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reflections

Aug 15, 2008 | 02:00 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Countermoves to a Russian Resurgence

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Poland and the United States announced an agreement on Thursday to station elements of a U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) system permanently on Polish territory. As part of the deal, Poland will also be provided with Patriot air defense batteries and an as-yet-unspecified number of U.S. Army personnel. The world is only beginning to feel the ripples from the Kremlin's decision to decisively exercise military power in Georgia. Moscow has now demonstrated that it is just as willing to use military tools as it is to use economic tools (it is the world's single largest energy producer) and political tools. In short, Russia is back as an active player on the regional stage. And, as the Polish BMD deal indicates, other states have opinions on how to deal with that. Around the world, other states are considering their options. Most of the countries of Central Europe — and especially the strategically vulnerable Baltic states — want the same thing that Poland seems to be getting: an explicit deployment of U.S. ground forces on their turf. The idea being that Russia will think long and hard about doing something to them if U.S. forces are not only precommitted to their defense as NATO allies but already physically on station in their territory. We expect many more such deals to be worked out in the weeks and months to come as the United States and NATO essentially shift their Cold War-era deployments several hundred miles to the east. In Western Europe, the concern is of a slightly different type. While many share the Central Europeans' concern about Russian military power, none are any longer frontline states. Their concern is more economic. Many European states — most notably, Germany — rely on Russian natural gas exports to keep their economies going. While the Central Europeans are looking for American deployments, the Western Europeans are more likely to funnel their efforts into finding alternative sources of natural gas, or alternatives to natural gas itself. Those that have the technology will also simply try to use less natural gas. In the Arab world, the players that matter are Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states. These players see Russia primarily as an economic competitor. They also have a pre-existing hammer with which to beat the Russians. Arab oil money was essential to the development of the anti-Soviet Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s and the second Chechen insurgency in 1999. All of these states have helped crack down on those movements' ideological progeny — al Qaeda — since the 9/11 attacks. However, all retain the ability — and the money — to turn the tap back on should the United States be willing. Iran and Turkey are more complicated. Neither of the states always sees eye to eye with the Americans, but neither particularly cares for a resurgent Russia. Iran, Turkey and Russia border the Caucasus. And none wants to see one of the other two become ascendant. Russian domination would threaten Turkey's energy supplies. Russia's fondness for sparking separatist conflicts in its rivals would raise complications for heterogeneously populated Iran. But, at the same time, Turkey and Iran (much less the United States) are not natural partners against Russia. The Caucasus has long been a bit of a free-for-all, with geopolitical alliances shifting irregularly. Just as Russia has political, economic and military tools to bring to bear along its entire periphery, both Iran and Turkey can do the same in the Caucasus. It is going to be a very messy region. China has even more mixed feelings. It would dearly love to tap Central Asia's energy resources, but is concerned about clashing with pre-existing Russian interests. China is not so much threatened by Russia as it is desperate to avoid adding any more challenges to its already burgeoning list. There is a logic to China attempting to extend its influence north and west, but only if Russia is otherwise occupied. In essence, China wants to pretend that nothing has changed — unless Russia finds itself besieged by everyone else, at which point Beijing would love to take advantage. All of these responses are potentially effective ones, but what they all have in common is that they cannot be applied overnight. It takes time to build a base and deploy troops to Poland. Shifting one's economy away from natural gas requires substantial — and expensive — restructuring. Whipping up a Third Chechen War cannot be done in a weekend. Ankara and Tehran simply figuring out their options will take weeks. And China is loath to take the lead on anything regarding Russia right now. Russia, in contrast, has gotten its energy exports — and income — to post-Cold War highs. Its military is gunning for a fight, and politically it is once again unified. The Kremlin does not require prep time to make its next moves. The challenge for all of those seeking to contain a Russian resurgence is as simple to state as it is complex to initiate: to do so quickly enough and with enough partners that a Russia with two free hands cannot pre-empt.

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