Watch out for Russia, the bear
The U.S. and Russia will conduct a conference soon to discuss Syria’s future. Moscow is enhancing the event’s vitality by threatening to arm the Assad regime — a counter to the European Union and American decisions to arm Syria’s rebel forces.
The conference is an acknowledgement of Russia’s increasing strategic re-emergence. The situation is also proof of historical cycles observed by noted Russian historian Philip Longworthy: Moscow starts as supreme or regional power, declines owing to internal and external factors, re-emerges over time, and the cycle restarts. Russia has followed the pattern since its founding in the 900s.
Russia can easily be stereotyped as an empire whose time has passed. Moscow’s strategic clout was discounted shortly after the Soviet Union’s disintegration. Its economy collapsed (Russia’s financial crisis made the Great Recession seem like a minor economic downturn), and its military prowess diminished. American diplomats, intelligence analysts and policymakers lost interest in Russia’s domestic/foreign affairs in the 1990s.
And then came Vladimir Putin.
Russia resurfaced as a strategic power after his ascension, although Moscow lacks the Soviet Union’s global clout. Still, the international community can not underestimate Russia’s capacity for surprises (as the Kremlin’s successful and startling military attack against Georgia illustrated in 2008).
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Russia’s influence cannot be overlooked for several reasons:
Moscow is an energy superpower.
Russia has several overlapping and conflicting strategic interests with the United States, including Syria’s ongoing civil war and Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs.
Moscow will finally continue seeking to re-establish clout over the former Soviet Union’s territories.
Russia is an international energy powerhouse. It is the world’s second-largest exporter of oil and natural gas (only Saudi Arabia and the United States surpass Russia). Russia provides Europe with an average of 32 percent of oil and 38 percent of Europe’s natural gas supplies. Moscow is aware of its energy clout and has used its status during several disputes.
The Kremlin has had several pricing-supply controversies with a few of its European clients since the early 2000s. The most serious disputes occurred between Belarus and Ukraine. The controversies resulted in a temporary cutoff of energy supplies to other countries utilizing the same pipeline. Many Europeans are wary whenever an energy dispute arises between Russia and its clientele.
The most serious controversy regards Syria. The White House is seeking Assad’s ouster, and the Kremlin opposes Washington’s efforts. Moscow views the Syrian leader as an anchor for sustaining Russia’s Mediterranean naval presence. Washington must negotiate with the Kremlin toward ending Syria’s civil war. The conflict might escalate into a regional conflagration if the United States and Russia fail to resolve their differences.
Both are concerned about the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs for various reasons. Moscow and Washington are involved in talks with Tehran and Pyongyang over the issue. The Russians have commercial interests in both countries. The Kremlin is eager to ensure that any solution to their nuclear controversies doesn’t hinder Moscow’s financial activities.
Afghanistan concerns the Kremlin for different reasons. Russia’s heroin problem is linked to Afghanistan’s opium fields. Moscow is also worried the Taliban will re-emerge as a strengthened insurgency and spread its influence into Central Asia once NATO leaves Afghanistan. Moscow is working with Washington and Brussels to ensure this doesn’t occur after 2014.
The final issue of contention regards Moscow’s policies toward the former Soviet states. The Kremlin views the region as its sphere of influence. A high probability exists that Russia will attempt to exert its influence over the various Central Asian, Caucasus and Baltic states in addition to Ukraine and Belarus. The pursuit’s prime instrument will involve creating a political and/or economic organization linking the area, such as the recently proposed Eurasian Union. Washington will view the situation unfavorably. The United States will deal with it as a last priority.
The Clinton and both Bush administrations discounted Russia’s strategic vitality (the only reason Moscow was even a consideration is Russia’s vast nuclear weapons arsenal). Russia is a secondary concern in the Obama administration after East Asia and the Middle East.
Still, Washington understands the truth behind the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s remarks that “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” and must avoid underestimating Moscow’s capacity for strategic surprises.
Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He’s lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Comments or questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.