysis conducted by Jennifer Cafarella and Fred and Kimberly Kagan warns that Russian and Iranian-linked Shiite political forces may be able to replace Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi with a more pro-Iranian figure in 2018, and the U.S. may lose all access to Iraq as a staging ground. The prospect of being forced out of both Iraq and Syria amid a growing Iranian, Russian, and potent Islamist terror threat looms large, and that could prove a decisive disadvantage if tensions between Iran and the United States take on a military dimension.
The fatal flaw in Obama’s strategic vision was the idea that the United States had the luxury of pivoting in one direction or the other. The hegemon is omnidirectional by necessity. While Northeast Asia has taken precedence, Eastern Europe and the Middle East are metastasizing. The United States has a Russia problem that it would rather ignore. Not only does this president have a bizarre soft spot for the autocrat in the Kremlin, he also shares his predecessor’s reluctance to engage in the strategic necessity of imposing costs on Russia as it pursues a newly extroverted foreign policy. That might prove a fatal conceit.