By Amit K. Chhabra & Brent Robinson
The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs
Russian foreign policy appears to be driven by offensive realism. Offensive realists believe that power maximization is central to ensuring security. Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a clear example of offensive realism. The pretenses—including alleged threats against ethnic Russians—belied Russia’s true intents: the projection of naval power; access to warm-water ports in Sevastopol, Crimea, and Syria; and pushing back against NATO.
Russian desperation for a warm-water port is borne of its geographic vulnerabilities. To the west, the North European Plain has served as the stage for many European invasions of Russia and remains Russia’s primary Achilles heel. The majority of Russians reside on the plains west of the Ural Mountains, so in order to limit NATO’s freedom of maneuver on its border (given NATO’s strategic depth, strong economies, institutions and military might), Russia desires a buffer zone to protect its exposed western flank. To the east, Vladivostok, Russia’s largest port, freezes during the winter and is encircled by Japan (a notable U.S. ally and member of the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue). Also, with NATO’s domination of the Mediterranean Sea and Bosporus Strait, Russia’s ability to maneuver in the Black Sea and from ports in Syria is severely limited. The “GIUK gap,” traditionally used by NATO to hinder Russian access to the Atlantic Ocean, is currently being refurbished with the U.S. allocating USD 14.4 million to modernize Keflavik Air Station in Iceland. Thus, maritime access is a major strategic concern for Russia.
Picture: MC1 Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy [Public domain]