Geopolitical Diary: Russia Moves From Offense to Defense
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.
U.S. President Barack Obama capped a conference-filled tour of Europe on Sunday with a speech at the EU-U.S. summit in Prague, Czech Republic, where he discussed nuclear disarmament the unity of Europe and the United States within NATO. More importantly, Obama finally made a statement that we had been expecting: The United States will stand firm on its commitment to deploy a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in central Europe. This marks a shift from his position during the election campaign, when he said he would reconsider the Bush administration’s stance on the issue. Obama chose his words carefully in explaining his decision: He said that as long as a threat from Iran persists, the United States intends to move forward with its BMD plans — but should the Iran threat be eliminated, the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe would be removed. The key is that Obama recognizes there are other reasons for BMD. There was no need to elaborate on these reasons, since his speech came the same day that North Korea attempted to launch a satellite into space. Considering that his speech was delivered in the Czech Republic — one of two countries that Obama praised for showing courage in their decisions to host aspects of the BMD system — it was clear that the main audience for his remarks was Russia. The past week of meetings — particularly the sit-down between Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev — clearly showed just how far each country could push the other. The Russians came into the week feeling confident that they could push Washington to back off its commitment to BMD in Europe. They also felt comfortable about success in achieving other goals, like getting the United States to bend on nuclear arms reduction treaties and NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia. However, not only did the meeting between Obama and Medvedev not go as expected, but it now appears that Moscow's worst nightmares are coming true. Russia’s concerns about the BMD program are well known. Not only would the program give the United States a military presence in Poland – a former Warsaw Pact state — but it also would mean Washington would help to build up Poland's own military forces. Russia then would have a new (and vehemently anti-Russian) military threat to contend with to its west; moreover, that force would stand between Russia and its more traditional European foe, Germany. But there are also deeper, longer-range Russian concerns about the implications of BMD. This highly complicates the security situation on Russia's European frontier and limits how far west Russia can expand its influence as part of its overall resurgence. But the BMD announcement is just one part of the United States' plan to counter that resurgence. During the week of summits in Europe, Washington also made sure that Russian leaders knew their former demands — particularly regarding NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia — had not been settled. A membership plan was not agreed for these states during the NATO summit on April 3 and 4, but the conference’s closing statement made it clear that the door was still wide open for their eventual inclusion in the alliance. Many European heavyweights, like France and Germany, are opposed to pushing Russia further on the NATO expansion issue, but — as the Russians know well from the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia — the United States does not need its NATO allies to pursue and support Ukraine or Georgia independently. In essence, the United States has moved the sphere of play between Washington and Moscow from central Europe back into the former Soviet states. Russia is not taking this shift lightly. Moscow had a long list of options to consider if the summits did not go well, and it is now beginning to make its moves. Moscow had an opportunity to remind Europe of its energy dependence on Russia, it took the next step in pushing the United States out of Central Asia, and set in motion a reversal in the Ukrainian government. Russia also is forming a plan to shake up the Georgian government this week. Though these moves are significant and important, they are still confined to the former Soviet sphere. From the outside, it looks as if the Russians are about to run out of time to solidify their position on real Western turf and are assuming a more defensive posture to protect their hold over former Soviet territory. But both the Russians and the Americans know Moscow has the upper hand in this area, and it won't take much to finish this part of the game. The next issue to watch, then, is Turkey. It is part of the United States’ plans to counter Russia, and Obama has begun a two-day visit to this NATO state. At the same time, Ankara could be working out a deal with Armenia — a state that is allied with Russia — in a move that could tip the balance of power in the Caucasus. Moscow needs to watch and counter the larger threat coming from the U.S. moves here, on Russia’s southern flank. Since Moscow has leverage of its own with Turkey, Ankara is a wild card.