The Landing Zone | 12.17.12
By Alan W. Dowd
After a decade of drift and
decline in the years after the Cold War, Russia has used its oil wealth to
regain a prominent place on the global stage. Regrettably, the part Russian
president Vladimir Putin has chosen to play is that of rogue. It’s time for Washington
face up to this reality by developing a realistic Russia policy. Before getting
into what that policy might look like, let’s consider Russia’s roguish
In September, the Kremlin
announced that it was kicking the U.S. Agency for International Development out
of Russia. USAID promotes everything from public health to civil society,
and has been welcomed in Russia for 20 years. But Putin’s Russia is anything
but the aspiring democracy that Russia was after it pulled the plug on the
regime intimidates opponents, rewards cronies, controls the media and
stage-manages elections. In 2011, for instance, Putin faced a firestorm when it
became apparent that legislative elections were rigged in favor of Putin’s
United Russia party. In 2012, Putin’s Justice Ministry barred key opposition
figures from participating in elections. As
Robert Kagan observes, “Elections do not offer a choice but only a chance to
ratify choices made by Putin.” Indeed, Czar Vladimir has engineered his way
from prime minister to president to prime minister to president in the past 12
Putin is pushing back against
the settled outcomes of the Cold War. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton warns about Moscow’s bid to “re-Sovietize the region.”
Putin’s Russia has invaded
Georgia, waged a cyber-war against Estonia, garrisons troops in Moldova (over
Moldova’s objection) and conducts war games focused on a Polish “aggressor,”
complete with simulated nuclear strikes.
Russian bombers regularly
buzz Baltic territory, Canadian airspace and U.S. aircraft carriers. American
and/or Canadian warplanes have intercepted between 12 and 18 Russian bombers
each year since 2007.
Russia is eyeing the energy
resources of the Arctic and is signaling its seriousness about claiming those
resources by building a string of bases in the Arctic, stationing 10,000 troops
in the Arctic and promising, in Putin’s words, that Russia’s defense of its Arctic interests “will be hard and
consistent.” To back up those words, Putin has unveiled plansfor 2,300 new tanks, 600 new warplanes, 400 new ICBMs and 28 new subs—all in
the next 10 years.
Much of Russia’s anger at
Poland is a function of NATO’s missile-defense plans. To cut through Moscow’s
bluster, consider an everyday example: Reasonable people don’t think of a cop
wearing a bullet-proof vest as threatening, but most people consider a gunman
loading his weapon as threatening. The gunman NATO is most worried about is not
in Moscow, and the bullet-proof vest offered by NATO’s very-limited missile
defenses is not designed to neutralize Russian missiles. Putin knows this.
Equally worrisome, Russia is shifting its views on nuclear missiles. In
October, Moscow announced that it would no longer participate in the successfulNunn-Lugarthreat reduction program, which deactivated
or destroyed thousands of warheads, decommissioned 33 submarines and secured 24
weapons-storage sites. That same month, Putin launched Russia’s largest
games since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Beyond its dangerous games
with strategic weapons, Moscow is blocking concerted international action in
Iran and is doing worse in Syria.
Even as the world closes
ranks to isolate Bashar Assad’s regime—responsible for some 40,000 civilian
deaths since early 2011—Moscow continues to support Assad. Russia has fulfilled
contracts for air defenses, dispatched warshipsto conduct maneuvers and dock at Tartus, sent oil and gas to Syria, blocked
three UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, tried to ship attack helicopters
to Assad (but was forced to
recall the shipment) and then was
caught sending antiaircraft equipment to Syria on a civilian
What to do?
First, Washington must stop
the sequestration guillotine from falling on the Pentagon. A realistic Russia
policy depends on a strong military capable of deterring Russian mischief and
projecting American power into any region. As Churchill said of his Russian
counterparts, “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is
nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness.”
Second, Washington must
remember that we are not dealing here with a banana republic. Russia is a
nuclear power with global interests and the capability to defend those interests—and
undermine America’s. And it is ruled by a leader who understands only the
language of power.
That reality leads us to some
concrete actions that Washington can take to re-resetU.S.-Russian relations.
If Moscow wants to make
outlandish claims on the Arctic, Washington should move the outlines of a NATO Arctic
partnership from the drawing board to the real world. The groundwork has already
been laid: Norway led Arctic exercises earlier this year, and the U.S., Canada and
Denmark have conducted Arctic military maneuvers in recent years.
If Russia keeps sending
bombers into allied airspace, the U.S. should deploy additional air defenses to
the Baltics and expand joint airspace
patrols over Baltic airspace.
If Russia continues to
conduct war games focused on Poland, Washington should speed up plans to deployF-16s
to Poland and move forward on missile defense in a way that serves the
interests of the United States and its allies—and disregards the interests of
Russia. Washington has done geopolitical gymnastics for four years in futile
hopes of winning Russian approval.
And if Putin wants to act
like a Soviet-era commissar or 19th-century czar, Washington should expose his assault
on human rights to the light. As Reagan counseled in 1979, “a little less
détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of
When the message is clear—or
“hard and consistent,” to use Putin’s language—Russia will take a more cooperative
posture. When the message is unclear, Russia will take what it can get.
The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.