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Slouching towards grand strategy (IV)

April 25, 2011


The demise of the USSR and the rapid expansion of “Atlantic” influence into its old sphere of influence, combined with Russia’s partial resurgence, mean the US does have more concrete security issues in this region. While Atlantic Europe is geopolitically free to look outwards, the states of Central and Eastern Europe still have serious concerns in their own neighborhood. The United States, to the extent it wishes to preserve the norm of geopolitical pluralism, and prevent Europe from returning to its place as America’s prime theater of military concern, has a strong incentive to prevent the reinstitution of Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe. It should be noted, however, that Russia’s resurgence is unlikely to be a long-term threat to the region. If anything, Russian weakness, and the rise of other poles of power in the post-Soviet sphere, may intensify security competition and contribute to the proliferation of geopolitical flashpoints. The United States must play a delicate game with regards to Russia.

Inheriting a legacy of Soviet military organization and defense industries, and flush with revenue from its natural resources, Russia has recovered from the freefall of the first decade of the post-Soviet era. Russian military reforms are underway, with Moscow gearing its forces for a smaller military better capable of modern expeditionary operations. However, the ability of Russia’s political leadership and military institutions to translate the past decade’s economic recovery into a sustainable basis for Russian power and military reform remains dubious. While tensions remain with its Eastern European neighbors, it seems Russia’s primary security interests, outside of East Asia, remain focused southward. The 2008 war with Georgia demonstrated several important points. First, that Russia, though it seeks to reconstitute its sphere of influence, is probably not capable of the sort of explicit imperializing aggrandizement some feared. Second, that the US’s efforts to expand its security commitments into areas where Russia’s military still play an active role may unacceptably increase US risks and liabilities.

Despite Georgia’s partnership with NATO, the unwillingness of NATO members to intervene, the arrogance and foolish brinksmanship perceived NATO backing unleashed in Georgia’s new leadership, and the relatively limited aims Russia sought seem to indicate that more NATO involvement would have made the crisis worse, rather than better. If anything, admitting Georgia into NATO at this point would severely strain the organization’s basic credibility as a collective security organization. After all, if NATO members did not deem it in their strategic interest to support Georgia in 2008, why would that change afterwards?

If one makes the argument that only expanding NATO can enhance its credibility, one must ask why expanding it to a state that the Atlantic world proved itself manifestly unwilling to defend from invasion would not trigger more fears from Russia’s NATO neighbors. If NATO really no longer takes collective security seriously, and is functioning only as an organization for extra-regional interventions and military cooperation and confidence building, its credibility as an alliance is all but nonexistent.

Tying NATO’s credibility to events in Georgia, whose Caucasian politics are far more fractious, complex, and less amenable to Western intervention and influence than those of the Baltic countries, Poland, or even the Ukraine, would only serve to undermine Europe further. How far should US retrenchment in the Western post-Soviet world go, and to what end is US-Russian rapprochement? Is it merely to seek a walk-back from a new Cold War or “Great Game” in post-Soviet space? Is it to bring Russia into the Euro-Atlantic world? Or is it to gain leverage over Russia as an independent pole of power to exploit against China or minor states such as Iran and North Korea? These answers have serious implications for the nature of US strategy and the participants it chooses to involve.

At the highest level, the United States seeks, rightly, to continue walking back the threat of nuclear weapons and nuclear arms competition with Russia. Nuclear proliferation deserves further discussion, but it suffices to say that nobody need believe in a “global zero” to see the merit in reducing the threat of Russian nuclear arms and the strain of maintaining an overlarge nuclear arsenal at home. Without the threat of a Russian land invasion into Europe, the need to bring large numbers of nuclear weapons to bear and dominate the escalation ladder’s higher rungs is much less relevant to US security interests. Nuclear weapons, like all instruments of military power, merit scrutiny for their strategic purposes above all else.

However, due to the nature of American domestic politics and the desire to leverage US arms reductions for all they are worth, strategic arms reductions are still subordinate to the wider constellation of interests in play. The United States cannot press Russia into concessions on all relevant interests, and if that is the goal of the reset, then it will ultimately be an empty gambit.

The United States, above most other considerations, should seek to avoid the solidification of a Russo-Chinese bloc, as it has since it recognized the People’s Republic of China to begin with. Rhetoric pitting the United States against a motley array of authoritarian states needlessly encourages the Russo-Chinese cooperation it fears so much. This merits more discussion elsewhere, but it is important to recognize that artificially separating considerations of US interests in western and eastern Eurasia ignores the role Russia plays in both.

Expanding NATO membership into the Caucasus has proven a needlessly provocative gambit. While NATO may have been able to enforce its norms and exert its strength in the Balkans, Russia is completely unwilling to see a similar kind of expansion into the Caucasus. Russia has opposed the West’s interventions and NATO-sanctioned revisionism precisely because it fears the repetition of such activities closer to home.

The importance of the Northern Distribution Network and the intermittent desires of Western states to use the Caucasus as an alternate gateway into Central Asia contribute to American strategic confusion in the region. A grand strategy based on enduring US national interests would treat Caucasian states neither as geopolitical pawns nor the frontline of an illusory liberal Atlantic community. Either approach lends itself to an overzealously intrusive foreign policy in the region.

A more robust grand strategy would recognize that US interests are best served de-emphasizing the Caucasus. The US interest in maintaining access to Central Asia for operations in Afghanistan and other activity should not override the dangers of antagonizing Russia or the costs of inflating the importance of these relatively minor states. Despite their small size, they are geographically unlikely to fall under Russian domination again (considering Russia has enough trouble maintaining control over Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan), and the leaders of these states are politically savvy enough to manage the multiple rivalries of the region to maintain a relative balance.

Despite the importance to Europe of Caspian energy and to NATO countries of lines of communication to Afghanistan, adopting a policy of Western preponderance or hyperactive engagement in the Caucasus actually compromises these interests. If the US insists on undermining Russian influence in its own backyard, whether through trying to play a “Great Game” in the Caucasus or by turning it into a new bulwark of NATO and liberal democratic values, it will merely endanger the lesser, but concrete, interests it possesses in the Caucasus. Provoking Russia by taking sides in complex and globally-minor disputes in the Caucasus merely increases the likelihood Russia will retaliate by trying to divide NATO and Western states through energy politics or pressuring Caucasian and Central Asian states to turn away from the US and reduce their support for NATO operations in Afghanistan.

The Ukraine is another example of where an over-emphasis on the United States can needlessly enflame regional tensions. Historically, the Ukraine is vital to Russia. While the US should obviously not tolerate Russian military action in the Ukraine, this is unlikely to occur, and orienting US policy around that hypothetical scenario needlessly charges the atmosphere in Eastern Europe. Allowing the Baltic states into NATO jarred Moscow enough, pushing for Ukraine’s membership would be needlessly provocative.

Thanks to the incorporation of Poland and other Central European states into NATO, the US already has more than enough room to exert its own influence and protect its interests in Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe is already remarkably stable by historical standards. Given the difficulties facing the Russian military, current security guarantees to growing Central and Eastern European states will likely prove sufficient to prevent Russia from threatening US security.

After all, America only has security incentives to expand its commitments in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet sphere to the extent it insulates US interests from foreign coercion. America’s primary regional interest in preventing Russian hegemony in a large swath of Europe does not require an expansion of NATO or exerting more pressure in the Russian near abroad. Indeed, to do so would only breed insecurity for lower-tier or transitory interests such as lines of communication to Afghanistan. Since America’s primary economic and security interests now lie outside of this region, over-committing the US to western post-Soviet space merely reduces US freedom of action in other regions and increases Russia’s incentive to threaten US interests elsewhere.

Contrary to the exhortations of some, bogging the US down in Russia’s backyard does not serve American leadership, and instead undermines it by opening opportunities to divide Western Europe from America and distract it from other regions. Nor does it advance US interests elsewhere. Indeed, committing the US to security issues it does not well understand or feel willing to intervene in will only lead other countries to act recklessly under American patronage, and when that occurs, lead others to question its value entirely. Toning down the American profile, or at least empty rhetoric, in these regions will reduce strain on US resources and the potential threats to its credibility elsewhere.

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