Saturday, October 06, 2012

Tastes Great? Less Filling!

Is Russia becoming a Soviet Union Lite? Who cares? Putin isn't exactly the Dark Lord of our Nightmares.

Russia's lightness makes them no real threat to us and their Soviet nostalgia tour just alienates the West as China rises on Russia's border. Who knows when recovering Russia's Far East will become a core interest of China's?

Is Russia going to be a Soviet Union Lite?

Russian President Vladimir Putin once described the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Two decades later, he is laboring to create what some critics call a "Soviet Union Light." ...

One year ago, presidential candidate Vladimir Putin announced a goal of creating a Eurasian Union by 2015. Lawrence Sheets, South Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group, said one big step toward that goal is winning back Georgia.

Sheets, speaking in his office in Tbilisi, said President Putin is trying to reassert Russia's influence abroad, to establish "some sort of rump Soviet Union, if you like, [and] also to put pressure on Georgia, so that Georgia comes back to the fold.”

Indeed, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said on Friday that he will work to bring Georgia back into the Confederation of Independent States, a loose federation of nine of the 15 former Soviet republics.

Russia is certainly more active than China in trying to thwart our interests in important areas. But they don't have the horses to be our main worry. In the Cold War, the USSR's defense spending was about half of ours because they devoted far more of their smaller economy to defense than we did. They could not only compete globally, but our most important friends--NATO Europe and Japan--were conveniently close to Moscow's forces. Location, location, location, as I've written.

While one can never stop worrying about a country with as many nuclear weapons as Russia still has, Russia is not about to become the Cold War foe that drove all our defense and foreign policy issues.

Russia's GDP is roughly the size of Canada's. They can be a great power--if they devote the resources--that must also think more broadly than a region because their country is so large, but that expanse also makes it more difficult for Moscow to defend on their own.

One thing I just can't get a handle on is how nuclear weapons affect traditional Russian desires for buffer zones around their European core. It is often said that Russia currently can't defend Russia against invasion without nuclear weapons. I think this is correct and is likely to remain correct unless Russia tries to go full Soviet Union route rather than the lite route. But the expense of all those nuclear weapons also reduces the money available for conventional forces to throw Russia's weight around on their periphery.

Yet Russia clearly doesn't believe that nuclear weapons alone protect their core if they are still thinking about geographic buffers with a restored Soviet border. But Russia almost certainly can't afford to reacquire their Soviet-era buffer zones and will fail if they try.

Sure, they bit off a few bits of worthless terrain in Georgia. But Russia hasn't even reabsorbed the existing Soviet Union Lite--Belarus--that is most likely to want the embrace of Mother Russia.

We can handle--if we even bother to dwell on it too much--a Soviet Union Lite (or, Czarist Russian Empire, if you want a longer view), if that's what Russians pine for, that is surrounded by more problems than we'll ever face.

The real question is whether the Russians can handle the consequences of being a Soviet Union Lite that pushes around and absorbs whatever neighbors are weak enough to succumb to Moscow's pressure. It's one thing to be strong enough to push the neighbors around. It's quite another to be too weak to do more than provoke anger and resistance.

Russia is calling Georgia's free election and transfer of power a great victory on the path to restored Soviet glory. I doubt that this is the first step on that long journey. Being big and scary provokes fear. Take out the big and it just isn't that scary.

Who's a little fear demon?

Being a Soviet Union Lite may taste great to Putin, but it really is less filling. And less scary. Putin's mid-life crisis really shouldn't guide Russian grand strategy.