The West and the Next Reset in Russian Policy

2014-05-25  By Robbin Laird

Vladimir Putin has pursued an agenda to expand his role within Russia and Russia’s role within the world since at least 2005.  The roll back of EU and NATO expansion is clearly part of the agenda, but rebuilding Russia’s ability to be a key player in the Middle East and the Mediterranean is certainly another.

And throughout this period, he has clearly underscored that the Arctic opening is a key event during which Russia, as the largest stakeholder, will prepare itself to play a key role.

At the same time, it must be realized that Russia remains very economically dependent upon energy exports and exploitation of raw materials.  It has not really made a significant transition to a 21st century economy.

And it must be realized as well that within Russia, Putin is not Stalin, and certainly not in the dominant position which outsiders might assume.

This has meant that for Putin playing a foreign policy and defense card is a key element of solidifying his position at home while pursuing the strategic objectives, which he has clearly identified.

With the elections in Ukraine, which the Russians have clearly positioned themselves to influence, the next phase of the Ukrainian crisis will unfold.

But what certainly is clear is that the West can not hope for easy solutions or inevitable reversals in Russian policies which they find “unacceptable.”

What the events of the past few months clearly should demonstrate is that a strategic adjustment is long overdue.  Simply coming up with a way to facilitate the Russian role in Western policies on the grounds of building multiple sum policies for the future of the “global commons” as the way ahead is clearly wrong headed. Cooperation may be desirable but cannot be assumed.  And everyone is not playing by the same rules or using the same playbook.

One of the greatest failures of Western strategic thinking and of the strategic class is to assume progress for the inevitability of globalization when history does not operate that way.  There is no inevitability of progress; there is the certainty of conflict, entropy, collapse and development.

The 21st century is not one of the making of thought of Condorcet but of one where progress can be forged only in the midst of conflict and for the democracies this always is a challenge to manage an effective way ahead where dictators and authoritarian regimes persist in setting global agenda items.

As Putin rewrites the map and inserts his interpretation of Russian interests into the Western calculus, Western states need to rethink and rework a number of core agenda items to ensure that Putin and like-minded Russians understand that aggression has a significant cost. 

Simply generating sanctions as a substitute for more fundamental shifts in policy will be seen as a short-term and short-sighted solution that will go away as vested interests in the West succeed in their rollback.

To be effective, key Western states need to take hard decisions and to shape new strategic realities, which the Russians will themselves need to adjust to in order not be marginalized in the global competition.

Re-set German Energy Policy

For the Germans, this means having a deliberate and clear energy policy, which diminishes significantly their dependency on the Russians.

To do so will require taking on tough issues whether they be nuclear energy, the role of shale, or becoming a key player with the Nordic states in the Arctic opening.

As Caroline Mükusch wrote in 2011 with regard to German energy policy:

Germany is, in terms of oil and gas, an energy dependent country as it is importing 80 percent of its energy resources.  Almost 50 percent of oil and gas are coming from the Commonwealth of Independent States, primarily Russia; 30 percent from Norway and Great Britain; 15 percent from Africa and 5 percent from the Middle East (see Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe (2009): Energierohstoffe 2009, Hannover: BGR, p. 34. )

Obviously, a 50 percent dependency on Russia – despite all special relations – is no energy security at all.  While some top political leaders in Germany appear to believe in Germany’s special relationship with Russia to secure its energy supply, Russia, most recently at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, made it very clear that it plays according to the rules of geopolitics, interests and power.

What happens, if Russia turns its energy supply to Germany off or more likely follows its own interests in determining the most desirable energy partners, in dynamic circumstances?

Re-set the French Sale of the Mistral to the Russians

The Russians are the throes of buying 2-4 ships from the French.  These ships are sold as basic entities which then the Russians will arm and equip.

But these amphibious ships will include ice-hardened versions, which certainly the Nordics and the Balts understand where they will be used, and as these countries focus on deepening their joint defense, adding new capabilities to the Russians who are precisely the threat makes little sense.

Amphibious ships have gone from the category of being useful to becoming central to 21st century operations. Their role expands as the focus of much military action is upon the exercise of influence in a dynamic and fluid global environment.

The incomplete forward section of the Sevastopol, seen at Saint-Nazaire in mid-April. Sevastapol is the second of two Mistral-class ships to be delivered to Russia, with the option of two more. (Courtesy of Leo Van Ginderen)

The incomplete forward section of the Sevastopol, seen at Saint-Nazaire in mid-April. Sevastapol is the second of two Mistral-class ships to be delivered to Russia, with the option of two more. (Courtesy of Leo Van Ginderen)

Amphibious ships and the evolving aviation capabilities operating from these ships allows the military to operate in a variety of settings from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, to engaging in support of allies for their own military operations, or to asserting the national interest in the face of adversarial conflict.

In a recent piece in Defense News, Paris-based correspondent, Pierre Tran, has focused on the challenge for the French of reversing course on the Mistral sale.

As Tran notes:

French defense officials are exploring ideas to avoid delivering a second helicopter carrier to Russia, including looking for an alternative client for the Sevastopol, analysts and an industry executive said.

A highly discreet review is being held as armed strife rises in eastern Ukraine and top US officials call for NATO allies to boost defense spending and act as a counterweight to Russia.

Although clearly a French problem, it is in the interest of the US and other Western allies to sort out a way to shift course on the Mistral sale as part of a comprehensive response.

Tran added:

A French naval expert said a hold on the second ship would show President Vladimir Putin that Europe could harden its position and perhaps re-arm its forces.

This message would be strengthened if a solution could be found, be it through NATO or the EU, to have this ship reinforcing European navies, the expert said.

Also, Brazil is seen as a possible client for the Sevastapol, as the regional power bought the French Navy’s retired Foch carrier and renamed it the Sao Paulo.

Re-set US Space Policy

In many ways, US space policy and its dependence on the Russians is the functional equivalent of the Mistral challenge. 

Energomash company employees stand near RD-180 engines prepared for shipment to the United States in a shop at the Energomash, leading Russian rocket engine company, in Moscow, Thursday, June 6, 2002. Energomash and U.S. company Pratt & Whitney have created a joint venture to build and test the RD-180 engine. The engine has successfully flown twice as the first stage engine of Lockheed Martin's Atlas 3 rocket. Credit Photo: US News and World Report

Energomash company employees stand near RD-180 engines prepared for shipment to the United States in a shop at the Energomash, leading Russian rocket engine company, in Moscow, Thursday, June 6, 2002. Energomash and U.S. company Pratt & Whitney have created a joint venture to build and test the RD-180 engine. The engine has successfully flown twice as the first stage engine of Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 3 rocket. Credit Photo: US News and World Report 

Dependency is significant in terms of the engines used by one of the two key rockets used by the Pentagon, and indeed in the views of many experts, the better of the two rockets.

Also, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, only the Soyuz is available currently for moving humans to the Space Station.And with the Russians in a central place in Space Station policy, the Russians can play havoc with the US equity in the Space Station.

Reversing course is doable but costly. But in the presence of Russian map making, it is essential. 

And past decisions such as NOT building a domestic variant of the RD-180 engine, not pursuing an effective alternative to the Space Shuttle, and not working with the Europeans on ATV as a player in an alternative Space Station policy are all parts of taking a relaxed view of Russian involvement in a number of strategic areas for US space policy.

Such a relaxed view, which really was done because of the absence of US effort and investment, will only aid and abet further Russian map making.

Re-Set of Baltic Defense

The Nordics are clearly very concerned with indirect as well as direct threats which the Russians can generate to the Baltic states.  Sweden is increasing its defense budget after a period of decline, and is focused specifically on the direct defense of the Baltic states.

In discussions in Denmark, Danish officials underscored that a number of core building blocks are in place for Baltic defense, such as the Baltic air policing effort, but these building blocks need to be brought together into a more cohesive ability to defend the Baltic republics and reassure their leadership and publics that no indirect strategy of pressure will be acceptable to the core European states directly affected by such a strategy.

There is clearly concern with being in a position to counter an indirect Russian strategy in the Baltics, which is viewed as the most pressing need and requirement.

And clearly for the Danes and the Norwegians, a key element of the broader security and defense challenge is the Arctic.  The Arctic is emerging as the major safety, security and defense challenge facing Norwegian and Danish security and defense forces, and the Russians as the largest stakeholders in the development of the Arctic are clearly key players.

And such a reality is a good way to end this discussion.

For conflict and collaboration is at the heart of dealing with the Russians. 

One the one hand, reinforcing Baltic defense in effective ways can shape Russian understanding of what the Nordics can do backed by other NATO states.

On the other hand, it is not simply a zero sum confrontation, for Arctic development really requires a long-term cooperation strategy.

As one Danish official put it: “The Russians are really mortgaging their long term interests with short term policies.  And we need to demonstrate to them that this is true.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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