- - Wednesday, January 23, 2019

I have written before that I don’t believe Russia is the No. 1 threat to American security. On the contrary, a rising China is much more bent on confronting America militarily in the South China Sea or elsewhere, and Iran is bent on developing nuclear weapons to use irresponsibly. However, Russia is expanding, and where this agenda possibly damages American interests, it has to be confronted.

Even though Russia does not have the military capacity to invade Europe as the Soviet Union did, there are several truths that need to be acknowledged. First of all, Russia is expanding. The Kremlin did annex Crimea from Ukraine and is fighting a hot war on Ukrainian territory in Donbass. Russia still has troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aura is one of a man who adds territory to the new Russian empire, not allow it to be taken away.

Although I am definitely not a fan of NATO expansion, as it makes no sense to add countries that have no interest in the alliance’s founding values of freedom and democracy (like Turkey), we do have to make clear to Moscow that the red lines are NATO borders, wherever they may lie. Otherwise, it becomes obvious that we have no alliance and it would be time to leave. In other words, a strong NATO is in line with “America first” as long as we are protecting friends that believe in what we do and pay their fair share.

It is clear that Russia is expanding to the Middle East and Africa as well, as much as it can, with funding restrictions. The money tree is not unlimited for the Kremlin. Domestic monetary pressures are real, hence the drastically reduced popularity of Mr. Putin in the face of pension reform and other economic hardships facing the Russian people.

Mr. Putin has been happy to allow Iranian proxy armies to control much of Syria and Iraq, and therefore will stymie the Trump administration’s agenda to bring down the Iranian regime from the inside. (I don’t think Russia will be successful as the mullahs are on their last legs.) Mr. Putin has been fine with Iranian forces on Israel’s northern border in the Golan because it lessens what Moscow has to pay out of pocket to control territory and keep the anti-Assad forces at bay. In short, Moscow is expanding its influence on the cheap. And why not, if Mr. Putin can do so?

In Africa, the Kremlin is using another interesting strategy, one of letting proxy mercenary forces gain influence for Russia in exchange for harvesting the local bounty of minerals and other commodities to pay for it all. Yevgeny Prigozhin, aka Mr. Putin’s “chef” and the head of the Wagner mercenary force, is active in the Central African Republic in this manner, looking to cash in from local mining operations. It was this strategy that led to the killing of hundreds of Russian proxy forces by American air power in Syria when they tried to take over a Syrian oil well that was being occupied by American special operations forces.

Speaking of Syria, I agree with the president. It makes no sense to keep a few thousand troops there and expose them to harm. Mr. Trump is right to hold the military’s feet to the fire. We’ve been in Afghanistan for 17 years. When is enough enough? If the generals cannot deliver victory, then why do American men and women have to keep dying? At this point, we are there for pride and nothing else.

Lest I remind you, we are $20-plus trillion in debt. Where is the cost-benefit analysis? Yes, I know a terrorist attack can be extremely damaging, but is the answer to have a few thousand troops in the Middle East forever? By the way, remember NATO? It is in their backyard. We have supposed allies very close. Let them handle it.

Russia needs to be confronted in areas where American interests are being threatened. Syria is not one of them.

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