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The Winding Road

Russian geopolitical moves over the last year have been wide-ranging, ominous, and seemingly unconnected. They are often interpreted as evidence of the resurgence of Great Russian chauvinism, which had been dormant since the decline and fall of communism. Many analysts see Russia as bent on reacquiring its empire, and at least suspect a new Cold War is in the offing. But an alternate, less malevolent interpretation might be considered, especially when Russia’s numerous cooperative measures are taken into account, as they often aren’t. Russia likely has a more limited goal: countering the spread of NATO into Eastern Europe.

In the summer of 2008 Russia sent troops into Georgia, ostensibly to defend minorities there, but also to serve notice that NATO expansion into the region, including Georgia and the Ukraine, will not be tolerated. The lack of resolve with which most NATO countries responded to the invasion made it clear – or should have made it clear – that Eastern Europe cannot rely on NATO to defend it. Die for Tblisi or Kiev? Unlikely. The Georgian invasion and more recent pipeline maneuvers with the Ukraine also made it clear that Western Europe’s energy supplies from Russia and Central Asia depend on at least respectful relations with Russia. The Kremlin is planning to deploy short-range SS-26 missiles in its Kaliningrad enclave to counter the US deployment of its SDI system in Eastern Europe. The Russian navy has participated in their country’s recent moves as well, plying the Caribbean, crossing the Panama Canal, and visiting the old cold war flashpoint of Cuba.

US defense thinkers look uneasily at these actions, but countervailing, cooperative actions and gestures might not be adequately considered in these scenarios, based as they are on worst-case scenarios and a reflexive return to cold war outlooks. Russia and other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have offered to train the Afghan National Police, which in the absence of a meaningful Afghan army, is the most effective indigenous fighting force against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Russia prevailed upon Kyrgyzstan to close down the immense Manas air base, which is used to bring in troops and supplies to Afghanistan. However, this action was preceded by measures to help the US/NATO effort in Afghanistan by opening air and land routes over Russia and its client states of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which had been open only to certain NATO countries.

It is clear that Russia has a great deal of control over Western Europe’s energy supplies and NATO’s logistical lines into Afghanistan, all the more so as supply lines from Pakistan are becoming unreliable. Russia has no interest in a second cold war. Its economy is frail and paltry compared to those of many NATO powers, especially after the price of oil dropped seventy-five percent since last summer, hammering Russian GDP and hard currency holdings. Its military remains backward and plagued with discipline troubles. Though wary of NATO’s presence along its expansive southern periphery, Russia does not want the West to leave Afghanistan and open the region to an Islamist empire spreading into former Soviet republics and worsening matters in Chechnya. Indeed, Russia might have more to lose in Afghanistan than does any NATO country.

So what do we make of these actions? The combination of carrots and sticks suggest that Russia is setting the stage for a negotiated settlement of NATO’s presence to its west and southwest, with the possible bonus of deepening the estrangement between Western Europe and the US that has developed over the latter’s unsound and bewildering actions in the world, especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the counterproductive use of massive firepower in Afghanistan. The Clinton and Bush administrations have both pursued an aggressive expansion into Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, Rumania, and Bulgaria – with Georgia and the Ukraine in the queue – while Western Europe has uneasily gone along. One might dispute whether this expansion strengthens or weakens the security of NATO members, old and new, but it has undoubtedly caused security concerns – and legitimate ones – in a country that has endured devastating invasions that are incomprehensible to most countries.

Rather than interpreting Russia’s menacing moves as a quest for hegemony, the West should recognize the opportunity implicit in Russia’s cooperative moves and engage the Kremlin in negotiations regarding access to energy resources, logistical and training support in Afghanistan, and more broadly, cooperation on countering Islamism in Central Asia. A neutral Eastern Europe will benefit the region, the continent, and much of the world. No one – not the US, Russia, or Western Europe – can afford another cold war, especially while a global depression is beginning. US defense spending may have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it cannot be repeated in the next decade or so. And the toll it took on the US economy is only now being reckoned.

BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: brianmdowning@gmail.com

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Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of  The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com (Copyright 2015 Brian M Downing) 

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