Russia Back to the Future

Last week, President Bush wishfully declared that “the Cold War is over” when he condemned Russia for invading the Republic of Georgia. But those of us who knew the former Soviet Union see the new Russia acting like the old bear and can feel the chill of a new Cold War coming on. It’s time for America to rewrite its Russia strategy.

Our strategy realignment must abandon America’s flawed premise that Russia has put its Soviet past behind it and is committed to full integration into the West. The Russians may have welcomed western assistance in the past but Russia is still motivated by one principle: the pursuit of its own authoritarian interests and restore its hegemony over its former domain. Russia means to fight, as necessary, to regain its regional dominance, and pressure Western Europe.

Even before the crisis in Georgia, tensions between Washington and Moscow had been rising over disputes such as independence for Kosovo, NATO’s eastward expansion to Russia’s borders, and the US ballistic missile defense in Eastern Europe.

Georgia presented Russia an opportunity to react to these tensions. Moscow created the crisis and orchestrated a response to bring down the democratically elected government in Tbilisi. That action warned other former Soviet satellites about the consequences of getting too cozy with the West — threatening those considering NATO membership — and challenged America’s credibility if it didn’t (as expected) stand-up to Moscow.

Preparing to fight back has required Moscow to hone its means to influence others. One of those means is military force. Invading Georgia has re-established the credibility of the Russian army which had lagged since the end of the Cold War. Oil money and Kremlin emphasis have given the former Red Army new life. Russia’s military demonstrated that new life using key expeditionary capabilities in Georgia: an impressive long-range airlift capability, effective close air support to advancing ground forces, and rapid swarming of armored forces.

Moscow’s other means to influence is its vast energy program. Russia has and will in the future use energy to get its way and the Georgia invasion has helped.

The Georgia invasion served Russia’s energy interests because it provides Moscow access to the Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan pipeline which crosses Georgia and is the only non-Russian pipeline to the Caspian Sea oil fields. Controlling that pipeline will give Moscow dominance over those oil fields and guarantee the Kremlin remains an energy superpower for many decades.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates believes Russia will use these power levers — military and energy — to regain its traditional spheres of influence and superpower status.
Moscow’s desire to regain its regional spheres of influence would be understandable to the late George Kennan, an American Cold War diplomat and historian. He said “Russia can have at its borders only vassals or enemies.” Georgia became an enemy.

Once Georgia started to become democratic, Russia targeted the country with economic sanctions hoping to sway it back to vassal status. Only when sanctions failed because of western help did Moscow turn to military might. Now that Georgia has been “punished,” as Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said, the Kremlin will turn its attention to other former satellites.

The Ukraine is likely next in the Kremlin’s queue to be “punished.” In January, Ukraine’s leaders signed a joint, open letter to NATO asking the alliance to accept its Membership Action Plan, a precursor to full membership. A month later Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin threatened that Russia might aim nuclear missiles at Ukraine if it joined NATO.
In April, Ukraine and Georgia were not granted NATO membership due to Russian pressure and European acquiescence but NATO did promise that “These countries will become members of NATO.” That promise probably sealed Georgia’s fate and put the Ukraine in the Kremlin’s crosshairs.

Moscow opposes NATO membership for the Ukraine for more than democratic and western security angst. It covets the Crimea and wants to continue to base its Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol. However, in the wake of the Georgia invasion Kiev figuratively poked the bear in the eyes when it announced that it would prohibit Russian ships in its ports.

Expect the Kremlin to use energy to leverage Kiev’s actions before reverting to military force. Russia’s Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas producer, which is half-owned by the Russian government, halted supplies to the Ukraine in the winter of 2006. That was a year after the Orange Revolution which installed Viktor Yushchenko’s pro-western government. Gazprom denied the suspension was politically motivated.

Besides turning off the natural gas taps to Ukraine, Russia has done so with Belarus, Georgia, and NATO-member Lithuania. Last month, the Czech Republic saw oil shipments from Russia briefly drop nearly 50 percent after it incurred Moscow’s ire by agreeing to host elements of the US missile-defense system.

Russia’s nuclear arsenal continues to be a tool for bullying and intimidation as well. Last week, the US and Poland sealed a deal to station American missile interceptors on Polish soil intended to shoot down Iranian missiles. That deal included an American promise to defend Poland in case of an attack. Within hours of that announcement a Russian general threatened “Poland, by deploying (the anti-missile system) is exposing itself to a (nuclear) strike — 100 percent.”

So what should be America’s new Russia strategy?

America’s strategy must address consequences for bad behavior. Secretary Gates believes there “… needs to be some consequences for the actions that Russia has taken against a sovereign state (Georgia)” or might take in the future.

There are a broad range of consequences available, but the challenge is to garner international support and then make the consequences stick. We can try to limit the flow of technology and investment to Russia, but we’ve seen, with countries such as Iran, how difficult it can be to gain support from Europe. Other consequences might include barring Russia from the World Trade Organization, dissolve the Group of Eight which includes Russia or boycott the 2012 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. None of those moves is likely to succeed in changing Russia’s direction.

America should form new alliances with democratic Eastern European partners like Poland and have the strategic reserves ready to act in their defense. The Georgia invasion dealt a big blow to US credibility because Tiblisi was Washington’s democratic darling but it was left unsupported in its hour of need. That causes other allies to question the value of our relationship.

Finally, America’s military is stretched thin because it has too many missions and too few reliable allies with militaries that can and will fight. An authoritarian and dangerous Russia will demand that the US have allies that pull their own weight. Clearly, most of our NATO allies who spend about one percent of their GDP on defense are not ready for primetime. It’s past time the US reconsider its commitment to NATO and then favor alliances with partners that are serious about security.

Secretary Gates says Russia’s invasion of Georgia has “… profound implications for our security relationship going forward, both bilaterally (with Russia) and with NATO.” That’s why our strategy needs to treat Russia as an enemy with all that is involved diplomatically, economically and militarily and our alliances need to be made only with nations serious about our collective security. It would be naïve to do otherwise.


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