This Isn't Your Father's Bear

On June 12, 1987 President Ronald Reagan spoke at West Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to challenge Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” That wall did crumble and millions of former Soviets were freed. But the Russian Federation, which rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union, is rebuilding its military and the Cold War “Russian bear” our fathers knew may prove to be mild-mannered in comparison to the new one emerging from geopolitical hibernation.

Consider recent events:

• In May, the chief of Russia’s navy announced Russia would build six aircraft carriers — a kind of naval force Russia never built before, aimed at projecting power far from Russia — and overall warship building has increased to Soviet era levels.

• On June 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Russia’s nuclear missiles could resume Cold War targeting of European cities if the US anti-missile system deployment were to go forward.

• On June 28, a Russian ballistic missile nuclear submarine successfully launched a new Bulava missile that reached its target 4,200 miles away. Russia intends to start serial production of the Bulava.

• On July 14, Russia backed out of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe which established limits on military equipment.

• On July 30, the Jerusalem Post reported that Iran is negotiating with Russia to buy 250 Sukhoi Su-30 “Flanker” fighter bombers with performance capabilities comparable or better than American fighters deployed to Iraq. In January, Russia delivered 29 sophisticated Tor M-1 air defense missile systems to Iran.

• On August 6, Russia announced it will start producing for export the S-400 Triumf air defense system which has twice the range of the US Patriot anti-missile system.

• On August 6, two Russian fighters flew into the Republic of Georgia and launched a missile presumably at a radar site but missed.

• On August 7, the chief of Russia’s navy said his nation would “restore a permanent presence” in the Mediterranean.

• Between August 9 and 16, Russia hosted Peace Mission 2007 war games in the Ural Mountains with five Shanghai Cooperation Organization allies including China.

• On August 17, Russian long-range bombers flew close to the US Pacific base at Guam and simultaneously Bear-H aircraft flew over the North Atlantic Ocean. Putin promises such patrols will continue “from this day on.”

• On August 17, Syria began to receive delivery of the sophisticated Russian Pantsyr-S1E anti-aircraft missiles. In June, Russia delivered to Syria five MiG-31E interceptors which are considered one of the best fighters in the world.

Emboldened by the country’s oil and gas wealth, these events reflect a new Russian strategy and its resentment over what Putin labels America’s “unipolar” behavior. What’s not clear is whether these are the words and actions of a re-emergent bear that is more ruthless than before.

Some of these activities may serve as marketing tools for Russia’s weapons industry. Last year, Russia produced only 26 aircraft compared with 250 produced by Boeing. The problem with weapons and aircraft sales is the proliferation of high technology such as the Pantsyr and Su-30 which could shift the strategic balance in regions like the Middle East.

The return of Russian strategic aircraft patrols along Atlantic and Pacific corridors may be motivated by national pride. Russia’s 79 aging strategic aircraft can’t sustain the tempo of operations seen during the Cold War but, as the aircraft industry expands, these bombers will be modernized.

The production of modern submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and the building of new submarines is a very serious threat. This combination reintroduces a strategic challenge not present since the end of the Cold War. Russia possesses 232 aging SLBM launchers and 1,072 warheads.

Pulling out of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and the hosting of war games in the Ural Mountains for old allies are related. The war games with Central Asian allies including Iran could be the beginning of a Russian-hosted rival to NATO since Russia’s withdrawal from CFE is a reaction to NATO’s eastward expansion. It also indicates that Russia intends to grow its ground forces. The fact that Russian MiGs fired on a Georgian radar station might be a warning to the NATO Partner for Peace member that its autonomy is no longer a settled matter.

Russia’s naval expansion is revealing. Recently, Russia announced plans to develop a new base for the Black Sea Fleet at Novorossiisk and First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov promised to “optimize production” to increase warship building 50 percent. At present, 40 frigates have been laid down including the Admiral Sergel Goshkov, a frigate intended for long range operations. Russia’s navy has some 300 ships with unknown readiness.

The range of Russia’s navy is also expanding. “The Mediterranean is an important theater of operations for the Russian Black Sea Fleet,” explained Admiral Vladimir Masorin, Russia’s navy chief. “We must restore a permanent presence of the Russian Navy in this region” which is “intended to outline Russia’s foreign policy interests,” Masorin noted.

The Russians have been coy about plans for Mediterranean ports, however. Recent press reports indicate that Syrian ports have seen increased Russian activity. Some reports state Russia plans to eventually relocate the bulk of the Black Sea Fleet to Syria, a move that would have profound strategic effects for the entire Middle East.

It’s noteworthy that Russia’s presence on the Syrian coast might not be just about influencing Middle Eastern policy. Just north of the Syrian port at Tartus is the Turkish port of Ceyhan, which is the terminus of a major new oil pipeline, linked to the Azerbaijani port city of Baku. Tartus gives the Russians the ability to monitor and if it chose to disrupt Ceyhan’s operations.

What can’t be denied is the Russian facelift for the Syrian port of Tartus. A 300 man Russian task force has dredged the port, upgraded hatches and antennas and Russian warships have increased their port calls. Press reports indicate Russia arranged a quid pro quo deal with Syria; trading advanced weapons and debt relief for use of the port.

These activities appear to represent Russia’s strategic shift from post Cold War cooperative engagement with the West to one of confrontation and a quest for strategic parity. This shift is likely the brainchild of defense mastermind Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov.

Ivano, 54, is the leading candidate to succeed Putin after next year’s presidential elections. He is a Putin clone: former KGB, an FSB colonel-general, former minister of defense, and Putin’s advisor on national security. A master linguist who speaks fluent English, Norwegian, Swedish and some French, he is as sophisticated and ruthless as Putin.

Both men, based on their public statements and recent actions, believe that Russia is a rising power and will in time regain parity with the United States. That’s their goal and as long as energy wealth continues to flow to Russia they will stay with the strategy begun this summer.

It is clear that Russia is no longer an ally (if ever it was). The “Russian bear” has awakened from its post Cold War hibernation to become a sophisticated strategic competitor with the potential to be at least as ruthless as its predecessor.