16 January 2009

What To Do About Russia?

Winston Churchill once said in referrence to then-martial and imperial Germany  "The Hun is either at your throat... or at your knees."  From the perspective of the west, it would be difficult to find a more appropriate summary for the last 90 years of Russia's history, as well.

Recently, we all saw how the Russians behaved once they got a few bucks. This Kremlin desperately wants attention, influence, and respect, and was drawing a line in the sand to mark it's "sphere of influence" with the brutal molestation of Georgia last year... a signal to the United States, Ukraine, and others who dare to disrespect Putin's New Russia.  Clearly, they haven't forgot the humiliation felt by Ronald Reagan's liberating their empire and driving the USSR into the ground, which brought-on an embarassing wasted decade. 

And those in the Kremlin surely meant for someone to be intimidated by the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko and two other ships holding naval excercises with Venezuela's navy in the Caribbean, and then steaming-on to a port-call in Cuba. In reality, these creaking, Soviet-era hulks were about as threatening as a barge full of scap metal, and no practical threat to anyone... except maybe the sailors on-board.  The fact is that Russia's navy remains severely weakened following years of post-Soviet neglect, with mantainance marginal at best, and fatal accidents frequent.  But, these manoeuvres close to US waters were an obvious riposte to American support of Georgia and Ukraine, which ran contrary to the Kremlin's desire to re-establish their influence in former-Soviet possesions.  

What is clear is that the Russians think they see an opportunity for additional strategic and diplomatic gains in the election of liberal pacifist Barack Obama... and are moving in haste to put this tyro-strategist back on his heels, with new threats and maneuvers reminiscent of the Cold War. 

President Clinton lacked a genuine interest in foreign affairs, and was largely pragmatic in his diplomacy. Clinton also inherited a fortunate situation where the Russian bear's teeth had just fallen out, and the country was in financial ruins... so it is difficult to draw any relevent lessons from his dealings with the often-enebriated Boris Yeltsin. 

But one only needs to revisit the Jimmy Carter era of the late 1970s to see just how ineffectual misguided "engagement" and attempts at appeasement are when dealing with aggressive, zero-sum regimes like the USSR... and by extension, today's ex-KGB-run Russia. And calling Carter's well-intended foreign policy legacy an "unmitigated disaster" would be mighty charitable.
This naive and incompetent man actually scolded Americans, telling them they harbored an "inordinate" fear of communism in general, and the Soviet Union in particular. He stopped vital B-1 production cold, then gave away the strategic Panama Canal (utilized last month by Russian warships on the way to Venezuela). Carter pardoned draft-dodgers, and reached out to Fidel Castro... who KGB archives show considered him no more than a "useful idiot".  

Carter allowed the Soviets to gain military superiority while hiding behind the SALT treaty, and when Brezhnev met with him and saw what he was dealing with, the Kremlin promptly invaded Afghanistan. On Carter's watch, the Soviet Union went on an unrestrained rampage in which it took over not only Afghanistan, but also Ethiopia, South Yemen, Angola, Cambodia, Mozambique, Grenada and Nicaragua. In spite of all this, Carter's last defense budget proposed spending -45% below pre-Vietnam levels for fighter aircraft, -75% for ships, -83% for attack submarines and -90% for helicopters.

The only US President who enjoyed comprehensive success in dealing with the Russians was, of course, Ronald Reagan. He was once quoted as saying ""We cannot play innocents abroad in a world that is not innocent". But we have a President in Obama who seems to think that if we placate our enemies, perhaps they'll give up their evil ways, and eventually learn to like us. Also again, we have a world loaded with aggressive, insatiable rivals who tend to see good-faith gestures as weaknesses to be manipulated.  There is certainly a reason the Kremlin put out stealthy propaganda for Obama, and statements detrimental to McCain. On a BBC World radio program, the Russians were basically given a free half-hour info-mercial last fall, in which a Russian "journalist" left no doubt as to who the former KGB agent Vladimir Putin and his apprentice Dmitry Medvedev preferred to deal with... and it wasn't John McCain, who famously said that he "looked in Putin's eyes, and saw a "K", a "G", and a "B".  Now that Obama has been elected, we are seeing why... and it has nothing to do with a new, positive cooperative direction between Russia and the US.

In a clear message to President-elect Obama, and  on the very day he was elected, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev announced plans to station short-range Iskander missiles in Russia's Kaliningrad exclave as a counter to American installation of its missile defence system in eastern Europe.... and that they would be targeting these missiles upon the EU's Poland and the Czech Republic if the US anti-missile defenses were installed there as planned by the Bush Administration.  

Next, the Russians announced plans to commission 70 strategic missiles over the next three years, as part of a massive rearmament program also to include shorter-range missiles, 300 tanks, 14 warships and 50 planes. The arsenal will include a new-generation, multiple-warhead ICBM called the RS-24, which was first tested in 2007, accompanied by the boast that it was "capable of overcoming any existing or future missile defence systems". The new ICBM's will be part of a a planned 28% increase in Russians arms spending for 2009-11.  This production of 70 long-range nuclear missiles over the next three years represents a Russian attempt to strengthen its bargaining position with Washington, specifically in the upcoming talks on new nuclear weapons cuts when the current treaty in force, START I, expires in December 2009.

Moscow's strategy appears to be to challenge Obama's new administration from the day it takes office, probing for weakness in the very same way the USSR did with the idealistic and inexperienced JFK in 1962.  Putin has shown that he knows how to play a weak hand well, as did Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  In fact, the USSR only employed such an aggressive gamble because at the time they were trailing far-behind the United States in the arms race.  In 1962, Soviet missiles could only reach European targets, but American ICBMs were capable of striking anywhere in the Soviet Union.  Today, with Russian technology again uncompetitive with the US's rapidly-evolving anti-missile defense capabilites and unanswered stealth aircraft technology, and outspent by the Americans 10-to-1, the Russians again see it to their benefit to employ bluster and brinkmanship to intimidate the EU, US, and NATO into respecting their wishes.  As in the 1980s, they cannot compete in an all-out arms race, so they certainly don't want one... it didn't work out so well the last time.  

The Kremlin's unscrupulous energy supply games are no more reassuring. State-controlled Gazprom employed ruthless hardball tactics with Ukraine, first in 2006 and again now over subsidized pricing and transfer fees, with the special kind of contempt reserved for wayward family members.  The uninvolved European third-parties who suffered gas cut-offs in the middle of this winter's devastating cold spell are extremely dissappointed with those in the EU who argued for the Russians as a reliable energy supplier.  Try telling the shivering Bulgarians and Slovaks that Moscow is the "dependable partner" portrayed by Vladimir Putin and the energy-hungry nations of western Europe. And the monopolistic control of state-controlled Gazprom over natural gas resources in Russia and elsewhere offers additional reason for concern.  The Kremlin's strategy regarding the EU is to "divide-and-conquer", doing direct deals with energy companies, and working outside the EU framework to torpedo their unity, like the planned South Stream pipeline with Italy's Eni.  Eni is already Gazprom's largest customer, and Europe's largest gas company in terms of sales.  With this deal, the possibility of Gazprom commiting supplies and capital to the EU's own more independent plans, like the similar Nabucco pipline, is highly unlikely

Has it occurred to anyone that George W Bush was seen as an enemy by such regimes as Venezuela, Iran, Syria, and Russia because he and Dick Cheney were simply wise to their tricks and agenda, and called them on it? Both recent and longer-term history suggests they were, and the Bush Administration did indeed effectively check Russian ambition in a variety of ways.

While they still can claim to be an (imperfect) democracy, Russian liberty is an endangered species after Putin's remaking of the country in his image.  Moscow has muzzled the press, skeptical journalists are murdered, peaceful demonstrations squashed, courts are used to nationalize companies, and political opponents are jailed and harrassed. Now, Medvedev has stopped his occasional democratic noises, and the Duma recently passed a bill extending the terms of the president from 4 to 6 years... all ready for Vlad's comeback term.  This move also provides the requisite political stability for the current Putin/Medvedev-regime to last-out the present financial crisis.

And the recent seemingly good-faith Russian offer to halt their planned and well-publicized ICBM upgrades if the US will simply cancel missle defense in Europe is just a specious olive-branch- it's offered for the same reason they wanted a deal with Reagan, to save money, and they know their technology is can't compete with the United States.  And they're not giving up anything they don't want to, these missiles were always intended as a bargaining chip, anyway... and now they are looking to derive benefit from simply announcing the plans, but saving the expenditure.

While no one on either side wants a revival of the Cold War, it is surely not wise nor effective over the long-term for the United States to offer concessions to a boisterous and bluffing Kremlin. If you expected any good-faith diplomacy from today's Russia, you must have been thinking of someone else.  Rewarding such behavior can only encourage an emboldened Moscow, increasing the likelyhood of a Russian land-grab in Ukraine... now that they've had South Ossetia for an appetizer.  How to defend against Russia taking further military adventures, or otherwise abusing their neighbors, while trying to convert them into a more principled world citizen is the complex challenge we face.

Although there have recently been some cracks in the Putin-Medvedev alliance, they involved apparent dissagreement over Putin's handling of the economic crisis.  It is unlikely Medvedev enjoys any significant independent power in the Kremlin, and the two leaders still seem to be on the same page regarding making lots of weapons and throwing their weight around. Medvedev owes his rise to Putin and Putin alone, and nobody in the west now expects a liberalization of Russia by him, or anyone else, for the forseeable future. 

Moscow does have the capability to menace all former Soviet Republics in their "near-aboad"... none of whom pose serious threat to the Russians militarily. The Kremlin will also likely continue, or increase, support and military supply/contracts with enemies of the United States like Iran, Venezeula, Cuba, and perhaps even North Korea... while steadily assisting the troubling military ascendancy of China. How can the west even begin to trust Putin's Russia, when Moscow has coddled the pugnacious terrorist-sponsor Iran, supplied their Nanantz nuclear plant and fuel...doing almost anything to poke the United States in the eye, distress Israel, and make a buck in the process... regardless of the consequences of a nuclear-armed and apocolyptic Tehran. Such a comprehensive lack of pragmatism and scruples makes it hard to do understand why the Russians think they deserve respect, trust, and admission to elite western clubs like the G-8.  Moscow has now promised nuclear technology to Comrade Chavez in Venezuela... a country, like Iran, that's floating on oil... and has little use for this technology, other than to develop nuclear weapons to point at the United States.

As Barack Obama announced his new national security team, they must have been popping-open a bottle of Stolichnaya in the Kremlin.  And it would be mighty entertaining to read what Russian intelligence files have to say about Obama's dubious Chicago connections and misguided ideas, or regarding Hillary Clinton- and how best to exploit her personality flaws at the negotiating table.   Obama has spoken of "pragmatism about the use of power" in foreign policy.  This hesitancy is surely music to Kremlin ears, as they will be using their growing military power as much as they possibly can get away with.  And it is indeed doubtful that Russian KGB veterans like Putin, and the other Sivili that run Russia today are intimidated by bespectacled bereaucrat Leon Panetta at the CIA, either.

There is surely a reason America's very own 21st-century Neville Chamberlain was all-but endorsed by Russia, Venezuela, Hamas, Iran, and Syria... and this is what they've been waiting for.  And don't be fooled by the retention of Robert Gates as Defence Secretary; he was simply kept aboard to tend to Afghanistan and wind-down the Iraq occupation-  not to collude with Team Obama on a plan to effectively confront Russia, or even Iran... that job will likely fall to Israel now. 

Thanks to $40-50 oil and the end of the commodities boom in general, we are now perhaps recieving a reprieve from the Russian advance,  providing the west an opportunity to unite and construct a policy for dealing with Russian assertiveness and expansion. This has not only thrown cold water on the Kremlin's aggressive use of power, but the Russian economy is taking a serious hit now from the financial crisis... early signs of civil unrest and cracks in the Kremlin establishment are becoming public. 

What are the lessons to be drawn from Russian energy-supply brinkmanship, military aggression, and dubious alliances?  Basically, what needs to be done, likely won't be done... judging by the past and continuing behaviour of the EU, and from the rhetoric of the incoming Obama administration.  What is actually needed is a principled and brave stand against any injustice or aggression coming from Moscow... forcing them to deal in good-faith, to act responsibly, and to honor their agreements.  And perhaps instead of employing mafia-style tactics in their international business plans and machiavellian foriegn policy, they could begin to focus on the sad state of Russian manufacturing, productivity, and innovation... or the other myriad ills of their society in general.  The Russians like to think of themselves as an "equal" to the United States, and Putin is skilled at playing to that for public consumption... when in reality, all they are at this point is a Saudi Arabia with trees...  and a whole lot of vodka.

Barack Obama had issued an unsettling statement at the onset of the Georgian conflict encouraging "both sides to excercise restraint"... while in contrast, McCain -displaying moral clarity- saw the Russian aggression and opportunism for what it was... a view quietly adopted by the Obama campaign a few days later.  While the serial opportunist and political chameleon Obama is always willing to make adjustments in policy to please pollsters, this is hardly a display of re-assuring leadership skills for dealing with upcoming crises. 

In Europe, there is some hope now that the EU will do a prudent rethink it's energy and security policy. Perhaps the major western European powers like France and Germany, who were so keen to let their guard down and establish strong ties to Russia, will finally listen to the warnings of those in the EU who know them better... like the Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks. In the wake of such unpredictable, hectoring behavior from the Kremlin, it would be reckless indeed for the EU to not embark upon a significant diversification of natural gas supplies, including LNG facilities that would allow them to import from suppliers worldwide.   There's nothing wrong with buying Russian gas... provided you've got a "plan B" to counterbalance the unreliable and monopolistic Gazprom, which is blatantly being used as a tool in the Kremlin's beligerent foreign policy agenda.

An appropriate strategy for dealing with a rival who consistently employs instragence and browbeating to gain advantage should be primarily based upon not letting them get what they want... you simply can't reinforce such behavior, unless you want to see a lot more of it.  The west should be prepared for the Russians, and expect them to employ obstinance, daunting martial threats, and disruption of energy supplies because they know that's pretty much all they've got... while they aspire to take and/or control things that don't belong to them.  The Kremlin expects that eventually the the US and EU will tire of wrestling with them, and the less principled/historically ignorant half of the electorate can be scared into doing bargains on Moscow's terms. And the new American administration displays inexperience, misguided idealism, and tendency towards appeasement that plays right into the Russians' hands.    

Yes We Can... invade Ukraine- and what are you going to do about it, Barack?

1 comment:

jon said...

Are you in the pay of the military-industrial complex?
Absurd to talk about our foreign policy when we spend 700/bill+ a year on our military.

Brandishing military might is not an effective way to deaL with diplomatic problems. Your approach is aa fascistic as those you oppose.

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