Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Putin's Mentor: Ronald Reagan (Update)

The major story in world news these past weeks has not been the missing Malaysian airliner, despite CNN's round-the-clock coverage.  Once a one-dimensional story such as that takes over, I ponder about what other news coverage is being ignored because the press is running out the clock with the latest pop fascination.  Allow me to return to the true story that should have our attention – the return of Putin's Russia as a threat to national sovereignty in Eastern Europe, and his likely strategy based on the event that had an enormous effect on him: the collapse of the Soviet Union, what Putin calls the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, as engineered by Ronald Reagan.

The press coverage of the Ukrainian crisis has been adequate but not with great depth.  The Maidan demonstrations, the overthrow of Yanukovych, the slow yet inexorable (re)annexation of Crimea, has moved on to the point now that we are looking at a massed Russian military front along the eastern border, some 40,000 to 50,000 troops at the current best estimation, with all the necessary support elements to sustain a thrust into the arguably Russian-dominated Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.  At the same time, there are increasing "spontaneous" demonstrations in several cities in the area, with a significant if not a majority of popular support, now involving troops that are attired in the same sort of barely sanitized uniforms (what the Ukrainian government spokesmen are now calling "little green men") that we saw in the lead-up to Crimea.  Prudent predictions indicate a continuation of Putin's incursions, into the Donbas or even linking up with Transdniestria, because he has done this before into the latter, and Georgia, and now Crimea, all predicated on "protecting ethnic Russians", what I can safely call the Putin Doctrine.

That is where we find ourselves at the moment, and with questions about the viability of a Ukrainian response, considering the pathetic shape into which its military has fallen; the ability of Russia to seize and retain the Donbas against the historic Ukrainian guerilla tradition, honed in World War II against both the Nazis and the Soviets (thus the occasional Russian reference to the "fascists" in Kiev/Kyiv); what the Americans can do – if anything – that will have an actual impact on Putin; how significant are the Russian hints about ethnic Russians elsewhere in its 'near abroad' such as Estonia and Latvia, now members of NATO; and what can NATO do – if anything – that would deter or repulse possible Russian incursions there; and finally, does the West, in the form of NATO or otherwise, have the will to impose and follow through with the few options that we have left ourselves?

Our options are stunted in the face of Putin's initiative, and this is precisely what Putin and his advisors, particularly Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have known all along after years of observing our decline.  Putin has been motivated by at least two events – the breaking off of Kosovo from Serbia by NATO in 1999 which established that a foreign entity could take military action against a country to influence its internal affairs, which infuriated the Russians and set them on a track to invade Georgia in 2008 after Kosovo declared its de jure independence; and the proclaimed support of the West, particularly the Americans, in the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine which overthrew Yanukovych the first time, interfering (to Putin's mind, a not unreasonable conclusion) in a sensitive area of the Russian sphere of influence, tacitly established between Russia and the US after Joe Biden went hat in hand, within days of Obama's inauguration, to shut down our establishment of a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic so that the new Reset Initiative could be forged.  This yanked the rug from under our new allies, who had shown courage in standing up to their former oppressor, but they were tossed aside in a bumbling attempt to curry favor with Russia during the initial phases of Obama's World Apology Tour.

Lavrov is laughing at you, Hillary, not with you
First consider that Putin's strategy has been established from the likely study of the victory of the West in the Cold War.  Ronald Reagan saw correctly that ramping up our military and defensive posture, modernizing our country's strategic capability after its withering after Viet Nam and the Carter presidency and re-orienting it to the future, would drive the Soviets into a race that it couldn't win.  Reagan, aided by such leaders as Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, demonstrated the will to do so, and he further motivated enough of the political establishment in Washington to go along.  He never suffered from an exaggerated sense of nuance and was constantly accused by the Sophisticati of being simple.  "You want simplistic?" he smilingly asked his chief foreign policy advisor, Richard Allen, when talking of the Cold War.  "We win and they lose.  What do you think of that?"

Reagan hung tough through the first two years of an economy staggered by the change in direction, but he and his advisors knew that it would turn around and benefit from the plan, and it did.  The economy accelerated and continued into the George H W Bush administration before it began to waver with Bush I's fatal flaw of increasing taxes after promising no to, in a deal with the Democrats to cut spending, which never happened.  But the die had been cast, and by Christmas of 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its flag was hauled down from its post over the Kremlin.

Stung by the collapse of the empire he held so dear and the philosophy which was its foundation, Putin could not fail to learn a very hard lesson indeed, the type of lesson that has the most impact.  Through this experience, what has he seen in the intervening years which he could exploit?

He sees an America since then that now bites at the apple of an amorphous "peace dividend", gutting its power in order to plow more money into other political bonanzas.  The decline was forestalled after 9/11 by a world-wide counter-attack against a radical Islamist crusade, and America and its allies spent years and fortune battling what Russia sees as a common enemy, but they were content to let us pin down the threat while they handled its manifestation (like the Chechens) within its own borders.  But with such factors as the Sequester, that power decline has been re-imposed and is accelerating.

America's economy hit the skids with the housing bubble collapse in 2008, practically a carbon copy of the similar crisis that hit Japan in 1990.  Russia surely saw the parallel, as did many others, as well as our response that also mimicked the Japanese and their barely-growing economy ever since.  The election of a Democrat administration and its bread-and-circuses approach to giving their voters what they want without a plan for how to pay for it (other than the partial answer to take it out of the hide of the military) was an answer to a Russian prayer.  Coupled with the even greater tendency in Europe to sacrifice their militaries, covered as they have been since the end of World War II by an American security umbrella which enabled them to shore up Social Democrat economies, Putin has seen a steady and voluntary decline in the power of the West. (Don't think for a moment that China doesn't see the same thing, but that's a story for another time.)

The Reagan and Bush I administrations warned Europe of the consequences of a reliance on the growing Russian oil and gas exports, with Russia building a series of pipelines into Europe and offering cheaper gas but at prices that pumped up the Russian economy while prices increased and competition decreased.  The American resurgence in that industry despite, not because of, the Obama administration's obstacles, are still in the beginning stages and our infrastructure is not developed enough to support the amount of export to Europe, even if Europe had prepared its infrastructure as well. Europe relies on up to 40% of its gas for heating from Russia, and Putin has shown before and now again that he is willing to play games with shutting off supplies to Ukraine, just as easily as he could to the rest of Europe, in order to gain concessions. We can talk of shipping more gas to Europe in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG), but how many years and how many cold winters will Europe be able to endure before we can affect that capacity in any meaningful way?

The Putin that George W Bush first met in 2001 was a leader saddled with a Russian economy still clawing its way back up from the Soviet collapse and with Russia's main export of gas and oil suffering from low world market prices, which partially explains Bush's comment about getting a "sense of [Putin's] soul".  But Russia since has greatly benefited from the increase in prices and Putin can now afford to flex his muscles with his investments in his economy and military.  (By the time of the meeting between Bush and Putin at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the atmosphere had markedly cooled. Putin told Bush that Georgia's Saakashvili was hot-headed and that he – Putin – was hot-headed too.  Bush replied, "No.  You're cold-hearted.")

Putin with Defense Minister Marshall Sergei Shoigu, observing military training maneuvers. Can you imagine Obama doing the same with General Dempsey?

The Russian armed forces of today is far smaller than the Red Army of before (Russian officers that I knew still referred to it by that name, wistfully), but size matters not against what it used to be, but against the attenuated NATO militaries – including of course our own – that it would face during a period of "heightened tensions".  It certainly is far more than a fair match against the Ukrainian remnant of a military should it go toe to toe in a sudden pitched conflict, particularly if it were limited, an escalation of what we have already seen with the seizure of Crimea played out in the Donbas of eastern Ukraine or an amphibious landing to further secure connections with Transdniestria and possibly include tossing the seizure of the important port city of Odessa into the bargain.  What further pressure can he put on the Baltic countries of Estonia and Latvia, with significant ethnic Russian populations, to keep NATO even more off balance?

The only Russian concerns would be how to contain a possible Ukrainian insurgency that resulted (aided by a porous border that doesn't exist with the Crimean chokepoint) as well as a prolonged Western economic response, which Putin can affect by pitting the European interests (far more invested with Russia) against the American.  Economic sanctions – the only real tool in our bag so far – take time to have any real effect, if any, and time is on Putin's side.  He would want some solid agreements at some point with Ukraine, a variety of European countries to undermine a coordinated NATO, or even with the US, to secure his gains and tie down the opposition, but at the very least he can sit and watch the kettle boil – watching the West argue – as long as he controls the heat.

He needn't worry about a military response: beyond the simple accounting of size and capabilities and geographic limitations, the Obama administration repeatedly and publically declares that we will have no military contribution whatsoever to Ukraine, not even in sharing intelligence or sending small scale equipment (other than sleeping bags, rations, and helmets – all "non-lethal" – which will really come in handy if the Ukrainians are over-run).

But rather than telegraph his next move, Putin can simply continue to apply pressure like he has been doing, waiting for the Ukrainians or the West to make a move that he has already anticipated.

The Russians have always emphasized the control of the operational tempo of an engagement, and on a strategic scale they are more aware of the dictum of Carl von Clausewitz that "war is a continuation of political intercourse carried on by other means."  Putin's long-range goals foresee increasing the advantage over the West, a combination of maybe faltering (two steps forward, one step back), steady, or even accelerating progression.  In the area of demographics, for example, Russia has a similar problem as the West in its growing minorities and immigration and their effect on the native culture, with birth rates far exceeding those of the declining national host.

The West is slowly realizing that the accommodation of some of these foreign elements, while ideologically satisfying on a superficial level, is having a far more serious effect on the culture than they anticipated, particularly in Europe.  Radical Islamists (and we hear precious little from whatever 'moderate' elements exist) insist that our sense of diversity be mutated into an outright acceptance of their law and lifestyle that is damaging to our core beliefs, but then our Sophisticati, dining on lotus, are content to slough off core beliefs in this post-modern age.

Russia has had a head start with this problem.  The Soviets were officially proud of their diversity too, but the many minorities understood that living in the Soviet Union meant that the predominant culture was Russian.  Any minority that tried to expand its native culture into everyday life beyond what the Party allowed was suppressed, often ruthlessly, as if they were rudely taking advantage of the Russian hospitality.  This is the kernel of the new Putin Doctrine, protecting ethnic Russians no matter in which country they may reside.  In the modern US we can entertain inane questions about why the terrorists hate us, as if understanding their murderous motivation will make everything all right.  But with Putin, we see his statements leading up to the Sochi Olympics pertaining to potential terrorist attacks, when he said that the solution is to "annihilate" them.  That makes a lot of sense to a Russian, and frankly over here too as a viable way to deal with fanatics, but Putin is counting on the West flailing with that problem to a far greater extent than he.

America under Obama is unprepared for this task of a resurgent Russia, and we are determined to remain so in the short term, meaning the remainder of Obama's administration.  Putin sees this window as an opportunity to do what he can while still preparing the long game for after Obama's departure.  He saw how the Iranians humiliated a prostrate Carter administration before the inauguration of Reagan, and he can be sure to take advantage of the intervening time between now and January 2017, assuming that America sees fit to elect a new President that can change course against a tide of Russian opportunity.  Mitt Romney and others were castigated by the Democrats and the press (but I repeat myself) for saying that Russia was this country's greatest geopolitical threat, and the Democrats seem determined to hold fast to that attitude.  Obama still seems blissfully confident that he can talk his way out of this and other problems, despite the fact that he has zero accomplishments on that score.  They insist that we are not seeing a return to the Cold War but that remains the most likely scenario to unfold.

Reagan won the Cold War, after all (and the phrase about "the collapse of the Soviet empire" still strikes me as some sort of alternate fantasy world), but there is no reason to think that we cannot have a resurgence of it.  Reagan saw the declining competitive ability of the Soviet Union and their Communist philosophy built on a foundation of sand, and put forth the effort to overwhelm it and toss it on the ash heap of history, knowing that the Soviets were unable to match our pace.  But the Soviet Union was more than the vanguard of the world Communist movement; it was also a nationalistic Russia, and that part survives intact, with Putin doing what he can to inspire it even more.

It is true, after all, that Woodrow Wilson and the Entente Cordiale won World War I, but the world was embroiled in a far more devastating conflict only twenty years thereafter.  What prevents the same thing from occurring with a second Cold War?  No one wants an all-out war on the scale of the carnage of the twentieth century, and that certainly includes Putin, content to ensure that he needn't worry so much with winning an unlikely 'hot' war than in not losing his present control of the situation.  And our current dithering, our feckless support of Ukraine, our laughable threats to restrict foreign travel of a platoon of Russian officials – doesn't that strike you as a parallel to the Sitzkrieg of 1939-40?

Reagan had the will and the wherewithal to bring the Soviet Union to its knees, calling their bluff and staving off the wet hens of the State Department until Gorbachev capitulated.  Putin, taking a page from Reagan, has the will and the sufficient means to press Obama to the point where he backs off, again.   There is an old Russian saying that Better is the enemy of Good Enough, and Putin has enough to follow through with his plans for the rest of the Obama term.   How deliciously ironic that must be for him, to use Reagan's own playbook against the West.

This morning brings news of some movement of a battalion of American airborne troops to be spread through Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (one airborne rifle company each, about 150 men) in training exercises, but now also to "show the flag" and emphasize our commitment to NATO.  The troops are from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team already in Europe, at Vicenza, Italy.  (If the reports are accurate and they are 'paratroopers', they are likely either the 1st or 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Regiment.)  A similar mission fell to the 82nd Airborne Division after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 in Operation Desert Shield, buying time for the rest of our then much larger military to build up an adequate defense of Saudi Arabia before shifting to an offensive capability, eventually launching Operation Desert Storm into Kuwait and southern Iraq.  These lead elements constituted what was called a 'tripwire' (and what we in theater called a 'speed bump') against a possible Iraqi continuation into Saudi Arabia, and for this battalion of the 173rd to perform the same mission, we have to have a credible follow-on force to back it up.  Looking at US Army Europe at present, it doesn't look like we have one tank remaining in theater.

Note that we emphasize that the training deployment is being performed through a separate bilateral agreement with each country, not as a function of NATO.  Several European members are not as enthusiastic as others, shall we say, in their understanding of their responsibilities.  A deployment such as this is nothing new, though the surrounding circumstances are: we had an airborne company training with an element of the 6th Polish Airborne Brigade only last February, and this deployment is expected to continue, with substitutions, through the end of the year.

As I said before, China is watching closely, focused as they are on territorial disputes with Japan, Philippines, and Viet Nam (and the lingering problem of Taiwan).  Our response to Russia in Europe factors into their decisions on their side of the planet, and an indicator is this morning's blast by the official Chinese news agency Xinhua: the US is a "sclerotic and myopic superpower ... dangerous and unsustainable".

Russia began a "snap" military response exercise in the region around Ukraine and is conducting joint air defense exercises with its ally Belarus, including dispatching Russian fighters to Belarusian bases.  The Belarusian mechanized tank brigade in southwest Belarus is also conducting exercises, if we want to ramp up the tension a bit more.

And of course Syria, previously the object of red lines and dead lines about its "unacceptable" use of chemical agents in its murderous civil war, has been completely unencumbered since the foreign policy humiliation that the administration suffered at the hands of Putin and Lavrov.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are welcome and discussion is open and encouraged. I expect that there will be some occasional disagreement (heaven knows why) or welcome clarification and embellishment, and such are freely solicited.

Consider that all such comments are in the public domain and are expected to be polite, even while contentious. I will delete comments which are ad hominem, as well as those needlessly profane beyond the realm of sputtering incredulity in reaction to some inanity, unless attributed to a quote.

Links to other sources are fine so long as they further the argument or expand on the discussion. All such comments and links are the responsibility of the commenter, and the mere presence herein does not necessarily constitute my agreement.

I will also delete all comments that link to a commercial site.