August 18, 2008

August 18, 2008 | Commentary on Russia

Bad News Bear

The Russian bear is back. Today's Kremlin is cocky, nationalistic, rich and bent on asserting Russia as a great power with distinct interests - not only in its neighborhood or "near abroad" - but across the globe.

It entered 2008 in its strongest position since the fall of the Berlin Wall, continually reorienting its foreign policy to one that is independent, strikingly outspoken, and even anti-West.

Russia is vying to lord over its traditional sphere of influence (like Imperialist Russia) and take its place on the world stage as a power-broker (like the Soviet Union).

Quite simply: The Kremlin plans to reinstate Russia's superpower status.

In 2005, then-president Vladimir Putin (now prime minister, with little difference in power) told the Russian parliament the greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th century was the fall of the Soviet Union.

This is clearly telling of the Kremlin's mindset. So while cooperation is still possible, there'll be issues of critical importance where Russia will not align itself with Western or US interests.

Russia can certainly throw its weight around, not only with its million-man army, but its natural resources - it's the No. 1 producer of natural gas, and the No. 2 producer of oil - and its veto spot on the UN Security Council.

Here's a guide to Russia's immediate interests:

BUFFER ZONES

Georgian areas: Russia invades Georgia with tanks and tens of thousands of troops over violence in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, a punitive strike against Georgian forces and an effort to bring down the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili. It also occupies Abkhazia, another separatist area of Georgia. Russia may push for the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Kaliningrad: Russia has threatened both Poland and the Czech Republic over the stationing of a US missile defense system, including a radar and 10 interceptors, aimed against the Iranian threat. Threats have included a military buildup in the Russian enclave Kaliningrad (a sliver of Russia between Lithuanian and Poland) and the basing of missiles in neighboring Belarus.

Transnistria: Russia has troops in the breakaway region of Transnistria in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, protecting the interests of the ethnic Russian separatists there. Unhappy with the West's support for Kosovo's independence earlier this year, Russia may also push this region toward separatism, too.

Ukraine: Moscow has warned Kiev (and Tbilisi) against joining NATO. Russian intelligence is suspected of complicity in the plot to poison - and kill - a West-leaning presidential candidate, and now president, Viktor Yushchenko in 2004. Russia will continue to pressure Ukraine from joining the West.

Uzbekistan: Russia (along with China) pressured the former Soviet Central Asia Republic of Uzbekistan to close the US air base at Karshi-Khanabad, supporting Afghanistan operations. It complied. Moscow tried to do the same in Kyrgyzstan - unsuccessfully. In the same region, Kazakhstan is run by a former communist official sympathetic to Russia.

Estonia: Government-backed Russian hackers attacked Estonian government computers and press Web sites after Tallinn plans to move a Red Army soldier statue. Russia has also tried to penetrate the Pentagon's computers and probably crashed Georgian government networks during the invasion.

NEW ALLIANCES

Iran: Moscow has been building Iran's first nuclear reactor at Bushehr since the mid-1990s and has already supplied the nuclear fuel. Iran is buying $1 billion in Russian arms, mostly air defense systems for protecting its nuclear facilities. After Georgia, any help with halting Iran's nuclear program at the UN Security Council is unlikely.

Syria: Russia forgave Syria its $15 billion in Cold War debt so Damascus could buy $1 billion in new Russian arms, mostly advanced air defense systems.

Qatar: Russia has engaged Qatar, a country with the world's No. 3 natural gas reserves, about forming an OPEC-like natural gas cartel, which would control the supply and price of this energy source. Moscow has also talked to Tehran and Caracas about joining.

China: Russia is the source of China's most advanced weapons, supporting Beijing's major military build-up. Moscow and Beijing have also begun regular joint military exercises. While the two sides have a difficult, bilateral history, they see each other as strategic partners in balancing US power in the world.

Venezuela: Moscow has sold $3-$4 billion in advanced Russian arms to Caracas, supporting President Hugo Chavez's socialist Bolivarian Revolution and his bid for hegemony in Latin America. Caracas has recently expressed a readiness to host Russian military bases.

STIRRING UP TROUBLE

Europe: Europe is heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies, getting as much as 40% of its natural gas and 25% of its oil from Russian fields. The continent's reliance on Russian energy has served to significantly dampen criticism of Russian actions around the world.

North Korea: Russia helped its former client state, North Korea, build its first nuclear reactor; now it's a member of the Six-Party Talks, aimed at rolling back the nuclear weapons Pyongyang derived from that reactor. While no longer close, Moscow may like how it serves as a distraction to Washington.

Arctic: A Russian submarine planted a titanium flag on the Arctic Ocean floor, laying claim to the potentially resource-rich seabed. Other Arctic states disagree with Russia's claim, raising the specter of the militarization of the North Pole.

Heritage Foundation senior fellow Peter Brookes is a former 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 the New York Post