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GORDON: Russia plays its own game away from the World Cup

Putin’s game plan is to rebuild a lost Soviet empire

- - Wednesday, July 9, 2014

International soccer blared across many television screens during a recent two-week visit to three former Soviet republics and Turkey on a think-tank research trip and speaking tour. While the contest among nations on the playing field made great conversation, it occurred to me that Moscow has been playing a World Cup of sorts off the field as well.

Despite failing to advance past the group stage in Brazil — losing to Belgium, and tying Algeria and South Korea — Russia is winning when it comes to rebuilding a lost empire. Like soccer, Russia's strategy is more sophisticated than meets the eye. What may look like a relatively simple concept of kicking the ball downfield and blasting it into the net involves diamond-wedge formations, artful set pieces from corner kicks, feigned injuries and, most importantly, exploiting opponent weaknesses.

Vladimir Putin's plan to re-create a Russian empire is similarly complex — and more effective than his soccer team. After all, he has occupied Georgia's Abkhazia and South Ossetia provinces since 2008, or roughly 20 percent of the country, now the Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula as well, and he is working on the eastern provinces of Ukraine. Who knows where tomorrow? Or in 2015?

What may look like random acts of aggression are part of grand strategy codified by Russian law and national security policy since Mr. Putin came to power nearly 15 years ago. Though not state secrets, Russia's path to empire isn't well understood in the West. It should be.

In his 2004 book, "Reviving Greater Russia? The Future of Russia's Borders with Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Ukraine," Herman Pirchner of the American Foreign Policy Council lays out the "blueprint" that Mr. Putin is using today. As Mr. Pirchner points out, first Russia passed a shocking yet barely known law in 2001 titled "On Admission to the Russian Federation and the Formation Within the Russian Federation of a New Subject." It allows for foreign states or parts of them to apply for inclusion as part of Russia. Next, Russia drafted a policy in 2003 to authorize the use of force to protect "Russians" living outside its borders. In 2004, the head of the Duma, Russia's parliament, pressed ahead to "simplify grants of citizenship to Russians living abroad."

By 2005, Mr. Putin was openly pining for the good old days, and during a nationally televised address to the Duma, he said that the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union."

There you have it: Russia's strategic path to empire.

To use a soccer phrase, owing to modern political realities, Russia can't be "offsides" and literally hang around the goalposts. Yet it can take advantage of each opportunity to seize more territory where it say it's important to "protect Russians." How can Russia be stopped from carving up more of Georgia and Ukraine and moving on to other potential targets, such as Moldova, Belarus and beyond?

First, the United Statess and the European Union should do all they can economically and diplomatically to support those who embrace freedom and democracy. Free-trade agreements in the long term and aid packages in the near term will help those Western-friendly and budding democracies weather the storm from Moscow.

Second, robust U.S. and NATO military exercises with partner forces should be increased in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions, continuously, if need be. Where nations are ready, like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 2004, they should be admitted into NATO without delay, as that will serve as a powerful deterrent to Russia's designs on their territory. Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania proudly notes that Georgia is already acting like a NATO member, having deployed 12,000 troops to Afghanistan to serve with the International Security Assistance Force. That's in addition to 11,000 they deployed to Iraq a decade ago, and a new contingent of 160 now in Central Africa for peacekeeping operations.

Third, Russia must be dealt with firmly. Sanctions have been positive, and Moscow's elites must continue to feel the sting in their wallets until Russia stops aggression against its neighbors. Money and power are the main two things that Mr. Putin and his circle understand, and they must know that carving up other nations has severe consequences.

Lastly, why should Americans care?

Ronald Reagan didn't demand that Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall because he opposed walls. It's because it literally represented an obstacle to freedom. Though Moscow is no longer exporting communism, it still rules with a Mafia-like iron fist that impedes business development and personal freedom. Those living under Moscow's rule still find themselves less free, less secure and generally poorer than they would be otherwise. The United States did not fight the Cold War as merely a matter of principle; it was to protect ourselves while freeing hundreds of millions from Moscow's oppression. While communism may have been consigned to the "dustbin of history," Russia has never stopped playing offense. We should remember those lessons today.

J.D. Gordon is a former Pentagon spokesman who served during the George W. Bush administration.