The Russian Resurgence
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Russians were allied with the United States. They facilitated the U.S. relationship with the Northern Alliance, and arranged for air bases in Central Asia. The American view of Russia was formed in the 1990s. It was seen as disintegrating, weak and ultimately insignificant to the global balance. The United States expanded NATO into the former Soviet Union in the Baltic states and said it wanted to expand it into Ukraine and Georgia. The Russians made it clear that they regarded this as a direct threat to their national security, resulting in the 2008 Georgian conflict.
The question now is where U.S.-Russian relations are going. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union a geopolitical catastrophe. After Ukraine and Georgia, it is clear he does not trust the United States and that he intends to reassert his sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. Georgia was lesson one. The current political crisis in Ukraine is the second lesson unfolding.
The re-emergence of a Russian empire in some form or another represents a far greater threat to the United States than the Islamic world. The Islamic world is divided and in chaos. It cannot coalesce into the caliphate that al Qaeda wanted to create by triggering a wave of revolutions in the Islamic world. Islamic terrorism remains a threat, but the geopolitical threat of a unifying Islamic power is not going to happen.
Russia is a different matter. The Soviet Union and the Russian empire both posed strategic threats because they could threaten Europe, the Middle East and China simultaneously. While this overstates the threat, it does provide some context. A united Eurasia is always powerful, and threatens to dominate the Eastern Hemisphere. Therefore, preventing Russia from reasserting its power in the former Soviet Union should take precedence over all other considerations.
The problem is that the United States and NATO together presently do not have the force needed to stop the Russians. The Russian army is not particularly powerful or effective, but it is facing forces that are far less powerful and effective. The United States has its forces tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan so that when the war in Georgia broke out, sending ground forces was simply not an option. The Russians are extremely aware of this window of opportunity, and are clearly taking advantage of it.
The Russians have two main advantages in this aside from American resource deficits. First, the Europeans are heavily dependent on Russian natural gas; German energy dependence on Moscow is particularly acute. The Europeans are in no military or economic position to take any steps against the Russians, as the resulting disruption would be disastrous. Second, as the United States maneuvers with Iran, the Russians can provide support to Iran, politically and in terms of military technology, that not only would challenge the United States, it might embolden the Iranians to try for a better deal in Iraq by destabilizing Iraq again. Finally, the Russians can pose lesser challenges in the Caribbean with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, as well as potentially supporting Middle Eastern terrorist groups and left-wing Latin American groups.
At this moment, the Russians have far more options than the Americans have. Therefore, the new U.S. president will have to design a policy for dealing with the Russians with few options at hand. This is where his decisions on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan will intersect and compete with his decisions on Russia. Ideally, the United States would put forces in the Baltics — which are part of NATO — as well as in Ukraine and Georgia. But that is not an option and won’t be for more than a year under the best of circumstances.
The United States therefore must attempt a diplomatic solution with Russia with very few sticks. The new president will need to try to devise a package of carrots — e.g., economic incentives — plus the long-term threat of a confrontation with the United States to persuade Moscow not to use its window of opportunity to reassert Russian regional hegemony. Since regional hegemony allows Russia to control its own destiny, the carrots will have to be very tempting, while the threat has to be particularly daunting. The president’s task will be crafting the package and then convincing the Russians it has value.