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Sep 11, 2008 | 01:56 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Russian Maneuvers and the U.S. Reaction

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.
Two Russian Tu-160 "Blackjack" bombers landed in Venezuela on Wednesday. From a military standpoint, it is a non-event. The planes were picked up by NATO fighters and shadowed, and one would assume they were observed during most of their trip. That means that in a conflict, they would have been shot down long before they got anywhere close to Venezuela. They will return to Russia in an equally vulnerable condition. The Russians are clearly signaling the Americans that their presence in the Black Sea will be met by a Russian presence in the Caribbean. Obviously, it's an asymmetrical response. The United States can put a lot more into the Black Sea than the Russians can into the Caribbean, in spite of Moscow scheduling a naval exercise with Venezuela in November. But since the United States and Russia are nowhere near a shooting war, the relative military weight is less significant than the political ramifications. Russia is pointing out to the United States that it has allies in the Western Hemisphere, much as the United States has allies around Russia. Besides Venezuela, there is Nicaragua, the only country besides Russia to have recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Then there is Cuba, which has very interestingly not signaled an interest in aligning with Russia as yet. Indeed, the Russians said that they were not interested in reopening the former Soviet intelligence-gathering site at Lourdes. Since the Russians most certainly are interested in reopening it, this indicates that the Cubans have told them to stay out. That is interesting from the standpoint of U.S.-Cuban relations, but not really relevant to the Russians' message, which is that they have theoretical counters to the United States. The most important threat the Russians could pose to the United States is covert rather than overt. Throughout the Cold War, the primary Soviet threat was to arm and support factions opposed to U.S.-supported governments and then support them when they came to power. Given Wednesday's events in Bolivia, which is tottering on the edge of civil war, the United States' primary fear is that the Russians, using bases in Venezuela, could resume supporting insurgencies like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or some of the drug cartels in Mexico. Again, this is far from happening, but a recent announcement by Venezuela that Russia is planning to complete a long-delayed factory there producing Kalashnikov rifles focused our attention on this. Mostly, these moves are shadow-boxing. The United States is not launching a naval war in the Black Sea, and Russia is not going to revert to Cold War subversion unless things escalate much further. This is a matter of each side letting the other know some of their options. For the Russians, the military option is distant. The covert option is more realistic. But in all cases, this is a game of bluff for now. The one place it isn't a game of bluff is in U.S. Defense Department budgeting. The United States has not paid particular attention to its naval forces for more than a decade. U.S. naval predominance was assumed. It is still assured. The problem is that the United States must now start gaming out what the Russians will be doing 10 or 20 years from now. The reason for this is that the length of time it takes to move a new naval weapon system from research and development (R&D) to operational deployment with the fleet can be more than a decade. If there is going to be a heightened Russian threat, the budgetary dollars for countering it must be allocated now. Obviously everyone is now looking at the intelligence reports on the latest Russian R&D — the things that they would deploy in 10 years. Russia's strength is its anti-ship and anti-air capacity. This was essential to Soviet war planning, and we believe that the Russians continued R&D and prototyping of these systems, as well as other things. But under any circumstance, defense planning must be pessimistic, built around the assumption that intelligence has underestimated the adversary's capability. Naval development is fiendishly expensive. The Navy has been cut out of the budgeting game by the Army, which was fighting a war and had first call on resources. With deployments in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf routine for years, the need to increase presence in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, plus the possibility of strengthening U.S. Southern Command to monitor Russian deployments, the Navy has a strong argument for increased funding. The Army, still fighting two wars, will not be glad to hear that. The Air Force will hope nobody notices its budget. So we get a series of political events. There is the U.S.-Russian interplay; the U.S.-Venezuelan interplay; the Navy vs. Army interplay — and we might mention the Obama-McCain interplay. Whichever presidential candidate wins, he will be faced with the need to preside over a dramatically different global situation and therefore a need to rethink U.S. defense requirements — and the budget. Whatever ideas either candidate has on defense spending, two Russian Tu-160s and several Russian warships planning war games have moved the United States another step closer to having a redefined defense policy and budget.

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