Monday, June 05, 2006

The Bear Returns

Russia has returned to the international great game of geopolitics. Not at her former strength to be sure, but with greater power and influence than at any time in the last 16 years. They are exporting their weapons and technology with no regard as to who they will be used against, using their energy supplies as a cudgel, and are now rebuilding their military forces. How the West in general and the U.S. in particular deals with Russia will play a major role in how Russia plays the great game.

Like the French, the Russians act on the international scene with the express goal of furthering Russia’s interests. Firstly, people need to stop their moral shock and outrage that Russia is looking out only for Russia like it’s, as one State Department official put it, “the 19th Century”. There is nothing wrong with that. Just because we take regular hits to our international position to help out others or the world in general does not mean everyone else has to or will. For example, if Russia can help herself by aiding Iran and making it more difficult for us to stop them from going nuclear, why shouldn’t they? The only reason they shouldn’t is because we will punish them for it, and since we show no inclination of doing that, it is win-win for Russia.

The Russians have been advancing their interests around the globe with arms and technology exports since the fall of the Soviet Union. Although, they do this not in the positive sense of advancing Russia’s interests but rather in the negative sense of hindering the interests of Russia’s competitors. Most notably Russia is a major arms exporter to China. Some question why Russia would arm her most potent potential future enemy, but it is clear Russia is doing so to direct China at her main current competitor, the U.S. Russia has made billions off of arms exports to China but they are mainly in areas China needs to confront the U.S. not Russia. To fight the U.S. China needs submarines, anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, fighter jets, torpedoes, the very things Russia is selling. To fight the Russians the Chinese need fighter-bombers, attack helicopters, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, the very things Russia is not selling to China. Russia sold Saddam Hussein anti-aircraft missiles, command and communication equipment, and installed them for him. The top Russian army general even bragged in 2003 that the air defense network that Russia had built for Iraq would tear the U.S. Air Force apart (to his credit he dutifully ate his crow a few weeks later). To Iran the Russians are selling nuclear technology, air defense missiles and radars, and anti-tank missiles. The common thread that connects these particular arms sales are that they are not meant necessary to further Russia’s interests. These sales are meant to damage the interests of the U.S. since we either have to accede to China, Iran, Iraq, etc. having greater regional influence or pay the extra price fighting through their Russian supplied equipment to stop them. Either way, as we are diminished Russia improves relatively just by standing still. Again, so long as we do not make Russia pay a price for this behavior, why should they not do it?

The situation with Russia’s energy supplies is similar. Russia is using them in a geopolitical jujitsu move against Europe. The Russians know that Europe far eclipses them in all respects except nuclear weapons and energy reserves. So to get Europe to listen to Russia, they are threatening Europe’s energy supplies. Even though a cutoff of energy supplies would hurt Russia far more relatively than Europe, the fact the Russians are willing to risk it while the Euros are not means the Russians have the edge. With this one threat the Russians are elevated to Europe’s virtual co-equal when by all rights they are not. Also, by roiling the energy markets Russia drives up the price of her primary export earner. Is it any wonder they seem to be pushing Iran along, promising U.N. protection that Iran (like Saddam) thinks will protect them from the U.S. but won’t, all the while the Russians arm the Iranians with new weapons that give them the ability to make threats. The coming war does not affect Russia and yet makes them billions selling these things to Iran while keeping oil prices over $70 a barrel earning Russia
$1.4 billion per dollar that oil is kept over its real price. The worst penalty this behavior has caused is a chiding from the U.S. Vice President that caused more grief for America than for it did for Russia.

These energy and arms sales moves are mostly passive and cost effective resistance by the Russians. To take a more active role in world affairs they need a military that is actually capable of something other than rotting away, suicide, and hazing. This is what we are about to see. Russia’s Defense Minister has announced that over the next 9 years, Russia will spend approximately
$186 billion on weapons procurement. $21 billion a year does not sound like much, but it is almost double the $11 billion in arms to be purchased this year (which is itself a major increase over the last decade). Also, Russian arms are cheaper than ours so it will buy much more than it appears. While most of the $11 billion to be spent this year is going to the nuclear forces and the navy for new ships and submarines, the army is still getting enough to out purchase the U.S. Army in raw numbers despite our $18 billion procurement budget (plus $5 billion for the warplanes mentioned). The Russians are getting a lot of new equipment, including 30 new tanks (30 more than the U.S. Army is getting), 180 rebuilt tanks (60 more than the U.S. Army), 120 new IFV/APC’s (20 more), 500 rebuilt IFV/APC’s (400 more), ~300 SAM’s (200 more), 10 helicopter gunships (10 more), and 50 warplanes (4 less actually). Figuring that the Russian army/tactical air force budget will possibly quadruple over the next 9 years they will quickly have modern deployable forces, potentially as many as 100,000 soldiers. Such forces will be able to deploy to central Asia from Russia’s Tajikistan military base and throughout the Middle East from their new base in Syria. Such a capability could be used to greatly complicate matters for us.

Russia has always sold weapons to all comers, but her more recent use of energy resources as a weapon, and the recent and future military spending increases shows that Russia is again a power to be reckoned with. How the U.S. and the Europeans reckon with Russia is up to us. We can continue allowing Russia world influence on the cheap until a combination of a declining Europe and rising middle powers makes it difficult for us to operate effectively in the world, or we can begin to push back and make it not in Russia’s interests to act counter to us (how will be the topic of a future post). Admittedly this may lead to an escalating confrontation with Russia but it is one they will lose and one they therefore may choose not to engage in. We have passed the point of using an ounce to cure the problem of Russia, and are at a pound, should we do nothing it will soon take 16 pounds to deal with the problems Russia will cause around the world. Whatever the mal-effects for us, Putin is doing what is best for Russia to which I can only say bravo. I only hope he is just as good at looking out for Russia when we aren’t as accommodating.

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