In the game of thrones, you win or you die. Those words from the “A Song of Ice and Fire” books written by George R.R. Martin hold true with regard not only to the fictional world he created, but also to our reality. In Martin’s world, characters strive for power and influence in a world of ever-shifting alliances, where the slightest misstep can mean the difference between being king or being dead.
Our generation has grown up in a world where the U.S. has been the preeminent world power, but the past few months have shown us a rising challenger seeking its time in the sun. President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has pushed the envelope on the crisis over the Crimean Peninsula, and the U.S. was caught off guard.
Putin has won this round. Russian troops occupied Crimea without any opposition. A referendum (however one-sided, illegitimate, or influenced by the presence of foreign soldiers it may be) was held to separate Crimea from Ukraine. Following that development, Russia then proceeded to annex Crimea.
The response of the West has been muted at best. Quite simply, the U.S. cares a lot more about the issue than it can do anything about, and Europe doesn’t care enough to be willing to use their leverage to affect the situation. Some sanctions have been placed on Russia and it was expelled from the now-G-7, but those diplomatic actions don’t do anything immediately to harm Putin, whose actions standing up to the U.S. and Europe have immensely enhanced Russian power and prestige.
As long as using military force to coerce Russia to back off in Crimea is off the table for fears of war with Russia, there is no readily available method to reverse the situation. The available — and far superior — option is to play the long game and plan today for how to counter Putin’s next move. The 2008 South Ossetia War and the recent annexation of Crimea show Putin’s interest in reestablishing Russian hegemony in Eurasia, so the question isn’t what he’s going to do so much as where and when.
The U.S. needs to prepare for that fight so that when the time comes, we will be ready. Part of the European reluctance to impose heavy sanctions on Russia has been their reliance on natural gas from Russia, so — as a staff editorial at the Washington Post recommended — the U.S. should use its natural gas boom to enhance exports. While much of these exports would go places other than Europe, they would deprive Putin of an important revenue source and bargaining chip by undercutting Russian sales, and provide more energy independence for European leaders so they can stand up to the next Russian aggression.
Our best response is to remember that though Putin has come out ahead this time, we have an opportunity to prepare to counter his next move. Thankfully for the United States, in this game of thrones, one misstep won’t be the deciding factor on whether or not we will exist tomorrow. But it should serve as an important lesson to put our priorities in what is important and always keep a realistic view of what is going on in the world.
Follow Patrick Rear on Twitter: @pgrear92