The Weekly Standard continues its excellent analysis of the new cold war battlefield. First it dealt with tactical issues, and now it turns to strategic matters.
My brief assessment of the military options open to the West in the ongoing Georgian conflict “The Pain Game: A Military response to Russia’s aggression?” provoked many comments both favorable and unfavorable. The most thoughtful criticism accused me of elevating the tactical over the strategic; i.e., of not looking at the “big picture.” To that I offer a qualified “Mea culpa.” The piece was intended as a focused response to numerous commentators, decision makers, and analysts who said the West had no “military options” in Georgia, when in fact there are such options.
But I have pondered at some length a comprehensive strategic approach to U.S. relations with Russia. These ideas can be found summarized in Chapter 9 of Ideas for America’s Future, which I wrote in collaboration with Mr. Jeffrey P. Bialos of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Transatlantic Relations. The strategy described therein was based on the following premises:
1. Russia is a country in the midst of a probably irreversible decline. It suffers from a serious demographic crisis (a total fertility rate of about 1.4 and a male life expectancy of only 59 years) which will see its population decline to 125 million or less in the next ten years. Its government is increasingly autocratic, suppressing freedom of expression and taking control of crucial sectors of the national economy, squeezing out direct foreign investment and technology transfer needed to maintain economic development. The Russian economy itself is increasingly reliant on high technology arms transfers at one end, and raw materials extraction–principally oil and natural gas–at the other. The Russian military is starved for resources (including quality manpower), operates increasingly antiquated equipment, and faces severe challenges to its modernization and transformation plans. The Russian economy itself is increasingly reliant on high technology arms transfers at one end, and raw materials –principally oil and natural gas–at the other. The Russian military is starved for resources (including quality manpower), operates increasingly antiquated equipment, and faces severe challenges to its modernization and transformation plans.
2. Russia is experiencing a transient moment of prosperity due to the inflated price of oil and natural gas. But Russia’s oil and gas production peaked several years back. Russia has huge untapped reserves but requires an infusion of Western technology to get them out of the ground. This technology investment will not be forthcoming, due to President Putin’s reappropriation of the “extractive sector” and the expropriation of Western investment in various joint ventures with Russian oil companies. The Russian petrochemical industrial base is antiquated and increasingly difficult to keep in operation. Russian oil and gas exports, therefore, will begin a steep decline in the near future.
3. Putin has used the bubble in the oil and gas market to fund economic development and provide prosperity to the Russian citizenry, though the distribution of wealth is highly uneven. Most of Russia’s new wealth is concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and a few oil centers out in Siberia, but the provincial cities, as well as the countryside, are for the most part still mired in poverty. Nonetheless, Putin managed to strike a bargain with the Russian people: in return for prosperity and stability, the people will allow greater centralization of power in Moscow.
4. The other side of Putinism is the use of oil and natural gas as weapons against perceived enemies in the Near Abroad and Western Europe. Because the existing pipelines from Central Asia and Siberia all pass through Russian territory, the Russian government, through its control of state oil and gas companies, can halt, reduce or increase the price of oil and natural gas in Eastern and Central Europe, thereby posing a threat to the economic stability of those countries, which can be used to extract diplomatic and economic concessions on the one hand, and punish behavior contrary to Moscow’s agenda on the other. In this way, Russia, despite its anemic economy and toothless military, has managed to assert itself as a player in European grand politics.
5. However, the good times will not last, and in the long term, the trend lines are consistently against the reemergence of Russia as a great power. This poses a potential danger to the United States and its allies, since empires in decline generate instability in their border regions until such time as they either collapse entirely or a new power structure emerges.
Given these assumptions, the U.S. should have as its objective mediating a “soft landing” for Russia as it ultimately recedes into a reduced status as one medium-size power among many on the Eurasian continent. The difference with Russia, of course, is its residual strategic nuclear stockpile, about the only trump card it still holds.
U.S. strategy towards Russia must have economic, diplomatic and military elements in almost equal proportions. To preclude further irredentist adventures directed by Moscow towards former Soviet republics, we must build a cordon of strong, independent, and democratic states along the Russian border. That means extending to these states–Ukraine, Poland, Georgia, Bulgaria, and the Baltics–as much developmental and military aid as required to ensure political stability and military security. That security can be further enhanced by expediting membership in NATO for those states that want it and have not yet been admitted. Russia will undoubtedly complain that it is being encircled by hostile powers, but only in its most paranoid delusions can Russia believe that NATO poses an offensive threat. In any case, Russia, by its irresponsible behavior, has brought this on itself.
Russia can still exert economic influence over Eastern Europe through its control of oil andnatural gas pipelines, which therefore makes it imperative to complete alternative distribution routes that circumvent Russian territory and which cannot be interdicted by Russian (or Russian-sponsored) military actions. Because so much of Russia’s prosperity (and therefore its ability to sustain military operations beyond its border) depends on profits from the extractive sector, the United States and its allies should do all in their power to drive down the price of oil and natural gas. Already with the price of oil down by almost 20 percent from its highs of earlier this summer, Russia must be feeling a cash flow pinch. If the price of oil can be reduced to less than $100 per barrel, Russia will have to make some serious decisions regarding both its economic and foreign policies: Will it continue to rely on state direction of the former and intransigence in the latter, or will it seek to become a more responsible member of the world community? Thus, exploration for new sources of oil and gas, increased production from existing sources, and investment in conservation and alternative energy technologies all should be pushed not because of amorphous environmental reasons but for very pragmatic strategic imperatives: oil is a weapon, and we must minimize its use by our adversaries.
Finally, a cornerstone of U.S. strategy should be a policy of “No Freebies”–no act of Russian aggression can be allowed to pass without real and serious consequences for Russia. Toothless resolutions and sanctions won’t cut the mustard anymore. Whenever Russia pushes, the West, led by the United States, must push back. Only in that manner will further adventures be forestalled. Hence, my suggestion that we provide the Georgians with the wherewithal to wage a guerilla struggle against Russian forces until such time as they leave the sovereign territory of the Georgian Republic (including Abkhazia and Ossetia).
Many of the critics of this suggestion seem to think we risk a fearsome Russian response, and are overawed by the creaky Russian military. In fact, Russia has a glass jaw and its military threats are basically empty against all but the most feeble opponents. We should not self-deter in the face of Russian bluster. Russia’s position under Putinism is an immense bluff, a desperate gambit on the part of a government feeling itself receding into international irrelevance to hold onto a place on the world stage as long as possible. Time for us to call the bluff, and end the game, once and for all.