First, let’s dismiss the notion that the United States is about to engage in a new Cold War against Russia. Russia is no “evil empire” in the traditional sense or as far as conventional warfare is concerned which explains why Putin has embarked on a campaign of asymmetrical warfare which has caught the Obama administration completely off-guard. Even still, there is no great global competition. Russia can dabble in the Middle East and Latin America, but their stretch is limited. Instead, their greatest influence is with their backdoor neighbors which explains why places like Azerbajain, Georgia, Armenia and the Ukraine are trouble spots. Even still, this is not an ideological struggle between two competing political and economic paradigms. During the Cold War, there was an overriding single threat- the battle between the United States and the Soviet Union which affected the world. Today, threats are a series of hot spots that occasionally flare up but have little to do with Russian-American competition. And finally, the economic equation is considerably different today. During the Cold War, the United States economy was the shining path forward for developing countries. Today, that is not necessarily the case any more.
That is not to say that we cannot learn some lessons from the Cold War and apply them to Russia today. Despite the military interventions through proxy warriors, it was the US military that indirectly brought down the Soviet Union. It was Reagan’s build up of the military that forced the Soviet Union to embark on a similar path that they were not in a position to afford. The result was that the United States basically bankrupted the Soviet Union into collapse. And that should be the way to reign in Putin.
As stated earlier, Putin’s Russia is most influential in its backyard, not globally. We have not heard much about the Ukraine lately and that is by Russian design. By maintaining the status quo there in the eastern part of the country, he has achieved one of his short-term goals. In the meantime he can use his propaganda machine to make the pro-Western Ukrainian government look impotent. His separatist compatriots in the east are consolidating political power setting up a de facto pro-Russian state. The ultimate goal is to create a land bridge between Russia and the recently annexed Crimea. And although it is rife with problems, this will eventually link up with the Transnistria region of Moldavia and its large Russian-speaking population.
Let’s give Obama some due. Sanctions have had an impact, but they can be furthered. Putin is also somewhat diplomatically isolated right now and seems to have lost Angela Merkel of Germany. That is a tough blow for Putin given the economic ties between the countries. Still, Ukraine is in dire need of defensive military hardware. And finally, the one hold Russia has over the Ukraine and the rest of Europe is energy. With the US in the midst of an energy boom, we can step in and help which benefits both countries to the detriment of Russia.
Equally disturbing is the apparent Obama administration acquiessence in the Russian occupation of parts of Georgia- one of his first foreign policy blunders. Also Armenia, a very close ally of Russia, currently occupies 20% of neighboring Azerbaijan which is rich in oil and natural gas.
In 2014, NATO warplanes were scrambled over 400 times to intercept Russian military planes close to NATO airspace. On six occasions, Estonian airspace was flagrantly violated with another 180 instances of Russian warplanes flying dangerously close to Latvian airspace. The Russian navy captured a Lithuanian fishing vessel and demanded $2.7 million bail (ransom) for its release. Commandos also crossed the Estonian border and abducted an Estonian official and charged with him with espionage once on Russian soil. They have also violated Swedish and Finnish airspace. One thing that must be settled is the Russian-Estonian border and although a treaty has been signed, Russia is now reneging on ratification citing NATO meddling in the Ukraine.
Montenegro is a small, but important republic in the Balkans. Fearing the loss of their naval base in Tarsus, Syria, Russia views bases in Montenegro as key to their access to the Mediterranean Sea. Thus far, Montenegro has rebuked Russia since they are seeking both EU and NATO membership. Obviously inclusion in NATO would thwart Russian designs here and that should proceed on a fast track. Most ominously, Russia has been steadily militarizing the Arctic region. Two-thirds of their navy is based there and they just increased their marine presence by 33%. This has drawn the attention of countries like Norway and Canada. In fact, one new base is a mere 10 miles from the Norwegian border.
As if this is not enough, Russia has been fostering closer relations with Iran and China- one a state sponsor of terrorism and the other a violator of human rights. The cozy relationship with Iran insures their participation in the current nuclear talks with Iran. They helped create the problem in hopes of being part of the solution.
Russia’s problems right now are not diplomatic or military, but economic and that is what makes them so dangerous. Their military exploits elsewhere are attempts to distract from the problems at home. The oligarchic economy they allowed to foster and take root after communism failed is the cause of their current economic woes. Their economy is overly reliant on the energy sector which is held by a select, corrupt few. Before a single sanction against Putin was instituted and took effect, the cancer was present. Putin’s media is a willing accomplice in this. For example, they are lambasting proposals to extract oil from large shale formations under Romania and Bulgaria while boosting a southern pipeline. In the past year, the value of the ruble has decreased 42% while the Russian people suffer from 8% annual inflation. Their central bank predicts 0% growth for 2015.
The dog is down and its time to kick him. By boosting energy exports to Europe from the US and elsewhere, it could put greater pressure on Putin to either act more responsibly on the international stage or face economic demise and the ensuing dissension. This can be done by blocking his aspirations where Russia has the greatest ability to act. This can be achieved by:
- Boosting US energy exports to Europe;
- Increased LNG exports to Europe from Algeria, Qatar and Nigeria;
- Expand sanctions against Russia;
- Expel Russia from the G-20;
- Provide threatened neighbors with defensive military hardware;
- Withdraw from START treaty;
- Block Armenian/Russian designs in Azerbaigan by aiding that government militarily and economically;
- Have Estonia ratify their border treaty and focus attention on Russia’s refusal to resolve this problem;
- Improve security arrangements with non-NATO Nordic countries;
- Support continued peace keeping force in Kosovo;
- Fast track Montenegro into NATO if not EU and secure bases away from Russia;
- Increased support from United Kingdom and other NATO countries in addressing Russian militarization of the Arctic along with Canada, and;
- Minimize Russian influence in any talks with Iran by either freezing them out or just pulling out of the talks altogether.