Last June, The NEW YORK ANALYSIS reviewed the resurgence of the Russian military. The funds that have been committed, the statements by Kremlin officials, and the deployment of new arms systems indicate that Moscow is in the midst of an exceptionally significant arms buildup.
One salient question remained, however. Would the foreign policy of the Russian Federation prove as aggressive as its military buildup?
That question has been effectively addressed by the invasion and annexation of Crimea.
Neither foreign nor military policies exist in a vacuum. Vladimir Putin’s actions should be examined in the context of the threats and opportunities he believes face his nation. His statement that “The greatest tragedy of the 20th Century was the collapse of the Soviet Union” provides significant insight into the international perspective currently guiding Moscow’s worldview.
During most of the presidency of George W. Bush, the United States, aroused by the Islamist assault of 9/11, held a muscular foreign policy and a well-funded military. (It should be noted, however, that it was a military that was not focused on potential conflicts with great powers such as Russia or China.) While Moscow was not entirely quiescent–it employed its vast oil reserves as a wedge to influence European politics–it did not act openly belligerent, and even expressed commonality with the West in areas such as anti-terrorism. However, Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, during a period in which the United States was already heavily involved in military action in Afghanistan and still entrenched in Iraq, signaled an end to that period of relative restraint.
Any vestige of a restrained perspective was substantially altered following the American elections of 2008. The Obama/Clinton “Reset” with Moscow was established by that new President and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton without regard to reciprocity on the Kremlin’s part. The policy has subsequently proven to be an embarrassment, and Secretary of State Kerry responded to a recent inquiry concerning it by claiming he didn’t know what the reporter was referring to .
As noted by commentator Rich Lowry in Politico, “It didn’t take a student of Russian history, or of international relations…to know this would end in ashes…at one level, the Obama Administration was guilty of the human impulse of wanting to see the world as you would like rather than as it is. At another, the President is not particularly interested in foreign relations. It was appropriate that one of his statements on the [Crimean] crisis came at an elementary school while he was announcing his latest budget, which reduces the U.S. Army to pre-World War II levels. Because we all know that we will never face an unexpected, unpredictable crisis again.”
New START’s Effect
Ignoring the uncomfortable reality of Moscow’s Georgian invasion, the Obama Administration moved quickly to adopt the New START nuclear arms treaty.
One of the key problems with the treaty had nothing to do with either Russia or the United States. Those two nations are no longer the only two powers with multi-faceted and devastatingly powerful nuclear arms. Leaving China out of any agreement is essentially to ignore a massive change in the international environment. With the growing rapprochement between Russia and China, including joint war games and mutually supportive foreign policies, as well as Beijing’s increased aggressiveness towards America and its regional allies Japan and the Philippines, this omission leaves the United States at a distinct disadvantage.
Critics have maintained that even within the confines of the New START treaty itself, the United States has been placed at a disadvantage. Specific problem areas cited include tie-ins to missile defense capabilities, inadequate verification procedures, and Russia’s huge ten-to- one advantage in tactical nuclear weapons.
What Putin Learned
The lesson Putin discerned from his success in gaining the upper hand in New START was that the Obama presidency was less than diligently concerned about defense-related matters. Another incident during the New START talks, in which Washington provided Moscow with British nuclear secrets, also convinced Putin that Obama would not be as protective of American allies as his predecessors.
These lessons guided Putin’s subsequent actions. Both the Russian president and his foreign minister, Segey Lavrov, came to the conclusion that the United States under Barack Obama was not a force to be concerned with under most circumstances.
“Indeed, President Obama, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize at the opening of his first term, said he was elected to ‘end wars, not to start them’…it is inconceivable Russia would have played its Ukraine hand in the same risky and confrontational way had its assessment of President Obama been different.”
“Give Peace a Chance”
Mr. Obama’s “Give Peace a Chance” policy was far more than mere words.
He withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq, and announced a withdrawal time table for Afghanistan. He did not respond with either military or even significant diplomatic options to China’s confiscation of Philippine offshore resources. He has won his attempts to slash defense spending, and he continues to advocate for unilateral nuclear reductions.
Significantly, as Moscow and Beijing engaged in massive upgrades in the size, quality, and technological sophistication of their armed forces, Washington’s response during the current administration has been to slash the U.S. military budget, dramatically altering the international balance of power.
The cuts could not have come at a more inappropriate moment. In response to the fall of the Soviet Union, American forces had been allowed to dwindle into a shadow of their former strength, with a Navy diminished from 600 ships to 284, an Army reduced from 17 divisions to 10, and an Air Force cut from 37 combat commands to 20. Much of the equipment remaining, particularly that of the Army, has been worn out from extensive use in Iraq and Afghanistan. The same can be said for personnel. Of particular note has been the overuse of National Guard forces.
The U.S. industrial infrastructure, which allowed the nation to serve as “The Arsenal of Democracy” since before the Second World War began, has also been diminished. A prime example is the fact that America has only one plant left capable of building tanks, and the Obama Administration has repeatedly attempted to shut it down.
American military strength, despite having been mobilized and funded to fight the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, remained, in terms of major geopolitical threats, in the warm afterglow of a peace dividend bought about by the USSR’s demise, even after Moscow began returning to cold war status and Beijing became a superpower.
The result has been a growing and now dangerous imbalance in military strength between the developing affiliation of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea-a massive and contiguous axis covering a vast portion of both the landmass and population of the planet-and the increasingly underfunded militaries of both the United States and its allies.
As Russian forces invaded the Crimea, a Stratfor Global Intelligence report noted: “Fractured and burdened by its ongoing financial crisis and lacking unity on military issues, the European Union could find it difficult to counter Russian moves – whether they appear as financial incentives to the struggling states of central and eastern Europe or threats of armed conflict along the periphery. Looking into the future, the Ukraine crisis ultimately could test many of the core assumptions binding the EU – and the NATO alliance – together.”
The Report Continues Next Week