While the US has been fixated on the Middle East, something ominous has been happening in Russia...and by extension, in Central Asia.
The Russian Bear is on the prowl.
The Russian-Western relationship has become an adversarial one, for all intents and purposes. This is not a temporary `divergence of views' as the current occupant of the White House would have it, but a drawing of battle lines:
- Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow would build a new air defense radar system in St. Petersburg, to be "the first step in a large-scale program," and that it will be "carried out before 2015." This is in addition to Putin's threat to re-target Russian nuclear weapons on Europe if the US goes ahead with plans to deploy a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and anti-missile interceptors in Poland.
- Last month, Putin announced a seven-year, $200-billion rearmament plan designed to refurbish the Russian military with new generations of missiles, planes, and ships. And the new, aggressive military posture is already being implemented. Putin announced that Russian bombers armed with nukes are resuming patrols, and those bombers have extended their forays far into the Atlantic and Pacific, forcing US and NATO jets to scramble and take to the air for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Just last week, the Pentagon officials acknowledged that two Russian Tu-95 long-range turboprop bombers had "buzzed" U.S. military bases on Guam.
- Sales of Russian military hardware to Iran, Syria, Venezuela and North Korea are up more than 25 percent in the past two years, especially to Iran and Syria....and last week, Adm. Vladimir Masorin, The head of Russia's navy announced that Russia will "restore a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea" again, something the Russians haven't had since the Cold War. As part of that presence, Russia recently signed an agreement with Syria allowing them to utilize the ports at Tartus and Latakia, a factor that could provide `insurance' for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's regime against a potential attack by the US or Israel in the event of a war.
- A few weeks ago, Russian explorers planted a flag on the seabed at the north pole, "claiming" the region for Moscow and ignoring angry protests from the U.S., Canada, Denmark and Norway. And most ominous of all, Russia and China just finished holding joint military exercises under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which includes Iran as an `observer' and is being touted as a `counterbalance' to the US and NATO. The military exercises included tight military cooperation between the Russian and Chinese armies with two separate command posts 3,000 miles apart, with Chinese forces entering Russian territory for the first time in modern history and Russian units from Chelyabinsk in the Russian Urals operating from Urumchi, capital of the Chinese province of Xinjiang. This marks the first time China has ever drilled its air force over any foreign territory, and also the first time Chinese troops have ever used the Russian military railway system.While billed as a `joint anti-terrorism exercise' it was an obvious message to the US to stay out of energy rich Central Asia and to avoid attacking Russia's client state, Iran.
While a number of observers express puzzlement over what's going on, to me it's fairly obvious. Russia has been a blatantly imperialist nation since the days of the Czars, and they want their empire back....and to recover the prominence as a world power that goes with it.Moreover, they want revenge on the adversary that defeated them and deprived them of that empire.
To that end, Putin's Russia has adopted the old doctrine `the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' That means Iran and Syria, and to an extent, China.
Russia - for now - is well supplied with gas and petrodollars,because of the worldwide rise in oil and natural gas prices. Moreover, supplying arms and other materials to clients like Iran and Syria has also proven to be a major source of revenue. That gives Putin the ability to pay for military and intelligence expenditures that were simply unaffordable before.
This is essentially a devil's bargain on Putin's part. As I've mentioned before, Russia's birthrate is plummeting...except in the parts of Russia that are predominantly Islamic. The Islamification of Russia is an established fact.
Russia's overall population is dropping at a rate of 700,000 people a year, mostly because of the short life expectancy - 66.6 years - and low birth rates of ethnic Russians. Abortion is widespread - I've seen estimates that state that up to 70% of pregnancies in non-Muslim Russia are terminated by abortions.
On the other hand, since 1989, Russia's Muslim population has increased by 40 per cent to about 25 million. By 2015, Muslims could make up the majority of Russia's army and they could account for 20% of the population by 2020.
Putin has attempted to counteract this by passing legislation limiting the amount of mosques that can be constructed and encouraging birth rates among ethnic Russians, and his agreewment with Iran was partially designed to cut off the flow of arms and fighters to insurgent Chechnya, but it remains to be seen how successful his efforts will be.
In the meantime, with his term as president approaching it's end, Putin needs a justification to unify the country with a new nationalism, build up its armed forces and curtail democracy and civil liberties. Invoking the historic illusion of Russia as a `beseiged fortress' and demonizing the evil West is an effective tool, and could very well be a stepping stone to Putin retaining power, either directly or behind the scenes.
In short, Putin is simply playing both ends against the middle, a mistake similar to the one Stalin made with Hitler. And with the added side benefit of creating a climate that allows him to retain power.
There are really only three ways the US can handle this situation. One way is to enter into advanced negotiations to bid for Russia's loyalty by dropping any expectations for democracy and a normal succession, getting out of Central Asia, acceding to a nuclear Iran, offering major commercial concessions and essentially leaving Eastern Europe, the Baltic nations and the independent countries in what was the former Soviet empire open to Russian imperialism.
Another is to show Putin that we are ready, if necessary, to re-open the Cold War, seize Russian assets in the West and treat Russia as an adversary again, thereby perhaps making it worthwhile for Russia to make a decision on where its best interests lie.
Since both of those options are unlikely to be exercised in the current geopolitical climate, the third, passive alternative seems to be the one the US is prepared to go with - do nothing and let events take care of themselves.
In the end, that option, combined with increased US military preparedness, a shoring up of our allies in `new Europe' , the Middle East and Central Asia, and a show of strength towards any Russian aggression may end up being the best policy.