Russia and the West

A months-long White House review of a pair of U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) installations slated for Poland and the Czech Republic is nearing completion. The review is expected to present a number of options ranging from pushing forward with the installations as planned to canceling them outright. The Obama administration has yet to decide what course to follow.

Rumors are running wild in Poland and the Czech Republic that the United States has reconsidered its plan to place ballistic defense systems in their countries. The rumors stem from a top U.S. BMD lobbying group that said this past week that the U.S. plan was all but dead.

The ultimate U.S. decision on BMD depends upon both the upcoming summit of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany on the Iranian nuclear program and Russia’s response to those talks.

If Russia does not cooperate in sanctions, but instead continues to maintain close relations with Iran, we suspect that the BMD plan will remain intact. Either way, the BMD issue offers a good opportunity to re-examine U.S. and Western relations with Russia and how they have evolved.

Cold War vs Post-Cold War

There has been a recurring theme in the discussions between Russia and the West over the past year: the return of the Cold War. U.S. President Barack Obama, for example, accused Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of having one foot in the Cold War. The Russians have in turn accused the Americans of thinking in terms of the Cold War.

Eastern Europeans have expressed fears that the Russians continue to view their relationship with Europe in terms of the Cold War. Other Europeans have expressed concern that both Americans and Russians might drag Europe into another Cold War.

For many in the West, the more mature and stable Western-Russian relationship is what they call the “Post-Cold War world.” In this world, the Russians no longer regard the West as an enemy, and view the other republics of the former Soviet Union (FSU) as independent states free to forge whatever relations they wish with the West. Russia should welcome or at least be indifferent to such matters.

Russia instead should be concentrating on economic development while integrating lessons learned from the West into its political and social thinking. The Russians should stop thinking in politico-military terms, the terms of the Cold War.

Instead, they should think in the new paradigm in which Russia is part of the Western economic system, albeit a backward one needing time and institution-building to become a full partner with the West. All other thinking is a throwback to the Cold War.

This was the thinking behind the idea of resetting U.S.-Russian relations. Hillary Clinton’s “reset” button was meant to move U.S.-Russian relations away from what Washington thought of as a return to the Cold War from its preferred period, which existed between 1991 and the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations after Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. The United States was in a bimodal condition when it came to Russian relations: Either it was the Cold War or it was post-Cold War.

The Russians took a more jaundiced view of the post-Cold War world. For Moscow, rather than a period of reform, the post-Cold War period was one of decay and chaos. Old institutions had collapsed, but new institutions had not emerged. Instead, there was the chaos of privatization, essentially a wild free-for-all during which social order collapsed.

Western institutions, including everything from banks to universities, were complicit in this collapse. Western banks were eager to take advantage of the new pools of privately expropriated money, while Western advisers were eager to advise the Russians on how to become Westerners.

In the meantime, workers went unpaid, life expectancy and birth rates declined, and the basic institutions that had provided order under communism decayed — or worse, became complicit in the looting. The post-Cold War world was not a happy time in Russia: It was a catastrophic period for Russian power.

Herein lies the gulf between the West and the Russians. The West divides the world between the Cold War and the post-Cold War world. It clearly prefers the post-Cold War world, not so much because of the social condition of Russia, but because the post-Cold War world lacked the geopolitical challenge posed by the Soviet Union — everything from wars of national liberation to the threat of nuclear war was gone.

From the Russian point of view, the social chaos of the post-Cold War world was unbearable. Meanwhile, the end of a Russian challenge to the West meant from the Russian point of view that Moscow was helpless in the face of Western plans for reordering the institutions and power arrangements of the region without regard to Russian interests.

As mentioned, Westerners think in term of two eras, the Cold War and the Post-Cold War era. This distinction is institutionalized in Western expertise on Russia. And it divides into two classes of Russia experts. There are those who came to maturity during the Cold War in the 1970s and 1980s, whose basic framework is to think of Russia as a global threat.

Then, there are those who came to maturity in the later 1980s and 1990s. Their view of Russia is of a failed state that can stabilize its situation for a time by subordinating itself to Western institutions and values, or continue its inexorable decline.

These two generations clash constantly. Interestingly, the distinction is not so much ideological as generational. The older group looks at Russian behavior with a more skeptical eye, assuming that Putin, a KGB man, has in mind the resurrection of Soviet power. The post-Cold War generation that controlled U.S.-Russian policy during both the Clinton and Bush administrations is more interesting.

During both administrations, this generation believed in the idea that economic liberalization and political liberalization were inextricably bound together. It believed that Russia was headed in the right direction if only Moscow did not try to reassert itself geopolitically and militarily, and if Moscow did not try to control the economy or society with excessive state power.

It saw the Russian evolution during the mid-to-late 2000s as an unfortunate and unnecessary development moving Russia away from the path that was best for it, and it sees the Cold War generation’s response to Russia’s behavior as counterproductive.

The Post-Post Cold War World

The U.S. and other Westerners’ understanding of Russia is trapped in a nonproductive paradigm. For Russia, the choice isn’t between the Cold War or the Post-Cold War world.

This dichotomy denies the possibility of, if you will, a post-post-Cold War world — or to get away from excessive posts, a world in which Russia is a major regional power, with a stable if troubled economy, functional society and regional interests it must protect.

Russia cannot go back to the Cold War, which consisted of three parts. First, there was the nuclear relationship. Second, there was the Soviet military threat to both Europe and the Far East; the ability to deploy large military formations throughout the Eurasian landmass.

And third, there were the wars of national liberation funded and guided by the Soviets, and designed to create powers allied with the Soviets on a global scale and to sap U.S. power in endless counterinsurgencies.

While the nuclear balance remains, by itself it is hollow. Without other dimensions of Russian power, the threat to engage in mutual assured destruction has little meaning. Russia’s military could re-evolve to pose a Eurasian threat; as we have pointed out before, in Russia, the status of the economy does not historically correlate to Russian military power.

At the same time, it would take a generation of development to threaten the domination of the European peninsula — and Russia today has far fewer people and resources than the whole of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact that it rallied to that effort.

Finally, while Russia could certainly fund insurgencies, the ideological power of Marxism is gone, and in any case Russia is not a Marxist state. Building wars of national liberation around pure finance is not as easy as it looks. There is no road back to the Cold War. But neither is there a road back to the post-Cold War period.

There was a period in the mid-to-late 1990s when the West could have destroyed the Russian Federation. Instead, the West chose a combined strategy of ignoring Russia while irritating it with economic policies that were unhelpful to say the least, and military policies like Kosovo designed to drive home Russia’s impotence.

There is the old saw of not teasing a bear, but if you must, being sure to kill it. Operating on the myth of nation-building, the West thought it could rebuild Russia in its own image. To this day, most of the post-Cold War experts do not grasp the degree to which Russians saw their efforts as a deliberate attempt to destroy Russia and the degree to which Russians are committed never to return to that time.

It is hard to imagine anything as infuriating for the Russians as the reset button the Clinton administration’s Russia experts — who now dominate Obama’s Russia policy — presented the Russian leadership in all seriousness. The Russians simply do not intend to return to the Post-Cold War era Western experts recall so fondly.

The resurrection of talks on the reduction of nuclear stockpiles provides an example of the post-Cold generation’s misjudgment in its response to Russia. These START talks once were urgent matters. They are not urgent any longer.

The threat of nuclear war is not part of the current equation. Maintaining that semblance of parity with the United States and placing limits on the American arsenal are certainly valuable from the Russian perspective, but it is no longer a fundamental issue to them.

Some have suggested using these talks as a confidence-building measure. But from the Russian point of view, START is a peripheral issue, and Washington’s focus on it is an indication that the United States is not prepared to take Russia’s current pressing interests seriously.

Continued lectures on human rights and economic liberalization, which fall on similarly deaf Russian ears, provide another example of the post-Cold War generation’s misjudgment in its response to Russia.

The period in which human rights and economic liberalization were centerpieces of Russian state policy is remembered — and not only by the Russian political elite — as among the worst periods of recent Russian history.

No one wants to go back there, but the Russians hear constant Western calls to return to that chaos. The Russians’ conviction is that post-Cold War Western officials want to finish the job they began. The critical point that post-Cold War officials frequently don’t grasp is that the Russians see them as at least as dangerous to Russian interests as the Cold War generation.

The Russian view is that neither the Cold War nor the post-Cold War is the proper paradigm. Russia is not challenging the United States for global hegemony. But neither is Russia prepared simply to allow the West to create an alliance of nations around Russia’s border.

Russia is the dominant power in the FSU. Its economic strategy is to focus on the development and export of primary commodities, from natural gas to grain. In order to do this, it wants to align primary commodity policies in the republics of the former Soviet Union, particularly those concerning energy resources.

Economic and strategic interests combine to make the status of the former Soviet republics a primary strategic interest. This is neither a perspective from the Cold War or from the post-Cold War, but a logical Russian perspective on a new age.

While Russia’s concerns with Georgia are the noisiest, it is not the key Russian concern in its near abroad — Ukraine is. So long as the United States is serious about including Ukraine in NATO, the United States represents a direct threat to Russian national security. A glance at a map shows why the Russians think this.

Russia remains interested in Central Europe as well. It is not seeking hegemony, but a neutral buffer zone between Germany in particular and the former Soviet Union, with former satellite states like Poland of crucial importance to Moscow.

It sees the potential Polish BMD installation and membership of the Baltic states in NATO as direct and unnecessary challenges to Russian national interest.

Responding to the United States

As the United States causes discomfort for the Russians, Russia will in turn cause discomfort for the United States. The U.S. sore spot is the Middle East, and Iran in particular. Therefore, the Russians will respond to American pressure on them where it hurts Washington the most.

The Cold Warriors don’t understand the limits of Russian power. The post-Cold Warriors don’t understand the degree to which they are distrusted by Russia, and the logic behind that distrust.

The post-Cold Warriors confuse this distrust with a hangover from the Cold War rather than a direct Russian response to the post-Cold War policies they nurtured.

This is not an argument for the West to accommodate the Russians; there are grave risks for the West there. Russian intentions right now do not forecast what Russian intentions might be were Moscow secure in the FSU and had it neutralized Poland.

The logic of such things is that as problems are solved, opportunities are created. One therefore must think forward to what might happen through Western accommodation.

At the same time, it is vital to understand that neither the Cold War model nor the post-Cold War model is sufficient to understand Russian intentions and responses right now. We recall the feeling when the Cold War ended that a known and understandable world was gone.

The same thing is now happening to the post-Cold War experts: The world in which they operated has dissolved. A very different and complex world has taken its place. Reset buttons are symbols of a return to a past the Russians reject. START talks are from a world long passed. The issues now revolve around Russia’s desire for a sphere of influence, and the willingness and ability of the West to block that ambition.

Somewhere between BMD in Poland and the threat posed by Iran, the West must make a strategic decision about Russia, and live with the consequences.

Iran and Russia

For the past several weeks, STRATFOR has focused on the relationship between Russia and Iran. As our readers will recall, a pro-Rafsanjani demonstration that saw chants of “Death to Russia,” uncommon in Iran since the 1979 revolution, triggered our discussion. It caused us to rethink Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Russia just four days after Iran’s disputed June 12 presidential election, with large-scale demonstrations occurring in Tehran. At the time, we ascribed Ahmadinejad’s trip as an attempt to signal his lack of concern at the postelection unrest. But why did a pro-Rafsanjani crowd chant “Death to Russia?” What had the Russians done to trigger the bitter reaction from the anti-Ahmadinejad faction? Was the Iranian president’s trip as innocent as it first looked?

A Net Assessment Re-examined

At STRATFOR, we proceed with what we call a “net assessment,” a broad model intended to explain the behavior of all players in a game. Our net assessment of Iran had the following three components:

  1. Despite the rhetoric, the Iranian nuclear program was far from producing a deliverable weapon, although a test explosion within a few years was a distinct possibility.
  2. Iran essentially was isolated in the international community, with major powers’ feelings toward Tehran ranging from hostile to indifferent. Again, rhetoric aside, this led Iran to a cautious foreign policy designed to avoid triggering hostility.
  3. Russia was the most likely supporter of Iran, but Moscow would avoid becoming overly involved out of fears of the U.S. reaction, of uniting a fractious Europe with the United States and of being drawn into a literally explosive situation. The Russians, we felt, would fish in troubled waters, but would not change the regional calculus.

This view — in short, that Iran was contained — remained our view for about three years. It served us well in predicting, for example, that neither the United States nor Israel would strike Iran, and that the Russians would not transfer strategically significant weapons to Iran.

A net assessment is a hypothesis that must be continually tested against intelligence, however. The “Death to Russia” chant could not be ignored, nor could Ahmadinejad’s trip to Moscow.

As we probed deeper, we found that Iran was swirling with rumors concerning Moscow’s relationship with both Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Little could be drawn from the rumors. Iran today is a hothouse for growing rumors, and all our searches ended in dead ends. But then, if Ahmadinejad and Khamenei were engaging the Russians in this atmosphere, we would expect rumors and dead ends.

Interestingly, the rumors were consistent that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei wanted a closer relationship to Russia, but diverged on the Russian response. Some said the Russians already had assisted the Iranians by providing intelligence ranging from Israeli networks in Lebanon to details of U.S. and British plans to destabilize Iran through a “Green Revolution” like the color revolutions that had ripped through the former Soviet Union (FSU).

Equally interesting were our Russian sources’ responses. Normally, they are happy to talk, if only to try to mislead us. (Our Russian sources are nothing if not voluble.) But when approached about Moscow’s thinking on Iran, they went silent; this silence stood out. Normally, our sources would happily speculate — but on this subject, there was no speculation. And the disciplined silence was universal. This indicated that those who didn’t know didn’t want to touch the subject, and that those who did know were keeping secrets. None of this proved anything, but taken together, it caused us to put our net assessment for Iran on hold. We could no longer take any theory for granted.

All of the foregoing must be considered in the context of the current geopolitical system. And that is a matter of understanding what is in plain sight.

Potential Russian Responses to Washington

The U.S.-Russian summit that took place after the Iranian elections did not go well. U.S. President Barack Obama’s attempt to divide Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Russian Prime Minister Putin did not bear fruit. The Russians were far more interested in whether Obama would change the FSU policy of former U.S. President George W. Bush. At the very least, the Russians wanted the Americans to stop supporting Ukraine’s and Georgia’s pro-Western tendencies.

But not only did Obama stick with the Bush policy, he dispatched U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to visit Ukraine and Georgia to drive home the continuity. This was followed by Biden’s interview with The Wall Street Journal, in which he essentially said the United States does not have to worry about Russia in the long run because Russia’s economic and demographic problems will undermine its power. Biden’s statements were completely consistent with the decision to send him to Georgia and Ukraine, so the Obama administration’s attempts to back away from the statement were not convincing. Certainly, the Russians were not convinced. The only conclusion the Russians could draw was that the United States regards them as a geopolitical cripple of little consequence.

If the Russians allow the Americans to poach in what Moscow regards as its sphere of influence without responding, the Russian position throughout the FSU would begin to unravel — the precise outcome the Americans hope for. So Moscow took two steps. First, Moscow heated up the military situation near Georgia on the anniversary of the first war, shifting its posture and rhetoric and causing the Georgians to warn of impending conflict. Second, Moscow increased its strategic assertiveness, escalating the tempo of Russian air operations near the United Kingdom and Alaska, and more important, deploying two Akula-class hunter-killer submarines along the East Coast of the United States. The latter is interesting, but ultimately unimportant. Increased tensions in Georgia are indeed significant, however, since the Russians have decisive power in that arena — and can act if they wish against the country, one Biden just visited to express American support.

But even a Russian move against Georgia would not be decisive. The Americans have stated that Russia is not a country to be taken seriously, and that Washington will therefore continue to disregard Russian interests in the FSU. In other words, the Americans were threatening fundamental Russian interests. The Russians must respond, or by default, they would be accepting the American analysis of the situation — and by extension, so would the rest of the world. Obama had backed the Russians into a corner.

When we look at the geopolitical chessboard, there are two places where the Russians could really hurt the Americans.

One is Germany. If Moscow could leverage Germany out of the Western alliance, this would be a geopolitical shift of the first order. Moscow has leverage with Berlin, as the Germans depend on Russian natural gas, and the two have recently been working on linking their economies even further. Moreover, the Germans are as uneasy with Obama as they were with Bush. German and American interests no longer mesh neatly. The Russians have been courting the Germans, but a strategic shift in Germany’s position is simply not likely in any time frame that matters to the Russians at this juncture — though the leaders of the two countries are meeting once again this week in Sochi, Russia, their second meeting in as many months.

The second point where the Russians could hurt the Americans is in Iran. An isolated Iran is not a concern. An Iran with a strong relationship to Russia is a very different matter. Not only would sanctions be rendered completely meaningless, but Iran could pose profound strategic problems for the United States, potentially closing off airstrike options on Iranian nuclear facilities.

The Strait of Hormuz: Iran¡s Real Nuclear Option

The real nuclear option for Iran does not involve nuclear weapons. It would involve mining the Strait of Hormuz and the narrow navigational channels that make up the Persian Gulf. During the 1980s, when Iran and Iraq were at war, both sides attacked oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. This raised havoc on oil prices and insurance rates.

If the Iranians were to successfully mine these waters, the disruption to 40 percent of the world’s oil flow would be immediate and dramatic. The nastiest part of the equation would be that in mine warfare, it is very hard to know when all the mines have been cleared. It is the risk, not the explosions, which causes insurance companies to withdraw insurance on vastly expensive tankers and their loads. It is insurance that allows the oil to flow.

Just how many mines Iran might lay before being detected and bringing an American military response could vary by a great deal, but there is certainly the chance that Iran could lay a significant number of mines, including more modern influence mines that can take longer to clear. The estimates and calculations of minesweepers — much less of the insurers — would depend on a number of factors not available to us here. But there is the possibility that the strait could be effectively closed to supertankers for a considerable period. The effect on oil prices would be severe; it is not difficult to imagine this aborting the global recovery.

Iran would not want this outcome. Tehran, too, would be greatly affected by the economic fallout (while Iran is a net exporter of crude, it is a net importer of gasoline), and the mining would drive the Europeans and Americans together. The economic and military consequences of this would be severe. But it is this threat that has given pause to American and Israeli military planners gaming out scenarios to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. There are thousands of small watercraft along Iran’s coast, and Iran’s response to such raids might well be to use these vessels to strew mines in the Persian Gulf — or for swarming and perhaps even suicide attacks.

Notably, any decision to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities would have to be preceded by (among other things) an attempt to neutralize Iran’s mine-laying capability — along with its many anti-ship missile batteries — in the Persian Gulf. The sequence is fixed, since the moment the nuclear sites are bombed, it would have to be assumed that the minelayers would go to work, and they would work as quickly as they could. Were anything else attacked first, taking out the Iranian mine capability would be difficult, as Iran’s naval assets would scatter and lay mines wherever and however they could — including by swarms of speedboats capable of carrying a mine or two apiece and almost impossible to engage with airpower. This, incidentally, is a leading reason why Israel cannot unilaterally attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. They would be held responsible for a potentially disastrous oil shortage. Only the Americans have the resources to even consider dealing with the potential Iranian response, because only the Americans have the possibility of keeping Persian Gulf shipping open once the shooting starts. It also indicates that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be much more complex than a sudden strike completed in one day.

The United States cannot permit the Iranians to lay the mines. The Iranians in turn cannot permit the United States to destroy their mine-laying capability. This is the balance of power that limits both sides. If Iran were to act, the U.S. response would be severe. If the United States moves to neutralize Iran, the Iranians would have to push the mines out fast. For both sides, the risks of threatening the fundamental interests of the other side are too high. Both Iran and the United States have worked to avoid this real “nuclear” option.

The Russian Existential Counter

The Russians see themselves facing an existential threat from the Americans. Whether Washington agrees with Biden or not, this is the stated American view of Russia, and by itself it poses an existential threat to Russia. The Russians need an existential counterthreat — and for the United States, that threat relates to oil. If the Russians could seriously threaten the supply of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, the United States would lose its relatively risk-free position in the FSU.

It follows from this that strengthening Iran’s ability to threaten the flow of oil, while retaining a degree of Russian control over Iran’s ability to pull the trigger, would give Russia the counter it needs to American actions in the FSU. The transfer of more advanced mines and mining systems to Iran — such as mines that can be planted now and activated remotely (though most such mines can only lay, planted and unarmed, for a limited period) to more discriminating and difficult-to-sweep types of mines — would create a situation the Americans could neither suppress nor live with. As long as the Russians could maintain covert control of the trigger, Moscow could place the United States, and the West’s economies, in check.

Significantly, while this would wreak havoc on Persian Gulf producers and global oil consumers at a time when they are highly vulnerable to economic fluctuations, a spike in the price of oil would not hurt Russia. On the contrary, Russia is an energy exporter, making it one of the few winners under this scenario. That means the Russians can afford much greater risks in this game.

We do not know that the Russians have all this in mind. This is speculation, not a net assessment. We note that if Russo-Iranian contacts are real, they would have begun well before the Iranian elections and the summit. But the American view on Russia is not new and was no secret. Therefore, the Russians could have been preparing their counter for a while.

We also do not know that the Iranians support this Russian move. Iranian distrust of Russia runs deep, and so far only the faction supporting Ahmadinejad appears to be playing this game. But the more the United States endorses what it calls Iranian reformists, and supports Rafsanjani’s position, the more Ahmadinejad needs the Russian counter. And whatever hesitations the Russians might have had in moving closer to the Iranians, recent events have clearly created a sense in Moscow of being under attack. The Russians think politically. The Russians play chess, and the U.S. move to create pressure in the FSU must be countered somewhere.

In intelligence, you must take bits and pieces and analyze them in the context of the pressures and constraints the various actors face. You know what you don’t know, but you still must build a picture of the world based on incomplete data. At a certain point, you become confident in your intelligence and analysis and you lock it into what STRATFOR calls its net assessment. We have not arrived at a new net assessment by any means. Endless facts could overthrow our hypothesis. But at a certain point, on important matters we feel compelled to reveal our hypothesis not because we are convinced, but simply because it is sufficiently plausible to us — and the situation sufficiently important — that we feel we should share it with the appropriate caveats. In this case, the stakes are very high, and the hypothesis sufficiently plausible that it is worth sharing.

The geopolitical chessboard is shifting, though many of the pieces are invisible. The end may look very different than this, but if it winds up looking this way, it is certainly worth noting.