January 23, 2008

January 23, 2008 | Commentary on Russia

Bad News Bears

The next American president will likely face an increasingly frosty relation ship with an increasingly mighty Mother Russia.

With the liberal-democratic experiment plainly over, today's Russia is authoritarian and nationalistic at home, confident and assertive abroad, awash in oil/gas wealth and bent on reinventing itself - once again - as a great power on the world stage.

Soviet? No. Proto-imperialist? Maybe.

While we're unlikely to see a rivalry as bitter as in the permafrost days of the Cold War, Russia and America will clash on a host of issues.

Russia's feisty President Vladimir Putin steps down in March but he's expected to keep the real power, probably re-emerging as prime minister or "national leader." Certainly, his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, will closely cleave to "Putinism."

Since taking office in 2000, Putin worked to stabilize the Motherland and re-establish Russia as a global force - on par with the United States, China and the European Union. Medvedev's Kremlin is sure to continue pushing back against any "encroachment" on Russia's traditional sphere of influence in Eastern and Central Europe, the Baltic, the Caucasus and Central Asia - what Moscow calls its "near abroad."

Most recently, Russia objects to the United States putting a radar in the Czech Republic and deploying 10 interceptors in Poland to counter the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile threat. (Moscow's complaint - that the bases undermine Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent - is simply false.) But the Kremlin surely dislikes seeing US bases in its old East European stomping grounds, where it still wants to have sway - and a say.

Then there's Russia's defense buildup. Putinism sees a strong defense as a deterrent against attack - and a means of resisting outside pressure on its policies, foreign or domestic.

Defense spending rose as much as 30 percent in 2007 - following jumps of 22 percent and 27 percent bump-ups in the two prior years. After years of neglect, the $200 billion modernization program leaves Russia with the world's second-largest defense budget.

The buildup is accompanied by Moscow's leaving the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty last year, unnerving the Europeans, and may move it to vacate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, too.

Russia's making security problems for the next prez in a host of other ways, too. With sales to emerging superpower China, troublemaker Venezuela and rogue states like Iran and Syria, Moscow is the world's largest arms supplier to the developing world. And it's building and fueling nuclear plants for Iran, with the Bushehr reactor set to finish late this year - just in time for the next commander-in-chief's inauguration. (Moscow has also agreed to help out Beijing's burgeoning space program - a boon to China's bid to challenge the US dominance in space.)

Russian intelligence operations in the US are back at Cold War levels once again, says the FBI. While fascinated with Washington political gossip, Russian spies are also targeting military-related high technology.

Bolstering both its intel and its military forces is a notable cyber-competence. In 2007, the Defense Intelligence Agency's director said Russia has the world's most "highly developed, capable and well-resourced IO [information operations] capability among potential adversaries." Estonia suffered a withering Russian cyber attack last year, affecting state and commercial institutions, including newspapers and banks, as it planned to move a Soviet war memorial.

But Russia's chief source of influence and strength these days is its ample energy supplies. It's the world's largest producer of natural gas and second-largest pumper of oil. The energy boom has already allowed Moscow to pay off its international debt, build up the world's third-largest foreign-currency reserves - and establish a $50 billion domestic stabilization fund, making "managed democracy" acceptable at home.

Vice President Dick Cheney has called Russian energy supplies "tools of intimidation and blackmail" - and it's certainly shown a willingness to use them as that. Just ask Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and Moldova.

With record energy prices and demand anything but softening, Moscow will continue to throw its weight around by re-nationalizing domestic energy resources and industries, buying assets abroad, cutting supplies, ending subsidies or raising prices for those that displease it.

Our European allies are especially vulnerable. Europe gets 50 percent of its natural gas and 25 percent of its oil from Russia - and may be on track to grow more dependent in the years ahead. Moscow will use the energy wedge to divide NATO and weaken trans-Atlantic ties wherever possible.

And that's not all. Russia is seeking to maximize its energy muscle, promoting a natural-gas cartel along the lines of OPEC. Planned charter-members Russia, Qatar and Iran together hold 60 percent of the world's natural gas - and other countries, like Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, have expressed an interest in joining.

In fairness, the US-Russian relationship hasn't been all bad news. Moscow has sometimes been helpful on North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, agreeing to limited, targeted sanctions at the United Nations Security Council last year.

It was also supportive early after 9/11 on counterterrorism. But it has since pushed (along with China) for the closing of US bases in Uzbekistan (succeeded) and Kyrgyzstan (nearly succeeded), hindering our Afghanistan operations.

In the end, Moscow's new "Russian Doctrine" sees a world dominated by Washington - or anyone else - as a threat to its raw national interests and pride. In the name of standing up for itself, the Kremlin is clearly willing to check US power just about anywhere.

While Russia may not be looking to recover the lost Soviet empire, it's out to regain its Soviet-era international clout and significance. The Kremlin sees America in decline and Russia's tsar, er, star on the rise - again.

The United States and Russia can both benefit from a cooperative relationship. But the important thing for the next US president is to see Russia with a sober eye: It's not a "bury the West" Russia, but it's not a "make nice with the West" Russia, either.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and former US deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in New York Post