June 9, 2009 | Commentary on Russia, National Security and Defense

The Bear Is Back: We Face Increasing Challenges From a Resurgent Russia

Both Russia and the United States insist one Cold War was enough. But considering the frosty rhetorical winds blowing back and forth between the two former, bitter rivals the last few years, one has to wonder.

Even with the Obama White House's efforts to push a gimmicky "reset button" with the Kremlin in hopes that it will make everything better, it appears that a persistent cold front has descended on U.S.-Russia ties.

Today's Moscow is increasingly heavy-handed at home, domineering abroad and hell bent on reasserting Russia once again as a great -- if not the preeminent -- power on the world stage.

Without question, the Bear is back.

While it is not a bear of Cold War Soviet-vintage, it's no Teddy bear, either. Russia is a big, growly grizzly willing to throw its weight around in support of the Kremlin's interests across the globe.

Unfortunately, this has rarely been good news for Uncle Sam recently.

Putin Power

At the center of the storm in U.S.-Russia relations is feisty former Russian President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is still calling the shots in Moscow, despite having taken a seeming political demotion, moving from president to prime minister in 2008 due to constitutional term-limits.

Indeed, the passing of nearly two decades since the end of the Cold War, which pitted Washington and Moscow in a global cage match for ideological supremacy, has not faded former KGB officer Putin's nostalgia for the Soviet Union's glory days as the leader of the un-free world.

In fact, in his 2005 annual address to the Russian Duma (parliament), President Putin infamously said that the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century was the end of the Soviet Union. (One can only imagine the chills that went up the spines of Soviet-era refuseniks, current reformers and the peoples of the former Soviet satellite states after hearing that proclamation.)

Fortunately, it is likely Putin's sentiment has few fans outside Russia, but it is telling of the Kremlin's mindset, an organization now reportedly flush with former KGB officers who probably share Putin's shameless longing for the past.

Since taking office in 2000, Putin has set his sights on reestablishing Russia as a respected global-force able to exert leverage on the international system -- on par with other power players such as the United States, CHINA and the European Union.

At the beginning of his presidency, Putin appeared to want to join the West. Many thought democracy would take hold in Russia under the young, energetic leader. Indeed, at President Bush's first meeting with Putin in the summer of 2001, the two leaders hit it off personally, providing a glimmer of hope for U.S.-Russia ties. Putin was even the first foreign leader to call Bush after the 9/11 attack.

Since then, the situation has changed -- dramatically. The Kremlin's mistrust of the West is now deep, tending to interpret every action as a conspiracy targeting Russia. (If you try hard enough, you can almost picture a movie theater in the Kremlin where politicos watch the Russian-language version of "Charlie Wilson's War" to steel themselves against the sneaky, evil forces of the West.)

Under Putin, Moscow's interest in joining the West slowly waned. Russia then moved from trying to become independent of the West to becoming downright confrontational with it, especially the United States and Europe. Accordingly, Russia has been vigorously pushing back on what it sees as an encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, the Baltic, Caucasus and Central Asia -- what Moscow calls its "near abroad."

While most have unfortunately stalled, Putin and pals are anxious about Ukraine's Orange, Georgia's Rose and Kyrgyzstan's Tulip democratic revolutions that took place during the George W. Bush administration. The potential for a spillover of pluralism into Mother Russia is especially troubling, where Putin and his political party, United Russia, have consolidated power.

Putin's Russia is not aiming to embrace the West's form of liberal democracy anytime soon -- if ever. That experiment is over. Instead, Putin defends the concept of sovereign -- or managed -- democracy, quickly pointing out that the West is not perfect, either, when criticized for a lack of political or press freedom in Russia.

Moscow, under Putin and his chosen successor, current Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, is also exploiting a period of perceived American overreach to advance Russian interests across a number of fronts, while Washington seemingly cannot respond, mobilizing key European, Asian, Latin American and even Middle Eastern countries to confront and contain American influence.

Indeed, after eight-years of Putin at the helm of the ship of state, some experts insist Russia entered 2009 in the strongest position it has known since the end of the Cold War, putting it in a good position to vigorously oppose U.S. policies.

Missile Defense Mania

One of the biggest irritants in the U.S.-Russia relationship from the Kremlin's perspective is the American missile defense system proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic -- and aimed at the unbridled Iranian long-range ballistic missile and nuclear (weapons) programs.

While the Kremlin agreed to end the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in 2002, it has changed its mind about the development of U.S. missile defense in Eastern Europe. Russia strongly objects to a proposed radar in the Czech Republic and deployment of 10 ground-based interceptors (GBI) in Poland to counter the Iranian challenge.

The Kremlin insists the defensive system is unnecessary since Iranian missiles cannot reach central Europe or the United States, nor does it have a nuclear weapon -- yet. Therefore, the threat from Tehran is mostly the figment of an overactive imagination by American intelligence.

Moscow also complains the proposed system undermines Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent, claiming over the last few years it would cause an "arms race," turning Europe into a "powder keg." While having only 10 interceptors could not possibly undermine its nuclear deterrent of 600 offensive strategic weapons systems, the high-tech weapon likely makes the once-proud Russian military feel a bit effete in comparison.

While the GBI warheads do not contain explosives, instead destroying targets by colliding with them at 15,000 miles per hour, the Russians fear the system could morph into a nuclear first-strike capability. Russian generals also wrongly claim the X-band radar is more about spying on Russia than knocking Iranian missiles out of the sky.

As a result, Moscow has rattled the saber, threatening to deploy missiles to their borders to shake the resolve for missile defense in Europe and NATO, especially in Warsaw and Prague. But in the end, it is more of an emotional issue: The Kremlin is just not happy about the United States putting even a small number of forces in the former U.S.S.R.'s old stomping grounds, despite the Berlin Wall falling almost two decades ago.

Unfortunately, it appears the Obama White House might retreat on Eastern European missile defense, hoping to garner goodwill on a number of initiatives it wants to pursue with the Kremlin, such as arms control.

Treaty Troubles

In response to the Bush administration's proposal for European missile defense, Moscow also threatened to vacate a number of arms control treaties, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) accords, unsettling the general security quiet that had been Europe's.

Senior Russians warned they were considering withdrawal from the 1987 INF treaty, which bans U.S. and Russian ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 300 miles to 3,000 miles, naming missile defense as the cause. Ironically, while citing missile defense as the culprit, Moscow is probably more nervous about the spread of nuclear and ballistic missile capability on its frontiers, including CHINA, Pakistan, India, North Korea -- and even Iran.

Russia has also suspended observation of the 1990 CFE accord, which limits forces in the areas of NATO and former Warsaw Pact countries. While Moscow may again be using CFE as a foil against missile defense, it is probably more complicated than that: The Kremlin likely wants out of CFE so it can retain Russian bases and troops in the former Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia.

Russian forces support post-Soviet ethnic Russians who still reside in these countries -- and their pro-Moscow secessionist movements. Under CFE, Russia would have to close its bases and withdraw troops. But keeping a presence is important to extending Moscow's declared "sphere of privileged interest" and protecting Russia's soft strategic underbelly.

Moscow is deadly serious about this issue, as shown by last year's invasion of Georgia's Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, which Russia subsequently recognized as independent -- along with Transnistria, an ethnic Russian enclave in Moldova. It is clear: Russia wants a say -- and sway -- in the areas around its periphery.

But, then again, there are other motives afoot. The Kremlin also considers the dropping of its adherence to CFE as an expression of its extreme displeasure with Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Russia-friendly Serbia, a move the United States and Europe supported.

NATO is another treaty that really bothers the Bear, especially its expansion into Eastern Europe, which provides a painful reminder of just how far the once-mighty Moscow has fallen since the Berlin Wall crumbled. Particularly upsetting for them is NATO's possible enlargement into Georgia and Ukraine. The Kremlin has no intention of allowing this to happen, especially losing its naval base at Sevastopol, Ukraine, on the Black Sea, a body of water Moscow has long considered a Russian lake.

Instead of seeing NATO as a potential partner, Moscow sees it, under Washington's leadership, as a tool for manhandling Russia. NATO's role in bringing about the Soviet Union's ultimate demise is a fact not lost on the current occupants of the Kremlin. As such, Moscow's strategic objectives are to insert wedges into the trans-Atlantic alliance, diminish the U.S. role, and thereby make way for Russian dominance.

Russia is also working through groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to contain U.S. influence. For instance, over the last few years, Moscow has worked alongside Beijing in the SCO to influence the closure of U.S. air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, both key to American and allied military operations in Afghanistan.

Indeed, one of President Medvedev's first trips abroad took him to Beijing, a rising power in its own right, where he noted that: "Russia regards CHINA as one of its foremost partners in its foreign policy." The two nations signed a bilateral declaration to jointly confront military threats posed by third-party countries, likely a veiled reference -- and threat -- to the United States.

And this spring Russia and China -- along with others in the SCO -- conducted their third set of joint military exercises in just a few years under the rubric of the Central Asian body, claiming the purpose of the large-scale maneuvers was counterterrorism. Nonparticipating neighbors are, not surprisingly, suspicious.

The good news is that Russia is concerned CHINA is hijacking its influence in Central Asia, a common space for both countries, building critical infrastructure (e.g., energy pipelines) and diplomatic ties that will make Beijing more alluring than Moscow over time.

CHINA is a great power with growing ambitions that may exceed Russia's. With NATO and the European Union in the West and CHINA rising in the East, Russia could be getting nervous. Perhaps soon the Kremlin will see not only every American action but also every Chinese action as an anti-Russian plot.

Naturally, Moscow has some schemes of its own.

Arms Bazaar

Today, Russia, the world's second-largest arms exporter overall, has the dubious honor of being one of the world's largest arms suppliers to the developing world. Their client list is disturbing, to say the least. For example:

Iran: Russia signed weapons contracts with Iran for air defense systems, valued at $1 billion. It is also upgrading Iranian fighter aircraft and tanks. While not a weapon per se, Moscow completed construction of a $1 billion nuclear reactor for Tehran at Bushehr, which would aid the Iranian nuclear (weapons) program. It is likely to be operational this year -- and along with other nuclear facilities, would almost certainly be protected by air defenses bought from Russia.

Syria: Russia graciously forgave $13 billion of Syria's Cold War arms debt, allowing Damascus to buy $1 billion to $2 billion in new air defense systems. Other more advanced systems and the reopening of the Cold War-era Russian naval base at Tartus, Syria, located on the Mediterranean Sea, are also in the offing.

Venezuela: Moscow sold more than $4 billion worth of arms to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, including fighters with advanced missiles, helicopters and small arms. Quiet, stealthy diesel submarines have also been discussed. Russia also has offered to build nuclear reactors for Venezuela -- possibly for civilian purposes, despite the nation's enormous oil reserves -- something Caracas' other nuclear neighbors, Brazil and Argentina, have refused to do. (Of course, in view of Chavez's revolutionary socialist agenda and desire to recreate Gran Colombia, it is no shock they have been unwilling to assist Venezuela in acquiring nuclear power.)

And even though it has already supplied 100,000 assault rifles, Russia is building an AK-47 weapons plant in Venezuela, which could easily be used for nefarious purposes within or without the country. Considering Caracas' support of the neighboring Colombian narco-terrorist group -- the FARC -- over the years [see "Colombia: Moving in the Right Direction," Townhall, December 2008], this is not encouraging news for Bogota or its close regional ally, Washington.

CHINA: And do not forget about Beijing, another big arms buyer. It has received roughly 90 percent of its advanced weaponry from Moscow in recent years, despite the imposition of a European and American arms embargo that followed Beijing's 1989 crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

Russia has provided advanced fighters, surface-to-air missiles, destroyers, submarines and cruise missiles, which would assuredly see action against U.S. forces in a dust-up with the People's Liberation Army. Moscow has also agreed to cooperate with Beijing's burgeoning space program. Not good news, considering China's desire to challenge America for dominance in space, including their successful 2007 anti-satellite missile test.

But it is not just foreign militaries that Russia is helping out.

Military Modernization

After years of abject neglect following the Cold War, Russia is again directing resources toward its own military, including increases in their defense budget of up to 30 percent in 2009, following a number of double-digit plus-ups in recent years. In March, President Medvedev called for "comprehensive rearmament" of the once-mighty Russian armed forces, indicating the build-up would continue despite the challenges to the country's coffers from tough economic times.

The Kremlin sees a strong military not only as a defense against provocation or attack, but also as means of resisting pressure on objectionable domestic and foreign policies such as the war in Georgia last year. Russia is pumping itself up in an effort to discourage troublemaking around its borders, but also project power far beyond its neighborhood -- once again.

Indeed, a top Russian Air Force general this spring claimed Venezuela could host Russian long-range bombers, based on an offer from Chavez himself. (Cuba was also mentioned.) There is precedence in this: A pair of Russian nuclear-capable bombers visited Venezuela last fall, conducting patrols over the Caribbean for a spell before returning home to Mother Russia. The bombers were later joined by a small Russian flotilla, doing a little muscle-flexing in joint operations with the Venezuelan navy.

In addition to the base in Syria, Russia is also looking for naval bases in Libya and in Yemen to forward-deploy warships. In a throwback to the Cold War, Moscow has put bombers on patrol, operating widely from bases across Russia. In many cases, it has required the United States and others to scramble fighters to escort the Russian planes as they move toward sovereign airspace or attempt to overfly naval ships such as aircraft carriers.

Russia has expanded into cyberspace, too. According to U.S. intelligence, Russia has some of the world's most well-developed cyber-warfare capabilities. Just ask the Estonians, who were hacked after moving a Red Army statue from a square in Tallinn in 2007, the Georgians, who were attacked via the Web during last year's fight with the Russians, or Kyrgyzstan, which was spurred to close U.S. bases this year by Internet denial-of-service cyber-strikes.

And Russian military intelligence operations here are at Cold War-levels once again, too, according to the FBI. While always fascinated with "Inside the Beltway" political gossip, Russian spies are also targeting military-related high-technology. But despite the growth in its military budget and activities, Russia wields another big club as well.

The Energy Weapon

Unbeknownst to most, Russia is the world's largest producer of natural gas (ahead ofQatar) and second-largest producer of oil (after Saudi Arabia). In fact, Moscow may actually have control over the world's largest aggregate carbon-based energy reserves.

Russia's energy boom days have allowed Moscow to pay off its international debt, build up the world's third-largest foreign currency reserves and establish a domestic stabilization fund. But there's a dark side, too. With energy demand anything but softening in the coming years, Moscow throws elbows by nationalizing domestic resources, cutting supplies, ending subsidies or raising prices for disobedient former Soviet republics.

Energy today is, arguably, what the Red Army was during the Cold War: the main source of Russia's influence and strength.

With its abundant energy supply, Russia holds American allies in Europe at risk. Europe gets 40 percent of its natural gas and 30 percent of its oil from Russia -- and Moscow has no qualms with turning off the spigot, such as happened in January in Ukraine, affecting deliveries to 13 European states downstream -- and causing lots of chattering teeth. In fact, during an earlier visit to Europe, then-Vice President Dick Cheney called Russian energy "tools of intimidation and blackmail."

But Russia does not plan on stopping with having a stranglehold on Europe.

To minimize free-market forces and maximize its energy muscle more broadly, Russia is also promoting a natural gas cartel along the lines of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). For instance, together, Russia,Qatar and Iran possess 60 percent of the world's natural gas. Other natural gas-producing countries, including Venezuela, have expressed an interest in joining, too.

Then in the summer of 2007, two Russian deep-sea diving vehicles planted a titanium flag on the seabed near the North Pole at a depth of nearly 14,000-feet, "claiming" for Moscow an undersea area the size of France, Germany and Italy combined. While some derided the undersea flag planting as little more than a geopolitical stunt reminiscent of 15th century colonial land-grabs, some believe the Arctic may hold one-third of the world's undiscovered natural resources.

Despite promises from the circumpolar nations to deal with the Arctic in a peaceful manner, a senior Russian general officer last year said Moscow plans to increase its military activity up there to look after the country's interests. Indeed, the Russian defense minister recently even went so far as to (falsely) claim that the Russian defense buildup is needed to thwart a possible U.S.-NATO effort to grab natural resources such as those in the Arctic.

Moscow learned lessons from the Cold War, too: Economic might in the long run is as important as military might, if not more so. Moscow sees energy as its trump card for getting a seat at the table as a real player in the international marketplace. Oil and gas now account for roughly 20 percent of Russia's economy and more than 50 percent of its export earnings. As a result, Moscow is serious about gaining energy hegemony across the globe to the greatest extent possible.

Where Is This Relationship Going?

In fairness, the U.S.-Russian relationship has not been all bad news. Moscow has been selectively helpful on North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, agreeing to limited, targeted sanctions at the United Nations Security Council in past years.

The United States and Russia can both benefit from a cooperative relationship on issues ranging from nonproliferation to Afghanistan. Neither capital benefits from a deeper freeze in already chilly ties. But there will be issues of critical importance on which Russia will not align itself with American interests.

The important thing is to see Russia with a sober eye. It is not a bury-the-West Russia, but then again it is not a make-nice-with-the-West Russia, either. It is a new Russia in a new century: a country bound and determined to be a dominant regional and world power.

While the Obama administration is hoping the Russians will hit the reset button, it is more likely the Kremlin will stick to the course it has charted for years: rebuilding Moscow's might and reasserting its raw national interests. Unfortunately that will often be by chipping away at U.S. influence and position around the world.

Peter Brookes is senior fellow for National Security Affairs in the Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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

First appeared in Townhall Magazine