Last week, Russia’s president declared a new world order, rejecting the primacy of America in the international system, justifying the invasion of former Soviet Union satellites and condemning outside intrusion in its “sphere of influence.”
Russian president Dmitri Medvedev’s declaration of a new strategic doctrine comes at a time when the Kremlin believes the US is vulnerable because it is tied down in the Islamic world and lacks the means to strike back. Moscow will try to exploit this vulnerability in order to reduce America’s influence and elevate itself to its former superpower status.
Whether Moscow can pull this off depends on whether the US decisively counters the Kremlin’s bold move. But America’s options are limited. Recent diplomatic efforts haven’t worked and applying economic pressure would be difficult because Russian markets tend to be European-based and Moscow will leverage them to make the European Union squirm.
Moscow’s tool for leveraging global power come primarily from its manipulation of energy resources. Russia has all but locked up most Central Asian energy production on which our European allies depend, making them vulnerable to the threat of politically-motivated energy cut-offs. The Kremlin has used this economic tool to good effect at least six times over the last decade and Europe is becoming more dependent on Russia every day. Such manipulation potentially leaves America with too few European allies to counter Russia’s new strategy.
The US could accept the risk that Russia lacks the means to reach its goal but that would be foolhardy, because the contrary is obviously true. Therefore, military options — direct and indirect – must be considered.
The US could abandon its wars in the Islamic world in order to free-up military resources to counter Moscow’s actions but this is unlikely because America has too much at risk in those wars to abandon them. Alternatively, the US could hit back at Russia by hurting a Russian ally much as Moscow hurt the West by attacking the Republic of Georgia which threatens the spread of democracy across the other former Soviet Republics.
If such action were to be taken, America could choose to combine the two objectives. Russian allies — especially Iran and Syria — are the principal fomenters of Islamic radicalism and terrorism. Action against either of them — economic, diplomatic or military — that was clearly labeled as retaliation for the Georgia invasion — would damage Russian influence in the Middle East enormously.
And — given its current muscle-flexing mindset — Russia might continue to raise the stakes.
Russia will — whether we act or not — seek to keep the US strategically vulnerable by providing weapons and military support to America’s foes. Shortly after invading Georgia Medvedev met with Syrian president Bashar al Assad, an American foe that supports insurgents in Iraq, to discuss weapons sales. A week later Russia’s sole aircraft carrier made a port call at Tarsus, Syria’s largest port.
Moscow could sell weapons to anti-American factions in Iraq to further destabilize that country and keep the US tied down. Russian-made weapons have passed from Iranian and other hands to the Taliban in Pakistan’s enclave to feed the insurgency against the US and NATO in Afghanistan. It has also reportedly promised to sell the S-300, a sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system, to Tehran to bolster the Islamic Republic’s capability to defend itself from a possible Israeli-American attack.
Russia will try to re-establish its “sphere of influence” by modernizing its military and intelligence services to provide the Kremlin with a credible, invasion and enforcement tool. The invasion of Georgia demonstrated a quick acting and sophisticated expeditionary capability not seen in Russia since the Cold War. The Kremlin’s ability to rapidly move soldiers and equipment across that massive country, to crush Georgia’s telecommunications systems by computer network attacks and then simultaneously conduct air-land-sea operations was impressive. What’s not impressive is the West’s apparent failure to alert Georgia to the Kremlin’s moves.
The Russians have also reorganized and strengthened their intelligence agencies to help regain internal control and for external operational and intelligence gathering activities. The Federal Security Bureau (FSB) is being reconfigured to operate more like the KGB, its predecessor. Not surprisingly, many former KGB and current FSB members fill positions in Russian businesses, political offices and foreign posts.
A modernized military and intelligence force provide Russia the means to replicate the Georgia invasion model to rebuild country-by-country the Kremlin’s “regions of privileged interest.” Once those former satellites crumble, Moscow will act to re-absorb them. Medvedev has already announced that Russia intends to absorb Georgia’s breakaway province of South Ossetia “in several years.”
How should America respond to Russia’s new world order agenda?
The West should stop trying to remake Russia into a western democracy, or pretend it is anything other than what it is: an aggressive autarchy. We have encouraged Moscow’s transformation with membership in a host of international programs but after two decades of rebuilding efforts Russia remains unintegrated.
But there are some things America and her allies could do to help persuade Moscow to change course. The most frequently recommended actions include suspending agreements and weakening its standing in international bodies. Likely, these will have minimal impact because the Kremlin has virtually ignored international pressure.
We could work inside the global economic system to go after Russian financial interests here and in Europe. Russian leaders have made large investments in the US which are vulnerable. Hurting these investors could cause them to put pressure on the Kremlin to constrain its actions.
Probably the most effective measure to derail Moscow’s new course would be to dramatically lower oil prices, which would force Russia to either integrate or regress. Dramatically reduced oil revenues would starve Russia’s re-investment in its military and intelligence services and constrain resources for invading its neighbors. However, oil price reduction would require perhaps more international cooperation than could be mustered.
What should the West do to help Russia’s neighbors?
Probably the most important thing the West can do for Russia’s neighbors is to treat Moscow differently. This begins by soberly recognizing that despite the West’s best efforts the former Soviets are still at heart, Russians — imperialistic, authoritarian bullies. Our intelligence, security and economic tools must adjust to this reality.
The West also needs to use every possible alliance and economic tool to encourage those countries. Most of those nations seek economic ties and military alliances with the West. NATO and the European Union might offer some help but because of Moscow’s corrupting energy leverage these tools may prove to be insufficient.
America may have to band together with a few likeminded countries to build meaningful alliances with security guarantees for these threatened countries. For example, we could station our armed forces in those lands either as peacekeepers in Georgia, as a precaution against more Russian incursions, or as forward defenders of freedom as an insurance policy against Moscow’s intimidation.
Russia’s new doctrine is at a minimum a bold attempt to dictate its vision of a new world order to its neighbors and the West by pursuing a strategy of a “new world disorder.” The gathering winter clouds on the horizon evidence the commencement of Cold War II.