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The Putin Agenda

By Peter Huessy
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Striking a deal with Russia's Vladimir Putin requires a certain amount of cunning, diplomacy and, more than anything else, a "correlation of forces" on your side. Unfortunately, the United States may not be in the strongest of positions to strike a cooperative deal with Russia on missile defense, and the Administration's recent plea for "some space" from the Kremlin highlights America's relatively weak position.

Though roundly criticized by nuclear freeze proponents at the time for not immediately putting on the table an expansive arms control agenda when he first took office, President Reagan immediately set out to rebuild the U.S. military and restore U.S. economic might. Then he would sit down with Moscow. This was known as "peace through strength."

Then, as now, Moscow's aim was to restrain U.S. power and undermine NATO unity. To its credit, the Administration has so far refused to restrict the numbers and location of interceptors to be deployed in Europe, as the Russians have demanded. And it has continued to resist proffering a written "guarantee" that U.S. missile defense systems are not "aimed" at Russia's strategic capability.

On the other hand, the elimination of the original missile defense radar and interceptor deployment sites in Poland and the Czech Republic was widely assumed to be a concession to the Kremlin that undercut the American alliance with these two nations.

What is missing in these discussions, however, is a hardheaded look at Russia's aims, starting with their effort to restrain U.S. power. Related to this are Syria, Iran and the oil rich regions of central Asia. Russia is rebuilding its Syrian naval port at Tartus. Iran and Syria combined constitute a threat to Israel and the United States. In addition, Iran acts as what Melik Kaylan called in the March 19, 2012 Wall Street Journal, a "southern bottleneck to the geography of Central Asia" and its huge oil and gas resources. This suits Russia just fine.

Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia was designed to preserve the Russian monopoly on how oil moves in and out of Central Asia. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan hold huge oil and gas resources, which Putin in an earlier era called "Russia's patrimony." In short, Iran is the barrier to Caucasus and trans-Caucasus oil going south. At all costs, Russia wants no alternative to traversing Russian and Russian controlled territory. Thus, Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons is not opposed by Moscow because such weapons in the hands of an ally cements the Kremlin's control over, in their view, trillions of dollars worth of oil and gas.

Now, it is not a coincidence that, as Robert Kaplan has written, a common element of regimes from North Korea, south through the Asian subcontinent to the Middle East is the acquisition and deployment of ballistic missiles and a search for greater firepower - nuclear weapons included. As he wrote in 2006, "we are behind the curve regarding post launch capability."

Putin sees missile defense as an adjunct to U.S. power and thus opposes it. Contrary to popular mythology, missile defenses need not be perfect, although Israel's use of Iron Dome this past month showed a success rate of nearly 80%, intercepting 56 of 73 Hamas rockets determined by the system to be headed for inhabited areas out of nearly 300 total rockets launched at Israel in that short time period.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs Madelyn Creedon testified correctly this week that missile defenses can help stability and gives the United States and its allies considerable diplomatic leverage to protect our partners and friends. This is very true.

And Putin knows this. So, it is beyond cheeky for Russia to tell the United States government that it has no right to protect U.S. territory as well as America's friends and deployed U.S. military forces from threats over which Russia has no control. Russia could easily be accused of augmenting the very threat they repeatedly deny exists! Russia's support of Iran, Syria and North Korea in the conventional military, rocket, and nuclear business is widely apparent.

>From this perspective, America has no business conceding anything to Russia regarding the extent of its deployed missile defenses in NATO or elsewhere. Russia is a serious problem and while Moscow professes a willingness to cooperate, it is ironic that it threatens to deploy new, nuclear-tipped missiles in the enclave of Kaliningrad aimed at NATO if it does not get what it wants. This is not a "reset."

The pursuit of "global zero" nuclear weapons, which is intimately related to the deployment of missile defenses, will not arrive anytime soon. The United States should therefore prioritize the enhancement of crisis stability and here missile defenses play that role in spades. And critical to crisis stability is to eliminate state sponsors of terror and their terror group accomplices which are at the heart of today's conflicts. To do that, America has diplomatic, economic, military and political means available, including cyber warfare, special operations forces, clever propaganda, misinformation and financial warfare.

It is frequently noted that the United States and its allies won World War II in 45 months. Russia has been at war with America for more than half a century. The Kremlin and its allies are seeking to rebuild a lost empire, with oil and gas resources and nuclear weapons at its core.

Ultimately, the question is will America will contest Russia's hegemonic behavior, and concentrate the resources, talent and drive to halt it? Or, will the U.S. government again seek to appease tyrants under the mistaken notion that they are, in fact, folks with which "we can do business"?

Peter Huessy, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is President of GeoStrategic Analysis and the senior defense consultant at the Air Force Association. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.

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