Today in his annual State of the Nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin did the only thing he could do in response to the United States pulling out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) — threaten, as all schoolyard bullies do when facing an existential crisis. The world knows Russia brought this situation upon itself.
“I’ve already said and I want to repeat - and this is vital - to repeat this specifically, that Russia is not planning to be the first to deploy these missiles to Europe. If they are indeed manufactured and sent to the European continent, and the US does have these plans, anyway, we haven’t heard other statements, this will sharply deteriorate international security and create serious threats to Russia since it takes up to 10-12 minutes for certain types of these missiles to fly to Moscow. This is a very serious danger to us. In this case, we will be forced, and I want to stress this, we will be forced to envisage tit-for-tat and asymmetric measures,” the Russian leader declared.
American unhappiness with Moscow developing a missile that violated the range requirements of the treaty are not new. The Obama administration complained to the Kremlin for years about the problem. The issue now is that Donald Trump actually is strong enough, or cares about the West and its security enough, to do something about it, and pull out of the treaty, with plenty of warning I might add.
As Mr. Putin popularity plummets due to the cost of overseas military adventures and the decrease in social spending at home during a recent nasty recession and current slow growth, he cannot afford to look weak. In other words, he is backed into a corner.
For good measure, Mr. Putin added that Russia is really not a threat to the United States, “That said, Russia is being designated as almost the main threat to the US. I will say frankly: that’s not true.” Ironically, I agree with him here. Russia is not threatening to invade America or even Western Europe. They simply don’t have the means to do so. They are trying very hard to re-create a buffer zone in their near abroad by co-opting former Soviet republics or satellite states, but that is not an existential threat to America.
The simple facts are, Russia cannot win an arms race with the Trump administration. With Iran and Venezuela about to implode, Russia will lose valuable allies in strategic areas of the globe. Moscow cannot hold the Middle East by itself. The American economy is skyrocketing and will once again become the powerhouse it once was; this will provide all kinds of resources for power projection and missile defense. The Kremlin will not be able to keep up.
President Putin played a weak hand well during the pliable appeasement of the Obama administration. However, there is a new sheriff in town. The threats and bluster that worked so well on John Kerry will not work on The Donald.
The challenge for Moscow is to realize they may now have overplayed their hand and to adjust.