Russia's International Strategy

Is Russia waging a lukewarm war on the West?

An article in the Huffington Post of October 6, entitled "Nuclear Smugglers Shopped Radioactive Materials To ISIS And Other Terrorists" got me thinking. This 'little' incident is arguably part of a much bigger picture, which is extremely disturbing and potentially very dangerous. If one considers all the evidence, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Russia is waging a war on the West that is neither a full-scale one of open military conflict, nor the staged Cold War of the fifties, sixties and seventies, with its clearly defined rules and spheres of influence. Is what we are seeing a 'lukewarm' war, where a rogue Russian state has, as its single-minded goal, to decrease the influence of the West, destabilize it, and where possible, expand into areas where its adversaries show weakness?

Putin's international strategy can be summed up as follows:

1. Restore and expand Russian (i.e. Soviet) hegemony and power. The goal is to exert influence over the Eurasian landmass (except for China and the Far East and the Indian sub-continent), as well as the contiguous half of the Arctic. 2. Weaken, and destroy NATO and the European Union, as well as US influence. 3. Use every possible means to achieve these goals, short of outright war.

Russia has been active militarily and diplomatically in several theaters since Putin's assumption of power:

1. The Former Soviet Empire: Putin's aim is to restore and expand the geographic reach of the ex-Soviet Union. In Transnistria, Chechnya, North Ossetia, Abkhazia, and the Ukraine, he has used 'frozen' conflicts to deprive reform-minded or nationalist elements of territorial integrity in order to hinder their development as separate states and/or to prevent them from joining western institutions. These separatist conflicts serve as Kremlin patronage vehicles, fueling the organized crime and corruption that is key to Putin's system of governance. In the Baltics, starting with cyberwar on Estonia in 2007 that tried to shut down government services during a 3-week period, Russia has moved on to flexing its military muscle. Incursions into Baltic and Scandinavian airspace test these countries' and NATO's resolve and military readiness. In the Ukraine, Russia exploited discord in Kyiv and the sacking of the pro-Moscow Yanukovych government, on top of its historical claims and military weight in Crimea, to annex the peninsula. It continues to foment dissent in eastern Ukraine, and will not stop this low level military intervention until the Poroshenko government is replaced by a pliable, pro-Moscow one, thereby bringing all of Ukraine back into the Russian sphere.

2. The Arctic: Using the international legal framework of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, Russia recently resubmitted to the relevant UN Commission a beefed-up rationale for why an additional 1.2 million square kilometers of seabed should be deemed Russian territorial waters. Originally made in 2001 and rejected for lack of sufficient evidence, the submission is a claim to almost half the Arctic, largely mirroring the former USSR's unilateral appropriation of the sector from either tip of the Eurasian mainland to the North Pole. Russia is backing this with a militarization of the Arctic that the West cannot match. A Joint Strategic Command North has been created to include its upgraded Northern Fleet as well as several new bases, 10 search-and-rescue stations, 16 deep-water ports, 13 airfields, and 10 air-defense radar stations across the Arctic. Russia has 41 icebreakers (to the USA's 2), and is planning the placement of cold-weather capable surface-to-air missiles and specially designed drones. Russia's anti-access/area denial strategy in the Arctic is already in place, and in any case, whether the UN Committee approves its claim or not, who is going to challenge Putin's de facto control over half the Arctic?

3. Western Europe: Putin is destabilizing and weakening Western Europe and it institutions with open support for extremist parties and movements on both sides of the political spectrum―there is common cause in anti-EU, anti-immigration, often fundamentalist religious policies. Thus, last year France's far right Front National party received a loan from a bank owned by an oligarch close to Putin, and in January, investment projects and trade agreements were offered to Greece's far left Syriza Party. Perversely, while Putin foments the anti-immigration views of these parties, many in Europe hold the view that the bombing of non-ISIS rebel (and civilian) positions in support of the Assad government in Syria serves the goal of putting more immigration pressure on an already migrant-beleaguered Europe. Similarly, the unresolved frozen conflicts in the borderlands between Russia and EU tie up diplomatic, financial, intelligence and military resources of the latter as well as of the USA.

4. The Middle East: Russia's strategy of propping up the Assad government by using bombers and cruise missiles against largely non-ISIS rebel targets is at odds with the West, which believes that Assad cannot be part of the solution in the Middle East. The support for a government that, with its indiscriminate bombing, has made living in Syria for its people hell in the last few years is a high-risk tactic that creates problems for the West's military strategy, forcing NATO bombers to take care to avoid a mistake that could quickly evolve into major conflict. It also increases the flow of refugees to the already swamped states of Western Europe, diverting government focus and resources and serves the important domestic purpose of showing Russia's population that the government stands up to the West and forges its own path internationally. Supposedly accidental provocations such as over flight of Turkish airspace or locking radar on Turkish planes or ships are also high-risk tactical plays, which only elicit diplomatic responses and serve as pinpricks in the side of NATO. More important in the long run for its strategy is the build-up of the Russian military base in Syria which will permit it to project power in the Eastern Mediterranean.

These are some of the areas where Russia is causing problems for the West. We will examine the means in a separate blog.