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August 9, 2007 [LINK / comment]

What are the Russians up to?

Some people may think that the claim of the Arctic Sea floor by a Russian Navy submarine last week was a desperate morale-boosting stunt by a government that knows it is in terminal demographic decline. Or perhaps it is nothing more than a symbolic, feel-good gesture along the lines of the U.S. flags planted on the moon by American astronauts. Canada's government is not taking this episode lightly, however: Prime Minister Stephen Harper is traveling to the Arctic region to assert Canada's sovereignty. Interestingly, the United States opposes Canada's claim, insisting that the Arctic waters are neutral. Why is this important? "[T]he U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic has as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas." See

The Arctic episode was not an isolated incident, however. The Russian Navy, which has been "bottled up" inside the Black Sea ever since the end of the Cold War, is once again interested in the Mediterranean Sea. Last week Admiral Vladimir Masorin made a speech at the port of Sevastapol in which he proposed to restore a permanent Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean, even as the Kremlin denies reports of naval dock being built on the coast of Syria. See Washington Times.

Finally (?), Russian long-range bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, have resumed practice flights near U.S. territory. In part, this renewed activity reflects the increased revenues from petroleum exports, as the Russian government is no longer short of cash as it was throughout the 1990s. See BBC.

Taken together, these actions leave no doubt that President Vladimir Putin has opted for an aggressive, "defiant" foreign policy aimed at raising the prestige of the state via coercive means. The corollary of this alternative is that Russia has evidently decided to forego the potential wealth-boosting benefits of attracting foreign investment and promoting international trade. Strategic decisions such as these are not made on a whim, and we must therefore expect further confrontations with Russia in the months and years to come.

Was this inevitable? No. Putin bears a heavy share of the blame for needlessly resuscitating Cold War tensions. But part of the problem, I'm afraid, stems from the decision to expand NATO into former Warsaw Pact territory in the 1990s. I opposed President Clinton's decision to push for inclusion of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into NATO, and I remain convinced that the costs of that decision outweighed the benefits. (Those three countries sent a few thousand troops to Iraq, for which we should be thankful, but it was not a decisive contribution.)

So what should we do in response? Obviously, scale back on various trade and technical cooperation endeavors that are underway. Russia has no evident interest in working with us, and we have no choice but to reciprocate in this chilling of relations. We are not in a hostile situation, nonetheless, and there are no overriding clashes of interests such as existed during the Cold War. There is no reason to panic. If the Russians view things rationally, they will probably realize that they have little to gain from opposing us -- after all, we share a common enemy in radical Islam. Patience and determination will be required to convince the Russians that we have joint interests.

Lame-duck diplomacy

In Monday's Washington Post Jackson Diehl wondered whether President Bush is really serious about his declared goal of promoting democracy around the world. He dispatched Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to the Middle East, but prospects for success in brokering a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians seems very uncertain. Indeed, the main initiative of the Bush administration in that region involves the sale of military equipment to friendly (?) governments such as Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. Diehl believes the failure to back up words with substance indicates that Bush is focusing his diplomatic efforts on polishing his legacy for the future, rather than accomplishing practical goals for the short- and medium- term. Even more troubling, Bush has apparently given up on regime change in North Korea and is now trying to negotiate a deal with Kim Jong Il. Diehl observes:

The Rice offensive bears more than a passing resemblance to a record the Bush team once ridiculed -- the mad dash for Israeli-Palestinian peace and North Korean disarmament by the Clinton administration in its final months.

I think Diehl is a little harsh on Bush, but I would acknowledge that the President has not done very well in reconciling U.S. high ideals (freedom and democracy) with hard-nosed realpolitik. Somehow, Ronald Reagan achieved an almost perfect balance between those goals. Bush has yet to explicitly acknowledge that U.S. foreign policy objectives are constrained by limited resources, which is a fundamental premise of the realist approach to international relations.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 09 Aug 2007, 1: 20 PM

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