Friday, February 6, 2009


While we were preoccupied elsewhere, a certain pugnacious bear awoke and we don’t seem to be doing a particularly good - or proactive - job of dealing with him.

Russia‘s resurgence is in large measure a response to national loss of face - embarrassment and shame at having lost the Cold War - at having been a player like no other and then suddenly finding itself just another medium power.

As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently noted, “What is driving Russia is a desire to exorcise past humiliation and dominate its ‘near abroad.’ ”

This now includes the Arctic Ocean, even if it didn’t before. Russia is engaged in a grand face-saving gesture: it is swapping dreams of global domination for dreams of Eurasian suzerainty. This is taking some interesting forms:

• Arctic expansionism: New stations at Svarlbard and Alexandra Land accompany a territorial claim to the North Pole, all driven by a resource lust, fueled by ice-melting global warming.

• Domestic oppression: Irksome journalists, lawyers and human rights activists keep turning up dead, without government fingerprints.

• Energy bullying: The zealous willingness of a devastated economy to actually lose revenue in order to pursue a geopolitical point instead of scrambling to get hold of every conceivable euro.

• Vetoing our ABM plans: Long-standing opposition to our anti-Iranian infrastructure in Poland and the Czech Republic brought threats of missile revenge in nearby Kaliningrad; either Russia is Iran’s new best friend or paranoia is causing the Kremlin to see enemies where there are none (never a good sign).

• Bullying NATO candidates: NATO expansion viewed as the worst thing that has happened since the fall of the Soviet Union. Ukraine and Georgia could actually face pre-emptive military action. If Russia waits until they join, the provisions of the mutual defense treaty kick in.

• “Finlandizing” peripheral ex-Soviet states: Laying down markers and drawing red lines in the sand so that border states are constantly aware they can only go so far in displeasing their neighbor.

• Naval forays to America’s antagonists: Russian ship visits to Cuba and Venezuela, to the exclusion of all others.

• Careless arms and technology sales: That capitalist willingness to sell weapons to some of the nastiest people on the planet at a time when Russian military research continues to produce new mega-bombs, mega-missiles and particularly zippy torpedoes. Will a hungry Russia eventually sell the new toys too?

• “Liberation” of like-minded neighboring ethnic enclaves: Scary reminders that Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland to “rescue” Germans living there; Russian populations abound in Kazakhstan, Moldova, Ukraine and the Baltic states.

We may not be perceiving this as one grand strategy, but rest assured, the folks who are engaged in these endeavors most certainly do. Somewhere in the Kremlin is a big fat book listing myriad policy options to resuscitate the empire without risking Western military wrath. The tests were unchallenged operations in Chechnya, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, all of which proceeded without our overt or covert intervention. So more nibbling at the margins is pretty much assured; look next to Moldova’s Trans-Dniestria region.

We cannot defend our values one little crisis at a time. We too must craft a big fat book of our own, make linkages clear, show the flag once in a while and ponder a more embracive policy which might discourage such truculence. Something that says to Russia “you are important, we acknowledge you, we respect you, you are indeed one of the boys, you are a player, your opinion does matter, we could use you, we might even need you” is the surest route to behavioral evolution.

Continuing as we have been going means further Russian alignment under the little noticed Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Russia-China entente with the Central Asian republics, ostensibly to fight terrorism but certain to diminish U.S. influence there by making those republics miserable if they help us too much.

Indeed this week Kyrgyzstan caved to Russian pressure and announced the closing of our Manas air base. With Iran champing at the bit to move from observer status to eventual integration, little good can come from Russian reliance on SCO. Russia’s starkly declining demographics - it may well turn majority-Muslim by 2050 - mean we must recognize our common concern over the frequency with which adherents of this religion go over the deep end. We have common cause here, which may well account for Russia’s recent decision to let our Taliban-bashing Afghan-bound convoys pass.

Our enduring problem is not “Russia Resurgent,” but “Islamists Insane”; one is a decade-length issue, but the other is a generational one.

One good outpouring of Islamist zeal within its failed economy, and Russia’s nationalism-driven resurgence could grow ugly indeed. A multipolar world is one thing, but a multiantagonistic globe is quite another. The window for U.S. co-option and engagement looms large, but it is shrinking at an astonishing pace.

President Obama, please take the lead.

• Mr. Humphrey is an intelligence analyst at the National Defense University and a former diplomat. Opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and in no way represent those of the United States Government or NDU, whose academic freedom policy gives latitude to unrestricted thought.

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