Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Empire Strikes Back--Where It Can

Far be it for me to speak for the "neo-Cold War" community that Fred Kaplan mocks, but I don't believe Putin is a chess-master who is rebuilding the Russian Empire (or Soviet one) with a grand plan of reconquest. But I do think we should oppose Putin, or he will gain territory and power despite not having a single integrated operational plan for rebuilding the empire.

Russia is weak and a regional power--with lots of nukes--that has the advantage of weak neighbors on their western borders:

As I've noted many times, Russia can carry out a small war--or use their military to backstop what was essentially a coup in Crimea. Russia has the advantage of having small powers along their western border like Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Georgia, where Russia can quickly mass power before the target nation can respond or before NATO could react in time to stop a quick grab of territory.

Or they can nuke us. They can't do much in between without suffering heavy losses and significant embarrassment in extended conventional combat.

Their hand in Syria is actually weak--assuming we don't save the Russians by saving Assad in another bad deal.

Which makes it all the more frustrating. By dismissing Russia as objectively weak (and so we don't need to oppose them), there is a good chance that we will actually help Russia achieve a win in Syria when we should be working to ensure Putin loses in Syria (and in Ukraine for that matter).

When our foes are strong, we can't afford to oppose them, apparently. But when they are weak we can't be bothered to worry about opposing them. I sense a pattern.

This dismissal of Russian efforts by Kaplan annoys me in particular:

The notion, expressed by some of the candidates at the last Republican presidential debate, that Putin might use his strengthened position in Syria as leverage to pry the Saudis, Jordanians, and Egyptians into his fold—how to begin toting the absurdities? His position in Syria is hardly strong; if these Sunni Arab leaders were remotely inclined to go in with Moscow (which they aren’t), they would hardly find Putin’s ramped-up alliance with Assad as cause to reconsider.

The Egyptians did flip from Russia (when they were the Soviets), recall. While I agree that it is unlikely Egypt would flip back to Russia given that Egypt is still switching their arsenal to Western weapons after all this time, it isn't absurd to think that Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia might hedge their bets if they think we are too unreliable of an ally to fully rely on.

Even if none of them want to flip to Russia, they might move closer to Russia--or perhaps China--to seek leverage. And that might make them cooperate less with us, no? Try leading from behind when there is nobody in front.

Jordan was once pretty tight with Saddam, recall, during the 1980s, because Saddam was strong and close--and standing in the way of Iran.

It isn't just that Putin is showing he will go the extra mile to support an ally. It's that we don't always indicate we care to put on our shoes for our friends.

Yes, Putin's ally Assad is in a very bad position. Yet there is Putin, sending in troops to make an effort. That speaks volumes about reliability, doesn't it?

So even if Russia isn't a future patron of these allies of ours, our ties with them can loosen whether or not Russia gains directly.

And maybe the Saudis look to nukes rather than an alternate patron to defend their interests.

You do realize that Iran has influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq--and that Iran and Russia are drawing closer, right?

Putin doesn't need to be a chess master if we don't even know the rules of the game.

We are right to worry about Russia. (And for fun, here's my view on that 2012 Romney comment about Russia being a geopolitical foe that President Obama mocked.) That doesn't require believing they are 10 feet tall and all-knowing. Or being a neo-Cold War warrior.

It just requires us to accept that Russia will push when they perceive weakness.

UPDATE: Fancy that:

Russia's intervention in Syria will curtail the spread of terrorism and help deal a fatal blow to Islamic State in the war-torn country, Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on Saturday.

This isn't a flip. But it is a wobble.

UPDATE: And here's a wobble that could become a flip:

The unsurprising result is that just as [Saudi Arabia's] external position is becoming less secure and more vulnerable, the internal political environment is now also showing new stress. This is great news for Iran and Russia—confusion and internal dissension in the Sunni world always helps. Indeed, many in Tehran must be hoping that a faction inside the royal house that favors a deal with Iran, even if that is on Iran’s terms, could come to power. Factionalism is the curse of autocratic polities, and very sudden shifts of policy can take place as an inside faction looks to an outside power for support.

Yeah. Remain calm. All is well.