What does Russia docking in the Panama Canal this weekend mean? What should the Obama administration be thinking about it? National Review Online asked a group of Russian experts.
The visits of Russian ships to Venezuela and the Panama Canal are part of a campaign of escalating Russian pressure — a campaign designed to prevent Ukraine and Georgia from being admitted into NATO. The inclusion of these two former Soviet republics in NATO does not threaten Russia militarily, but in the eyes of Russian leaders, the Westernization of Georgia and Ukraine is an extremely bad example for the Russian population.
Russia seeks a world in which it can impose its will in the territory of the former Soviet Union. Russian spokesmen (and “realists” who echo their positions) argue that Russia will then become a reliable partner of the West. In reality, having gotten a “privileged position” in the former Soviet space, Russia will next seek a privileged position in the former Warsaw Pact.
In pursuit of its objectives, Russia has become threatening. Russian president Dmitri Medvedev greeted President-elect Obama with a threat to station nuclear-capable short-range missiles in the Kaliningrad oblast next to NATO. In September, Russia conducted a military exercise in the Southern Urals designed to simulate a war with the U.S. Now, Russian warships are patrolling the Caribbean Sea and the Panama Canal. Putin said that Russia has received many requestsfrom countries that would like Russian ships to visit their ports.
Under these circumstances, the bedrock of sound policy is fidelity to principles. The Russians seek a corrupt deal; the right of sovereign nations to form their own alliances cannot be discussed.
— David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His most recent book is Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale).
Russia has been provoking the United States and its allies recently for a variety of reasons, and this will likely escalate during an Obama administration. The question is, Will Obama react like a Carter or a Reagan?
As Jeane Kirkpatrick used to say, “People are policy.” Of the names mentioned so far as potential Obama advisers on Russia, most are promising, but some are worrying. Close to Obama are Zbigniew and Mark Brzezinski, who are no friends of Putin, and the academic Michael McFaul, who specialized in exposing the failures of Putinism.
However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will likely bring Strobe Talbott — her husband’s “Russia Hand” in the 1990s — back to life. This is worrying. At a time when Russia looked to Washington for guidance after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Talbott helped (morally and materially) not the America-friendly democrats but the remnants of Soviet power. When Talbott was a journalist, he had career-boosting relations with a KGB agent called Viktor Louis, and this could have trapped him in a Faustian bargain that affected his judgment later. Clinton herself is close to America’s allies in that region, but could sub-contract Russia to Talbott.
For his part, Putin owes a lot to Talbott, but is known to be ungrateful to past supporters.
— Fredo Arias-King is founder of the Washington-based academic quarterly Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
The threat is mild. It is posturing, a tool of statecraft. After over a decade of absence, the post-Soviets are back on the world scene.
They are letting the U.S. know that they are ready to support various nefarious leftist regimes in the area, including those in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. However, their post-Communism-cum-Great-Russian-chauvinism lacks the ideological rabidity of unadulterated Communism of yore. Also, the economic crisis, the slump in energy prices in particular, should limit Russia’s ambitions overseas.
There’s also the idea of reciprocity. From the Kremlin’s point of view, it goes something like this: “The U.S. supports Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltics. It meddles in Iran. Well, we’ll bring the game over to Latin America and we’ll see how Washington likes that! We’ll back away if they withdraw from our sphere of influence.”
On the other hand, the Russian Federation is the only nation on earth capable of destroying the United States today: It has inherited the USSR’s nuclear arsenal.
—Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is academic dean of and professor of history at the Institute of World Politics.
These latest maneuvers on Russia’s part look more like a naval middle finger to Washington than like a long-term threat. Moscow is creating a stash of bargaining chips to trade for serious concessions from the incoming Obama administration — an administration anxious to demonstrate its skill in applying soft power.
Russia’s other recent behaviors are far more worrisome: You have a prescription for an “almost-Cold War.” Russia will be building a nuclear reactor for Hugo Chavez, and if Venezuela moves toward a military nuclear program, it may trigger an arms race in Latin America. Not to mention Russia’s support of Iran and Syria, or its cozy contacts with Hamas and Hezbollah. Or Russia’s war with Georgia, Moscow’s hysterical opposition to NATO enlargement, and its overblown fears of the U.S. missile-defense deployment in Central Europe.
Yes, these new actions — Russia’s naval maneuvers with Venezuela, port call to the Panamanian naval base of Balboa, and planned joint maneuvers with India in January — should be the subject of a careful examination by the intelligence and analytical communities. But if crisis-ridden Moscow and Washington hope for a thaw, and if no follow-up activities (like opening up a permanent Russian base in Venezuela or Cuba) take place, gestures like the two Russian ships in the Caribbean will remain little more than geopolitical chess moves.
—Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy security at the Katherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev
Monitor, but don’t overreact. That’s my advice to both the outgoing and incoming administrations.
These Russian naval actions are symbolic. Russia’s ability to project power in any sustained fashion is still minimal, even given the recovery of the last several years (a recovery the current economic crisis jeopardizes). There is no strategic threat to the U.S. comparable to that seen in the Cold War days. Sending the Admiral Chabanenko through the Panama Canal is a move designed to rattle our chain.
The real danger lies in overreaction. Recall earlier this year when the U.S. Navy reactivated the Fourth Fleet, active in the waters of the Caribbean and Central and South America: Latin America, not just the usual suspects like Hugo Chavez but also leaders in Brazil and Argentina, reacted negatively. Now’s not the best time to be banding around phrases like “America’s sphere of influence.” This is a time when a number of U.S. interests — including promoting the energy security of the entire Western Hemisphere — require forging more intimate ties with a region where anti-American sentiment can still be whipped up at a moment’s notice.
And be careful of falling into the equivalency trap. Moscow uses any and all expressions of outrage about a Russian presence in “America’s backyard” to suggest a trade — they stay out of the Caribbean, we should stay out of the Black Sea and Caspian basins. The Russian claim that sovereign states are free to cooperate with whomever they want is a wonderful principle — we should insist that Ukraine and Georgia should be held to the same standard as Venezuela.
Keep an eye on what transpires, by all means, but let’s not let ourselves get baited.
— Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
Clifford D. May
I’m less concerned about the threat of a new Cold War than I am about the occasionally hot conflict already underway. Militant Islamist groups (e.g. al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood) and radical jihadi regimes (e.g. Iran and Sudan) are targeting people in India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Israel, and many other places.
The incoming Obama administration should be under no illusions about Russia. Led by Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, Russia is not an ally, nor does it aspire to become a democracy. It is, as Robert Kagan has written,an autocracy and proud of it. On this basis, it is siding with the jihadis and against their victims. It wants to see America diminished.
But Russia in this century, like the Soviet Union in the last, has only a third-world economy. Its ability to project military power abroad depends on the fact that — like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela — it has vast petroleum reserves under its soil. In exchange for oil, free and productive nations hand over money — and power.
The sooner the U.S. and its allies develop alternative and competitive sources of transportation energy, thereby stripping oil of its strategic value, the sooner Russia will temper its belligerence.
Since the 1970s, we have known that reducing energy dependence is vital to America’s national security. The Energy Department was set up to work on this problem. It has achieved nothing under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.
For at least the last seven years, we have known that the current and unprecedented transfer of wealth from free nations to Islamists and autocrats also represents a serious national security threat. But this problem, too, has yet to be seriously addressed. Obama says he stands for change. Here’s a good place for him to start.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Here is what the incoming Obama administration should do about the increased Russian naval presence in Caribbean and South America: nothing.
Visiting the Panama Canal and sending bombers and ships to Venezuela might seem like a flexing of Russian muscle in America’s backyard. But these acts are nothing more than mere stunts, expressions of a wounded Russian national ego.
Getting those two Blackjack bombers, for example, all that distance from Russia to Venezuela (something the U.S. Air Force can do as a matter of routine) probably kept most of the Russian Air Force busy for weeks, not least with fierce prayers that the planes would not suffer an embarrassing malfunction somewhere over the Atlantic. Even in the Soviet Navy’s best days, there was no danger of a Russian naval presence in South America. There isn’t one now.
More to the point, there will be no return to the Cold War, because there is nothing left to fight about. The violent, revolutionary ideology that was the mainspring of Soviet mischief is long dead, a punchline to a bad joke no one remembers. Moscow’s current posturing is largely for domestic Russian consumption, a chest-thumping response not only to their questionable military performance in Georgia, but — it must be admitted — to the brusqueness of American policy toward Russia under both Bush 43 and Bill Clinton. From NATO expansion to European missile defense, U.S. policy has clumsily poked the Kremlin in the eye for no good reason and to no good effect, and it was only a matter of time before the Russians returned the favor.
Irritation, however, is not the same as a death struggle. The new administration should ignore Russia’s juvenile, attention-seeking behavior and return to a discussion of matters that are far more important to both of us, including terrorism, nuclear security, and better cooperation in the midst of a global economic crisis.
Besides, if the Russians want a friend like Hugo Chavez, isn’t that their problem?
— Tom Nichols is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College, and a fellow at the Belfer Center of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The opinions are those of the author.
The Russia of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev will do whatever it can to acquire and exert hard power. The will to rebuild the old Soviet war machine is ever-present. The recent invasion of Georgia is a good example of how they like to do things. If they could, they would once more occupy not only Georgia but also Ukraine and the Baltic republics, and punish Poland and the Czech Republic for even considering the installation of an American missile-defense system.
Unfortunately for them, the capacity for hard power is missing. These military and naval moves reveal immense weaknesses in command, equipment, and personnel. The collapsing oil and gas prices virtually rule out re-establishing real hard power for the foreseeable future. Russia’s sole feasible policy is to probe for the weaknesses of others, and generally make a mockery of any belief in soft power. For instance, Russia seeks to discover whether the harbor of Sebastopol or the former Soviet base in Syria can be exploited in the future.
To engage in joint maneuvers with Venezuela and afterwards to send a destroyer through the Panama Canal to dock in a former U.S. Navy base there signifies intent to be sure, but the effect is more symbolic than anything else. The best brains in the Kremlin are no doubt imagining how to wage a new Cold War with greater prospects.
— David Pryce-Jones is a senior editor of National Review.