By George Friedman
The collapse of the Soviet Union appeared to signal Russia's demise as an international player, but news of that death was premature. A nation so large, so filled with resources, and so strategically located doesn't simply dissolve into the air. In the 1990s, the USSR's fall nonetheless shattered the vast empire assembled by the czars and held together by the Communists, leaving Moscow in control of a fraction of what it held in 1989. Muscovy alone (and Siberia), the region that had been the kernel of the empire, remained in Russian hands. As long as that core remained, however, the game wasn't over. The Russian Federation, sorely weakened, still survived, and it will play an increasingly significant role in the next decade.
While Russia suffered breakaway regions and an economy in shambles, the United States emerged as the sole remaining global power, able to dominate the planet in a casual, almost indolent fashion. But the Soviet collapse gave the United States only a limited time frame in which to drive a stake into the heart of its old rival, ensuring that it stayed down. The United States could have applied stress to the Russian system by supporting secessionist movements or by increasing economic pressure. Such moves might very well have caused the entire Russian Federation to crumble, enabling its former junior partners to absorb what was left and form a new balance of power in Eurasia.
At the time, however, the effort did not seem worth the risk, mostly because Russia appeared unlikely to emerge from its chaos for generations. Destroying what was left of Russian power did not even appear to be necessary, because the United States could create the regional balance of power it wanted simply by expanding NATO and the alliance system eastward.
But the United States was also deeply concerned about the future of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, which was even more massive than the American one. Further chaos in the region would have made the weapons vulnerable to terrorists and black marketers, among other risks. The United States wanted nuclear weapons within the former Soviet Union to be under the control of one state that could be watched and shaped, and that state was Russia, not Ukraine or Belarus or all the rest. Thus while the Russian nuclear arsenal had not preserved the Soviet Union, it did save the Russian Federation — at least from U.S. intervention.
During the 1990s the non-Russian members of the former Soviet Union, countries such as Kazakhstan and Ukraine, were desperate to be organized. By rapidly and aggressively integrating them into NATO, the United States could have increased the strength and cohesiveness of these encircling nations to bottle up Russia and the former Soviet republics as well, and Russia would have been helpless to stop the process.
Yet while the United States had plans to do exactly this, it did not move quickly enough. Only eastern Europe and the Baltic states were absorbed into NATO, a significant strategic shift that becomes more significant when you consider this fact: when the Soviet Union still controlled East Germany, the distance between NATO forces and St. Petersburg was about a thousand miles, but after the Baltics were admitted into NATO, the distance was about one hundred miles. This sense of being encircled, diminished, and encroached upon shapes Russian behavior going forward.
With NATO on its doorstep, the Russians understandably became alarmed. From their point of view, this alliance was first and foremost military, and however kindly its disposition might be at the moment, its future intentions were unpredictable. The Russians knew all too well how easily moods can swing, recalling painfully how Germany had gone from being a chaotic, poor, and barely armed country in 1932 to becoming the dominant military force in Europe six years later. Russia saw no reason for the West to expand NATO unless sooner or later the West wanted NATO to be in a position to strike. After all, the Russians argued, they were certainly not about to invade Europe.
There were those in NATO, particularly the Americans and the former satellites of the Soviet Union, who wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to expand for strategic reasons. But others, particularly the Europeans, had started thinking of NATO in a different way. Rather than seeing NATO as a military alliance focused on war, they saw it as a regional United Nations, designed to incorporate friendly, liberal democracies into an organization whose primary function was to maintain stability.
The inclusion of the Baltics was the high-water mark of NATO expansion, after which events began to intervene. Vladimir Putin's rise to power created a very different Russia from the one that had existed under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the one institution that had never stopped functioning was the intelligence services. Having held Russia and its empire together for generations, they operated through the 1990s almost as an autonomous state or crime organization. Putin had been trained in the KGB, and as a result he saw the world geopolitically rather than ideologically. In his mind, a strong state was essential to Russian stability, so from the moment he took power in 2000, he started the process of restoring Russian muscle.
For more than a century, Russia had been trying to become an industrial power that could compete with the West. Seeing that Russia could never catch up, Putin shifted the nation's economic strategy to focus on developing and exporting natural resources such as metals, grain, and particularly energy. The strategy was brilliant in that it created an economy that Russia could sustain and that would sustain Russia. It strengthened the Russian state by making Gazprom an arm of the Russian government with a monopoly on natural gas. And it created European dependence on Russian energy, thus making it less likely that the Europeans — particularly the Germans — would seek or support confrontation.
The turning point in relations between the United States and Russia came in 2004, when events in Ukraine convinced the Russians that the U.S. intended to destroy or at least tightly control them. A large nation, Ukraine covers the entire southwestern frontier of Russia, and from the Russian point of view, it is the key to Russian national security.
The Russian territory lying between Ukraine and Kazakhstan is only three hundred miles wide, and all of Russia's influence in the Caucasus — along with a good deal of the oil in the pipelines to the south — flows through this gap. At the center of the gap is Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. During World War II, the Soviets sacrificed one million lives in the battle to keep that gap from being closed by the Germans.
The initial winner of the Ukrainian election in 2004, President Viktor Yanukovich, was accused of widespread electoral fraud, of which he was no doubt guilty, and demonstrations took place to demand that the election be annulled, that Yanukovich step down, and that new elections be held. This uproar, known as the Orange Revolution, was seen by Moscow as a pro-Western, anti-Russian uprising designed to take Ukraine into NATO. The Russians also charged that rather than being a popular uprising, it was a carefully orchestrated coup, sponsored by the CIA and the British MI6. According to the Russians, Western nongovernmental organizations and consulting groups had flooded Ukraine to stage the demonstrations, unseat a pro-Russian government, and directly threaten Russian national security.
Certainly the Americans and the British had supported these NGOs, and the consultants who were now managing the campaigns of some of the pro-Western candidates in Ukraine had formerly managed elections in the United States. Western money from multiple sources clearly was going into the country, but from the American point of view, there was nothing covert or menacing in any of this. The United States was simply doing what it had done since the fall of the Berlin Wall: working with democratic groups to build democracies.
This is where the United States and Russia profoundly parted company. Ukraine was divided between pro-Russian and anti-Russian factions, but the Americans merely saw themselves as supporting democrats. That the factions seen as democratic by the Americans were also the ones that were anti-Russian was, for the Americans, incidental.
For the Russians, it was not incidental. They had vivid memories of the containment policy the United States had long practiced vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, only now the container appeared smaller, tighter, and far more dangerous. They saw U.S. actions as a deliberate attempt to make Russia indefensible and as an encroachment on vital Russian interests in the Caucasus, a region in which the United States already had a bilateral agreement with Georgia.
Containment was indeed the American strategy, of course, however benignly it was expressed. The fundamental American interest is always the balance of power, and having refrained from trying to destroy the Russian Federation in the 1990s, the United States moved to create a regional balance in 2004, with Ukraine as its foundation and with the clear intent to include most of the former Soviet Union countries in this counterweight to Russian power.
Russian fears were compounded when they saw what the United States was doing in Central Asia. Even so, when the United States decided in the wake of September 11 to bring down the Taliban government in Afghanistan quickly, the Russians cooperated in two ways. First, they provided access to the Northern Alliance, a pro-Russian faction going back to the Russian occupation and the civil war that followed it. Second, Russia used its influence to obtain air and ground bases in the three countries bordering Afghanistan — Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan — from which the United States could support its invasion forces. Russia also granted flight privileges over its territory, which was extremely useful for travel from the West Coast or Europe.
It was Russia's understanding that these bases in the bordering countries were temporary, but after three years, the Americans showed no signs of leaving anytime soon. In the interim the invasion of Iraq had taken place, over Russian objections, and the United States was now bogged down in what was clearly a long-term occupation. It was also heavily involved in Ukraine and Georgia and was building a major presence in Central Asia. Whereas these actions might not seem so harmful to Moscow's interests when viewed individually, taken together they looked like a concerted effort to strangle Russia.
In particular, the U.S. presence in Georgia could be seen only as a deliberate provocation, because Georgia bordered on the Russian region of Chechnya. The Russians feared that if Chechnya seceded from the Russian Federation, the entire structure would disintegrate as others followed its lead. Chechnya is also located on the extreme northern slope of the Caucasus, and Russian power had already retreated hundreds of miles from its original frontiers deep in those mountains. If the Russians retreated any farther, they would be out of the Caucasus entirely, on flat ground that is hard to defend. Moreover, a significant oil pipeline went through Grozny, the Chechnyan capital, and its loss (although it is currently inoperative due to Chechnyan sabotage) would have a significant impact on the Russian energy export strategy.
Going back to the 1990s, the Russians believed that the Georgians were permitting a flow of weapons into Chechnya through what was called the Pankisi Gorge. They also believed that the United States, which had Special Forces advisers in Georgia, was at best doing nothing to stop the traffic and at worst encouraging it.
Proceeding from its core policy, the United States was trying to build friendships in the region, especially in Georgia, but it was obvious to all that the U.S. was no longer capable of serious power projection. It still had naval and air power in reserve, but on the ground its forces were tapped out in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This was significant enough psychologically, but then the Iraq war created a huge political effect as well. The split that developed between the United States and France and Germany over Iraq, and the general European antipathy toward the Bush administration, meant that Germany in particular was far less inclined than it had been to support American plans for NATO expansion or confrontations with Russia. In addition, the Russians had made Germany dependent on Russian natural gas by supplying nearly half of Germany's needs, so the Germans were in no position to seek confrontation. The combination of military imbalance and diplomatic tension severely limited American options, yet by habit the United States continued to try to increase its influence.
In his state-of-the-nation address on April 25, 2005, Putin declared the fall of the Soviet Union to be the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." This was his public announcement that he intended to act to reverse some of the consequences of that fall. While Russia was no longer a global power, within the region it was — absent the United States — overwhelmingly powerful. Given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States was now absent. In light of this, Putin moved to increase the capability of his military. He also moved to strengthen his regime by increasing revenues from commodity exports, a fortuitous decision given the rise of commodity prices. He used the intelligence capabilities of the FSB and SVR, heirs to the KGB, to identify and control key figures in the former Soviet Union. Since most had been politically active under the Soviet regime, they were either former Communists or at least well known to the FSB from their files. Everyone has vulnerabilities, and Putin used his strongest resource to exploit those weaknesses.
In August 2008, the Georgian government, for reasons that have never been completely clear, attacked South Ossetia. Once part of Georgia, this region had broken away and had been effectively independent since the 1990s, and it was allied with Russia. Putin responded as if Russia had been expecting the attack: he struck back within hours, defeating the Georgian army and occupying part of that country.
The main point of the attack was to demonstrate that Russia could still project power. The Russian army had collapsed in the 1990s, and Putin needed to dispel the perception that it was no longer relevant. But he also wanted to demonstrate to the countries of the former Soviet Union that American friendship and guarantees had no meaning. It was a small attack against a small nation, but a strike against a nation that had drawn very close to the United States. The operation stunned both the region and eastern Europe, as did the lack of an American response, along with the effective indifference of the Europeans. U.S. inaction, limited to diplomatic notes, drove home the fact that America was far away and Russia was very close, and as long as the United States continued to commit its ground forces to the Middle East, its inability to act would persist. Russian supporters in Ukraine, aided by Russian intelligence, began the process of reversing the results of the Orange Revolution. In 2010, elections replaced the pro-Western government with the man whom the Orange Revolution had overthrown.
By moving too slowly, the United States allowed the Russians to regain their balance, just as the U.S. was losing its own strategic balance in Iraq. At the very moment that it needed to concentrate power on the Russian periphery to lock into place its containment system, the United States had its forces elsewhere, and its alliances in Europe were too weak to be meaningful. It is to avoid such missteps and missed opportunities that the American president will need to adopt a new and more consistent strategy in the decade ahead.
The Reemergence of Russia
In the long run, Russia is a weak country. Putin's strategy of focusing on energy production and export is a superb short-term tool, but it works only if it forms the basis for major economic expansion. To achieve this larger objective, Russia has to deal with its underlying structural weaknesses, yet these weaknesses are rooted in geographical problems that are not readily overcome.
Unlike much of the industrial world, Russia has both a relatively small population for its size and a population that is highly dispersed, tied together by little more than a security apparatus and a common culture.
Even the major cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, are not the centers of a giant megalopolis. They are stand-alone entities, separated from each other by vast distances of farmland and forest. Leaving apart the fact that the Russian population is in decline, the current distribution of population makes a modern economy, or even efficient distribution of food, difficult, if not impossible. The infrastructure connecting farming areas to the city is poor, as is the infrastructure connecting industrial and commercial centers.
The problem in connectivity stems from the fact that Russia's rivers go the wrong way. Unlike American rivers, which connect farming country to ports where food can be distributed, Russian rivers merely create barriers. Neither the czars and their railway bonds nor Stalin with his enforced starvation ever came close to overcoming the problem, and the cost of building a connective tissue for the Russian economy — extensive rail systems and roads — remains staggering. Russia has always wielded a military force that outstripped its economy, but it cannot do so forever.
Russia must concentrate on the short term while it has the twin advantages of German dependence on its energy and America's distraction in the Middle East. It must try to create lasting structures — some of them domestic, some foreign — that can hold together even in the face of economic limitations.
The domestic structure is already emerging, with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan having reached agreement on an economic union and now discussing a common currency. Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have expressed interest in joining in, and Russia has floated the idea of Ukraine joining as well. This is a relationship that will evolve into a political union of some sort, like the European Union, an alignment that will go far in re-creating the central features of the former Soviet Union.
The international structure Russia needs is perhaps more important and problematic. It begins with a relationship with Europe, particularly Germany. Russia needs access to technology, which the Germans have in abundance, while Germany needs access to Russian natural resources. Germany fought two wars to get hold of these resources but failed. Its interest in these resources has not diminished, but its means are now diplomatic rather than military. The desire to exploit this complementary relationship will be at the heart of Russian strategy during the next ten years.
Germany is the driving force of the European Union, which, as we will see, carries with it unexpected burdens. Germany has little interest in American operations in the Middle East and no interest whatever in expanding NATO, and with it American influence, to the Russian periphery. It wants to keep its distance from the United States, and it needs options other than the EU. Closer cooperation with Russia is not a bad idea from Germany's point of view, and it is an outstanding idea from Russia's point of view. Putin knows the Germans well enough to understand their fear and distrust of Russia. But he also knows them well enough to realize that they have outgrown the postwar world, are facing serious economic problems of their own, and need Russian resources.
The simultaneous reconstruction of a Russian-dominated sphere of influence and the creation of structural relations with Germany is an idea that Russia needs to push, and push quickly, since time is not on its side. It must convince Germany that it can be a reliable partner without taking any steps to disrupt the EU or Germany's relations with it. These developments will be a ballet backed by real, if transitory, power.
To have any chance for maneuvering in the coming years, Russia must split the United States from Europe. At the same time, it will do everything it can to keep the United States bogged down in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, if possible, Iran. From the Russian point of view, the U.S.-jihadist war is like Vietnam: it relieves Russia of the burden of dealing with the American military, and it actually makes the Americans dependent on Russian cooperation in measures such as imposing sanctions on countries like Iran. The Russians can play the Americans indefinitely by threatening to ship weapons to anti-American groups and to countries such as Iran and Syria. This locks the United States in place, trying to entice the Russians when in fact the only thing the Russians want the Americans to do is to remain permanently bogged down in the war.
This Russian strategy reveals the price of the American overcommitment to the war on terror. It also shows that it is imperative for the United States to find an effective response to radical Islam, as well as an effective response to the Russians. Lurking behind each Russian move is a potential geopolitical nightmare for the Americans.
The American Strategy
The American interest in Eurasia — understood as Russia and the European peninsula — is the same as U.S. interest everywhere: for no single power or coalition to dominate. The unification of Russia and Europe would create a force whose population, technological and industrial capability, and natural resources would at the very least equal America's, and in all likelihood outstrip them.
During the twentieth century, the United States acted three times to prevent the kind of Russian-German entente that could unify Eurasia and threaten fundamental American interests. In 1917, Russia's separate peace with the Germans turned the tide against the Anglo-French in World War I. The U.S. intervened in World War II, supplying the British and especially the Soviets, who bled the Wehrmacht and prevented a German takeover of the vast Russian territories. In 1944, the United States then invaded Western Europe, blocking not only the Germans but the Soviets as well. From 1945 to 1991, the United States devoted enormous resources to preventing the Soviets from dominating Eurasia.
The response of the United States to a Russian-German entente must be the same during the next ten years as it was in the twentieth century. The United States must continue to do everything it can to block a German-Russian entente and to limit the effect that Russia's sphere of influence might have on Europe, because the very presence of a militarily powerful Russia changes the way Europe behaves.
Germany is the European center of gravity, and if it shifts its position, other European countries will have to shift accordingly, with perhaps enough countries moving to tilt the balance of the entire region. As Russia reconstitutes and solidifies its hold on the countries of the former Soviet Union, it will be able to take most of those countries along. However informal the relationship might be at the beginning, it will solidify into something more substantial over time, because the parts simply fit together too neatly for it to be otherwise. This would be a historic redefinition of U.S.-European relations, a fundamental shift not only in the regional but also in the global balance of power, with outcomes that are highly unpredictable.
While I see a confederation between Belarus and Russia as likely, such a move would bring the Russian army to the frontiers of Europe. Indeed, Russia already has a military alliance with Belarus. Add to that Ukraine, and Russian forces would be on the borders of Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the Baltic countries — all former Russian satellites — thus re-creating the Russian empire, albeit in different institutional form.
Yet the countries behind the front tier are more concerned about the United States than they are about Russia. They see the Americans more as economic competitors than as partners, and as a force pulling them into conflicts that they want no part of. The Russians, on the other hand, seem to be economically synergistic with the advanced European countries.
The European nations also see the former Russian satellites as a physical buffer against Moscow, further guaranteeing that they can work with Russia and still be secure in their own region. They understand the concern the eastern Europeans have but believe that the economic benefits of the relationships, as well as the eastern Europeans' dependence on the economy of the rest of Europe, will keep the Russians in line. The Europeans could diminish their relationship with the Americans, build a new, mutually beneficial relationship with the Russians, and still have the benefit of a strategic buffer as an insurance policy. This would pose a profound risk to the United States. Therefore the American president must act to contain Russia, allowing that nation's long-term, inherent weaknesses to take their toll. He can't wait until the U.S.-jihadist war ends. He must act immediately.
If Germany and Russia continue to move toward alignment, then the countries between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea — what used to be called the Intermarium countries — become indispensable to the United States and its policy. Of these countries, Poland is the largest and the most strategically placed. It is also the one with both the most to lose and a keen awareness of that potential for loss. Membership in the European Union is one thing to the Poles, but being caught in a Russo-German entente is another. They and the other eastern Europeans are terrified of being drawn back into the spheres of influence of one or both of their historic enemies.
Most of these countries were not independent until World War I brought the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Ottoman, and German empires. In general, they were divided, subjugated, and exploited. In cases such as Hungary, the oppression was mild. In other cases, it was brutal. But all these nations remember occupation by the Nazis and later by the Soviets, and those occupations were monstrous. It is true that the German and Russian regimes today are different, but for the eastern Europeans, occupation wasn't so long ago, and the memory of what it meant to be caught in the German-Russian force field has shaped their national character. It will continue to shape their behavior in the decade to come.
This is particularly true for Poland, which at various times has been absorbed into Germany, Russia, and Austria. The historical compromise, when there were compromises to be made, was the partition of Poland, which remains Poland's nightmare going forward. When the country became independent after World War I, it had to fight a war to prevent Soviet encroachment. Twenty years later, the Germans and Soviets invaded simultaneously, based on a secret pact to do just that. The following half century of Cold War communism was an unmitigated nightmare.
The Poles have suffered in direct relation to the strategic importance of their location, bordering both Germany and Russia and occupying the North European Plain, which extends like a thoroughfare from the French Atlantic coast to St. Petersburg. The other eastern European countries share the Polish view, but they are geographically safer, behind the Carpathian Mountains.
Exposed on either side, Poland will have little choice but to go along with whatever the Germans and Russians decide, which would be disastrous for the United States. It is therefore in the American interest to guarantee Poland's independence from Russia and Germany, not only formally but by creating a viable and vibrant Polish economy and military that can serve as the model and driver for the rest of eastern Europe. Poland is the historical bone in the throat of both Germany and Russia, and it is in the American interest to make sure that it is firmly lodged there. A Poland aligned with Germany is a threat to Russia, and the reverse is true as well. Poland must remain a threat to both, because the United States cannot let either feel too secure.
Over the next ten years, an American relationship with Poland would serve two functions: it might prevent or limit the Russo-German entente, but failing that, it could create a counterbalance. The United States urgently needs Poland, because there is no alternative strategy for balancing an alliance between Russia and Germany. From the Polish point of view, friendship with the Americans would serve to protect it from its neighbors, but here there is a special problem. The Polish national mentality was seared by the failure of Britain and France to come to Poland's defense against Germany at the beginning of World War II, despite guarantees. Poland's hypersensitivity to betrayal will cause it to prefer accommodation with hostile powers to alignment with an unreliable partner. For this reason, the president must avoid appearing tentative or hesitant in his approach. This means making a strategic decision that is in some ways unhedged — always an uncomfortable stand, because good presidents always look to keep their options open. But insisting on too much maneuvering room might close the Polish option immediately.
When the George W. Bush administration set out to create a ballistic missile defense system for eastern Europe, the United States hedged. It decided to build a system that would defend against small numbers of missiles fired by rogue countries, particularly Iran. It planned to place a radar system in the Czech Republic and made plans to install the missiles in Poland. This was in addition to sending the Poles sophisticated weapons such as the F-16 fighter and Patriot Missiles. The system could have been located anywhere; it was located in Poland in order to make it clear that Poland was essential to American strategic interests and to intensify U.S.-Polish cooperation outside the context of NATO. The Russians understood this and tried to do everything they could to block it.
The Russians opposed placing the missiles in Poland, even though the system could defend against only a few missiles and the Russians had overwhelming numbers. In reality, the issue for the Russians was never missile defense — it was the fact that the United States was placing strategic systems on Polish soil. A strategic system has to be defended, and the Russians understood that the BMD system was just the beginning of a significant American commitment to Poland.
When the Obama administration came in, its leaders wanted to "reset" their relations with the Russians. The Russians made it clear that while they did not want to go back to Cold War hostilities, things could go forward only if the BMD system was withdrawn from Poland. By that time, the Poles regarded the system as a symbol of America's commitment to them. This, despite the fact that the BMD system did not actually protect Poland from anything and might even make it a target. Nevertheless, the Poles, sensitive to betrayal, urgently wanted the relationship with Washington. When Obama decided to shift the BMD system from Poland to ships offshore, the Poles panicked, believing that the United States was about to make a deal with the Russians. The United States had not shifted its position on Poland at all, but the Poles were convinced that it had.
If Poland believes that it is a bargaining chip, it will become unreliable, and thus in the course of the next decade the United States might get away with betraying Poland only once. Such a move could be contemplated only if it provided some overwhelming advantage, and it is difficult to see what that advantage could be, given that maintaining a powerful wedge between Germany and Russia is of overwhelming interest to the United States.
The condition of the Baltic countries is a different matter. They represent a superb offensive capability for the United States, pointing, as they do, like a bayonet at St. Petersburg, the second largest city of Russia, and with the eastern border of Lithuania only about one hundred miles from Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
Nonetheless, the United States hasn't the force or the interest to invade Russia. And given that the American position is strategically aggressive and tactically defensive, the Baltics become a liability. About three hundred miles long and nowhere more than two hundred miles wide, they are almost impossible to defend. They do, however, serve to block the Russian navy in St. Petersburg. So the Baltics remain an asset, but one that might be too expensive to maintain. The American president must therefore appear to be utterly committed to the Baltics to deter the Russians, while extracting maximum concessions from the Russians for an American agreement to withdraw from the region. Given Polish skittishness, such a maneuver should be delayed as long as possible. Unfortunately, the Russians will be aware of this fact and will probably bring pressure to bear on the Baltics sooner rather than later, making this a clear and early point of friction.
Whatever happens to Germany, it is of extreme importance to the United States to maintain a strong bilateral relationship with Denmark, whose waters block the exits from the Baltic Sea. Norway, whose North Cape provides facilities to block the Russian fleet in Murmansk, has value to the United States, as does Iceland, a superb platform from which to search for Russian submarines. Neither country is a member of the European Union, and Iceland is resentful of Germany because of economic actions taken during the 2008 financial crisis. Thus both can be gathered in at relatively low cost.
The rest of the frontier with Russia will be the Carpathian Mountains, behind which lie Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. It is a strategic imperative for the United States to maintain friendly relations with these three countries and to help them develop their military capability. But given the obstacle that the Carpathians present to an invader, the military capability required is minimal. Because these countries are less at risk than Poland and therefore freer to maneuver, there also will be a greater degree of political complexity. But so long as the Russians don't move past the Carpathians and the Germans do not reduce these countries to complete economic dependency, the United States can manage the situation with a simple strategy: strengthen these economies and militaries, make it advantageous to remain pro-American, and wait. Do nothing to provoke the Russians in their sphere of influence. Do nothing to sabotage Russian economic relations with the rest of Europe. Do nothing to worry the rest of the Europeans that the U.S. is going to drag them into a war.
In the Caucasus, the United States is currently aligned with Georgia, a country that remains under Russian pressure and whose internal politics are in the long run unpredictable, to say the least. The next line of countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan, is also problematic. The former is a Russian ally, the latter closer to Turkey. Because of historical hostility to Turkey, Armenia is always closer to Russia. Azerbaijan tries to balance among Turkey, Iran, and Russia.
It is one thing for the United States to stake out a position in Poland, a country of 40 million people. Remaining committed to Georgia, a country of only 4 million that is far less developed than Poland, is much more difficult. And defeat in Georgia, in the form of a pro-Russian government that would ask U.S. advisers and forces to leave, would not only unravel the American position in the Caucasus but create a crisis of confidence in Poland as well.
The situation in the Caucasus can be handled only by Turkey. Whereas Russia's border moved north, unveiling the three historic states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, Turkey's border has remained stable. For the United States, it does not matter where the Russian tier is, so long as it is somewhere in the Caucasus. The only disastrous outcome would be a Russian occupation of Turkey, which is inconceivable, or a Russo-Turkish alliance, which is a more realistic danger.
Turkey and Russia have been historical rivals, two empires on the Black Sea, both competing in the Balkans and the Caucasus. More important, the Russians look at the Bosporus as their blocked gate to the Mediterranean. Turkey may well collaborate with the Russians in the next decade, particularly given dependency on Russian oil, but the idea that it would shift its own border in the Caucasus southward or abandon the Bosporus in any way is out of the question. Simply by existing, then, Turkey serves American interests in relation to Russia. And since the United States has no interest in the specifics of where Russia is contained in the Caucasus, as long as it is contained, it follows that a vast American commitment to Georgia makes little sense. Georgia is a drain on the United States with little benefit. So the American strategy in Georgia should be eliminated. It is left over from the period in which the Americans believed that such positions were risk and cost-free. At a time when risks and costs are rising, the United States must manage its exposure more carefully, recognizing that Georgia is more liability than asset.
In the next decade there will be a small window in which the United States can extract itself from Georgia and the Caucasus without causing psychological damage to its new coalition. But most likely, abandoning Georgia would create psychological uncertainty in Poland and in the Intermarium that could very quickly cause those countries to recalculate their stance. Waiting until Poland and Russia confront each other would simply increase the magnitude of the stress. Therefore, rethinking Georgia as soon as possible has four advantages. First, it gives the United States time to stabilize the Intermarium's psychology. Second, it makes it clear that the United States is making this move for its own reasons, not because of Russian pressure. Third, it will demonstrate to the Turks that the United States can shift positions, making an increasingly confident Turkey more wary of the United States — and sometimes wary is good. Fourth, the United States can ask for Russian concessions in Central Asia in return for backing off in the Caucasus.
As long as the United States is still fighting in Afghanistan, it needs unfettered access to the nearby countries it relies on for logistical support. American oil companies also need access to Central Asian oil and gas deposits. In the long run, the United States is leaving Afghanistan, and in the long run, the United States can't be a dominant force in the region. Geography simply precludes American dominance, and the Russians know that.
The United States made promises to Georgia that it now isn't going to keep. But when we look at the broader picture, this betrayal increases America's ability to keep other commitments. Georgia is of little importance to the United States, but it is of enormous importance to the Russians, guaranteeing the security of their southern frontier. The Russians would be prepared to pay a substantial price for Georgia, and U.S. willingness to exit voluntarily and soon should command a premium.
That price would be not to supply Iran with weapons and to join in an effective sanctions regime if the U.S. overture to Iran fails. If the overture succeeds, then the United States can demand that Russia halt weapons shipments into the region, particularly to Syria. If made simultaneously with the overture to Iran, an agreement like this would lend the overture greater weight. It would give the United States more credibility and expanded options. It could also buy time in Poland to build up American assets there.
As a U.S. foothold in the Caucasus, Georgia is much less viable than Azerbaijan, which not only borders Russia and Iran and maintains close relations with Turkey but is a major source of oil. Whereas Armenia is a Russian ally and Georgia lacks a strong economic foundation, Azerbaijan has economic resources and can be a platform for American operations. So in the next decade there will need to be a strategy of withdrawal and a strategy of realignment. Both will do. The current strategy will not.
If the United States convinces Russia that its withdrawal from Georgia is elective, phased, and above all reversible, it can extract concessions that have real meaning while rationalizing its strategic position. In a sense it is a bluff, but a good president needs to be able to bluff, as well as to rationalize a betrayal.
How to Manage Russia
Russia does not threaten America's global position, but the mere possibility that it might collaborate with Europe and particularly Germany opens up the most significant threat in the decade, a long-term threat that needs to be nipped in the bud. The United States can't expect Germany to serve the role it played in the Cold War as the frontier set against the Soviet empire. In the next decade, the United States must work to make Poland what Germany was in the 1950s, although the Russian threat will not be as significant, forceful, or monochromatic as it was then. At the same time that the geopolitical confrontation goes on, the United States and Russia will be engaged in economic and political collaboration elsewhere. This is not your daddy's Cold War. The two countries might well collaborate in Central Asia or even the Caucasus while confronting each other in Poland and the Carpathians.
In the long run, the Russians are in trouble and can't sustain a major role in international affairs. Their dependence on commodity exports fills their coffers but doesn't build their economy. Their population is in severe decline. Their geographic structure is unchanged. But in geopolitics, a decade is not the long run. The mere collapse of the Soviet Union took a decade to run its course. For this decade, the threat of Russia and Europe will persist, and it will preoccupy the president as he attempts to restore balance to U.S. global strategy.
Excerpt from the book, The Next Decade, by George Friedman, published by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.