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Reuben Steff: The Russian Resurgence

The Russian Resurgence, America and the Great Crisis of 2010

by Reuben Steff

The Russian Resurgence is now in full-bloom. I've been cataloguing the ongoing collision between America and Russia's strategic interests across parts of Eurasia in my 'scoop' pieces and on my blog. In essence, the Cold War didn't end. To be more specific, the strategic thinking of elites on either side did not change despite the fact that the ideological differences vanished.

Russia and America: Colliding Geopolitical Priorities

In essence, Russia and the US have competing geopolitical interests.

Russia is geographically cursed: it has a seemingly endless frontier, it is open, exposed, and has been subjected to numerous invasions throughout history as a result. Thus it must expand and secure ‘buffer’ states around its boundary in order to prevent encroachment upon its territorial integrity.

America is geographically blessed – it bestrides the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and has acted to ensure that no state near it can threaten its integrity. But it is distant from Eurasia and any single state, or alliance of states that can dominate Eurasia could eventually threaten the American homeland. This means that it must divide and rule; co-opt or conquer.

When Russia is weak and fragmented America has little to worry about; when it is powerful and united, the entire global system can pivot on its actions.

Russia and America Today: Historical Context

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 a new era seemed to dawn, with George H. W. Bush announcing a New World Order and Francis Fukuyama famously declaring that ‘The End of History’ was at hand as liberal democracy stood poised to engulf the world. Despite promises to Russia’s first Democratic president, Boris Yeltsin, the Americans treated Russia as though it was a defeated enemy rather than a new partner. This became especially pronounced with the arrival of George W. Bush in 2000 as his administration, influenced greatly by a number of Neoconservative thinkers (HP) pushed NATO up to Russia’s borders; supported ‘colour’ revolutions in the former Soviet Union; recognised Kosovo’s independence; abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and announced that it would deploy missile defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic.

But although America was pushing back Russian influence it also became sidetracked after a group of fanatical Jihadists attacked the economic and military symbols of American power on 9/11. This resulted in a massive overreaction as America invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003.

Within the space of two years American military power became bogged down in the Middle East, and has been there ever since.

For Russia the exaggerated American response to the 9/11 attacks proved a godsend. All of a sudden American 'containment' and pressure against the Russian periphery began to lose its fervour just as Russian power was growing. Consequently, the balance of power around Russia's periphery changed - American military power could no longer come to the aid of states should Putin begin to push back.

Putin announced his reaction to America’s moves at a Munich Security Conference in 2007. He stated that a unipolar world order was intolerable if the US superpower felt free to do what it wanted irrespective of the interests of other great powers.

We now know the rest: The Georgian War, the sudden realignment of former Soviet states back towards Russia, the growing connections between Russia – Germany, Russia – China, the removal of the Missile Defence system from Central Europe. Last but certainly not least comes Putin’s next geopolitical move: the creation of a Customs Union between Russia and two former Soviet states.

What's next in the struggle?

Well 2010 will be a period of consolidation for Russia. It now has a sphere of influence that stretches into the Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Putin once said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster in 20th century history. He also said he had no intention of rebuilding that political union. The former statement was true; but we are seeing signs that the latter was just rhetoric. Putin does have political designs over the states of the former Soviet Union – the Customs Union that has just entered into force between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan is the clearest example of this.

His intention will be to eventually integrate them into a new Russian political union for it is the next logical step in Russia’s resurgence.

A customs union is designed to reintegrate the industrial and strategic economic sectors of the old Soviet grid. Mutual economic benefits will flow from this and former Soviet states outside it will find it incredibly appealing to join (or Russia will make them ‘an offer they cannot refuse’). Once integration is done the weaker states of the customs union have two options - resist political integration while maintaining economic connections (a delicate balancing act), or politically integrate.

What is interesting here are the analogies we can take from the EU experience. The EU economic project is intended by French and German elites to eventually create a European superpower. But to do so requires the smaller states to become subservient to the national interests of the larger members (and these interests often diverge).

Absent a serious external threat it becomes very hard for the smaller states to convince their populations they should become a tool in a larger, potentially global, geopolitical game the French and German want to gain entry into. This becomes even more difficult when the smaller states are democratic - as we've seen with the referendums in Ireland and eventual acceptance of the watered down 'Lisbon Treaty' instead of the 'Constitutional Treaty'.

The states Russia wants to pull back into a political union are not stable and established democracies. Therefore the elites of these states do not need to submit themselves to the will of their population. Furthermore, if joining Russia in a new political union guarantees their monopoly of power (since the Kremlin gains an interest in bolstering these elites) they will be far more willing to go along with it. In a way, former Soviet states will sue for what they can; but take what they must. The reality is that most of them are already economically dependent upon Russia anyway.

Furthermore Russia’s great power relative to them means they cannot realistically resist Russian expansion anyway because, as Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia all found out, if you disagree with the political designs of the Kremlin Putin can simply shut off the gas, close down a border, deny them primary goods, or, should need be, smash them with its far superior military power (as Georgia found out).

It is the will to use power that makes others fearful and compels them to accommodate one’s interests; not the existence of power itself. Putin has shown time and time again the will to use Russia’s power against its neighbours. For the elites in states adjacent to Russia (and their populations) the message is clear: align with Moscow or face the consequences. As a consequence the next state to fall back into Moscow’s camp will be Ukraine after its upcoming elections.

Obama and the Afghan Surge

American military power is going to be absolutely bogged down in the Middle East throughout 2010. Obama seems to be escalating the conflict for political and diplomatic reasons: US presidents cannot just declare failure and retreat – it’s not in the DNA of the American political system. They have 'to show' that they will fight 'the bad guys' as hard as they can before they can make the rational decision to remove American military power.

But Obama has announced that the surge in Afghan is temporary. The 'pull-out' begins in 2011. Meanwhile the US will be drawing down troops from Iraq (which is set for an extremely unstable year). This means that, all going to plan, by sometime in 2011 American troops should be in reserve and available to be deployed to counter the Russians or to any other hotspot. But the Russians know this and it gives them one year - 2010 - to completely lock down their influence and eject any remnants of American or European influence. Whether they entirely succeed or not is beside the point; by the end of 2010 any move to remove them from their position will have to be momentous and overt.

At the same time whatever Obama's plans may be they are not really his to make, for there are simply too many players now involved in the Middle Eastern cesspool of crises. The most important in the coming year will be the one centred upon Iran.

An Escalating Crisis

2009 saw an escalation in the Iranian-American standoff over its nuclear program. Firstly, Obama and co. released proof of a covert Iranian nuclear plant followed by a series of highly significant leaks that seemed to show the Iranians were driving towards nuclear weapons. But this crisis also became consumed by the Russo-American standoff as Russian support for Iran became overt as it seeks to use Iran as a bargaining chip.

But the outcome of the crisis is also dependent upon the calculations of Israel. If they actually believe that a nuclear Iran is an 'existential threat' they will have to act against is before it attains nuclear weapons, or at least show America they will act unless it gets tough on Iran. However, for America 'to act' short of war it needs Russian help to impose sanctions. Thus far Russia has given vague signals that it will help if the price is right. The price being American acquiescence to a new Russian political sphere of influence around it’s near abroad (which it already has).

Obama and Biden have declared that they will not do this owing to Russia's declining long term geopolitical position (although its power is growing in the short term). Biden, on a trip to Eastern Europe last year, even went so far to announce the Obama's administrations intentions to support efforts by US-friendly governments in the region to counter Russia's push.

That means end-game for any Russo-American alignment on Iranian sanctions.

At the same time Obama is escalating a war in Afghanistan and needs all the help from regional powers to 'win' this thing - even Iran. If America can accept the inevitability of a nuclear Iran and even the eventual hegemonic domination by Iran over parts of the Middle East and Gulf region then America can do a 'deal' with it whereby it would gain Iranian help to suppress the multiple crises in the Middle East. This would allow the US to drawdown military forces and reorient them back to the greater geopolitical enemy - Russia. Therefore Russia has an interest in keeping Iran close and ensuring that a rapprochement between Iran and the US remains impossible.

Besides this, there are two powerful arguments that come from within the American body politic against reaching a deal with the Iranians.

The first of argument stems from the fear that a nuclear-capable Iran could result in a cascade of nuclear proliferation across the Middle East (and world). In this situation not only would Iran attain a deterrent against an Israeli and/or American military strike but the entire balance of the region would be altered as a number of new nuclear deterrent relationships formed that could usher in an era of unprecedented danger.

This fear flows from the belief that we are witnessing the birth of a ‘second nuclear age’ that will be characterised by the spread of nuclear weapons to an increasing number of states. As each new state goes nuclear it could force other states to go nuclear in kind. In this world America’s ability to intervene would be dramatically reduced.

States like Germany, Japan and South Korea are already recognised as ‘latent’ nuclear weapons states that could militarise their program in the space of a few months if necessary. Myanmar is suspected of having a covert program, Russia has agreed to help Venezuela build a nuclear power plant, many states around the Persian Gulf are pursuing talks with the IAEA on developing civilian programs, and there is still an open debate whether an Israeli strike against a Syrian installation in 2007 was a covert nuclear plant. North Korea now has nuclear weapons and has recently restarted its enrichment program, while Iran has announced the existence of a second covert nuclear enrichment plant, which many in the West have taken as confirmation of a covert attempt to build nuclear weapons.

The second rationale against an American rapprochement comes from conservative American strategic analysts who argue that Iran is an 'irrational actor'. This means that, unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Iran cannot be trusted to play by the ‘rules of the game’ - it may risk suicide by using its arsenal against Israel or American interests. It will not adhere to a strategic situation of ‘mutual deterrence’.

But numerous scholars have shown that Iran does not act as an irrational actor in any sense of the term. In fact, most of their behaviour appears to be carefully calculated and the actions of a ‘risk-averse’ power.

This must be distinguished from their rhetoric which is inflammatory, threatening, and sometimes outright nuts. This is for a reason. We can think of a poker game where appearing to be irrational and unpredictable can cause other players to misread your moves. If every move we played was completely honest and predictable the other players would quickly learn when to bet against us. If anything, this tactic is particularly useful in the post-9/11 world since fears of nuclear technology sales to non-state terrorist organisations, like al Qaeda, only increases Iran’s leverage.

Military action is not desirable against an irrational actor, since by definition we do not know how they will respond. Consequently Iranian leaders may perceive that nuclear weapons, or the capability to build them, in conjunction with a convincing image of irrationality provide an effective deterrent to outside coercion.

This strategy makes some sense, and both superpowers during the Cold War used it. But the problem with the strategy is that Iran may actually convince Israel that it has suicidal designs and backfire as Israel decides it must attack.

America, for its part, has no desire to come to blows with Iran. In spite of Washington’s overwhelming military might Iran has publicly stated that it will close the Strait of Hormuz should Israel or America attack. 40% of the world’s oil flows through this – it is the ultimate ‘choke-point’ - and any disruption could result in an instant plunge back into global recession. Besides this Iran could act to destabilise Iraq and Afghanistan almost instantaneously, reversing any ‘gains’ the US and its allies may have made in these states.

Ultimately, this is the calculus: Russia wants to keep conflicts brewing in the Middle East so the US cannot reorient towards it. America wants everyone to either do as they are told, or calm the heck down so it can 'win' its wars and reorient towards Russia. Israel finds a nuclear Iran untenable, and thus will try force the US into action. Iran, backed by Russia, is playing for time, trying to develop their nuclear know-how and infrastructure so that it presents the world with a fait accompli.

Obama’s Decision and the Great Crisis of 2010

The above almost guarantees that 2010 is going to result in a geopolitical crisis. Things are continuing to escalate and there are simply too manner actors with divergent interests involved. Furthermore, none of these states are in control of 'the timeline' - when events will overtake them. The question now becomes what will the crisis be over, between who, and whether it will escalate to a point just short of war or whether the entire Gulf Region will be set ablaze.

That is an extremely unsatisfying conclusion but we cannot predict the future. We can identify the players, their priorities, opportunities and constraints. However, there will come a moment where one actor – probably Barack Hussein Obama – will have to decide whether he can live with a nuclear Iran and all the potentialities that entails, or whether the risk posed by a nuclear Iran is sufficiently great to warrant massive ground, sea and air strikes against the Islamic Republic and suffer the consequences.

It will be a historical decision that could go down in infamy, and the pieces seem to be in place for that decision to be made in 2010.

*************

Reuben Steff is currently writing his PhD thesis on 'Deterrence Theory and Ballistic Missile Defence' at Otago University. He encourages comments, criticisms or thoughts. You can e-mail him at stere538[at]student.otago.ac.nz. His blog is http://securityandpolitiks.blogspot.com/.

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