For the past several days, high-level Russian and American policymakers, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Russian President Vladimir Putin's right-hand man, Sergei Ivanov, have been meeting in Moscow to discuss the grand scope of U.S.-Russian relations.
These talks would be of critical importance to both countries under any circumstances, as they center on the network of treaties that have governed Europe since the closing days of the Cold War.
Against the backdrop of the Iraq war, however, they have taken on far greater significance. Both Russia and the United States are attempting to rewire the security paradigms of key regions, with Washington taking aim at the Middle East and Russia more concerned about its former imperial territory. The two countries' visions are mutually incompatible, and American preoccupation with Iraq is allowing Moscow to overturn the geopolitics of its backyard. The Iraqi Preoccupation
After years of organizational chaos, the United States has simplified its plan for Iraq: Prevent Iran from becoming a regional hegemon. Once-lofty thoughts of forging a democracy in general or supporting a particular government were abandoned in Washington well before the congressional testimony of Gen. David Petraeus. Reconstruction is on the back burner and even oil is now an afterthought at best. The entirety of American policy has been stripped down to a single thought: Iran.
That thought is now broadly held throughout not only the Bush administration but also the American intelligence and defense communities. It is not an unreasonable position. An American exodus from Iraq would allow Iran to leverage its allies in Iraq's Shiite South to eventually gain control of most of Iraq. Iran's influence also extends to significant Shiite communities on the Persian Gulf's western oil-rich shore. Without U.S. forces blocking the Iranians, the military incompetence of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar could be perceived by the Iranians as an invitation to conquer that shore. That would land roughly 20 million barrels per day of global oil output -- about one-quarter of the global total -- under Tehran's control. Rhetoric aside, an outcome such as this would push any U.S. president into a broad regional war to prevent a hostile power from shutting off the global economic pulse.
So the United States, for better or worse, is in Iraq for the long haul. This requires some strategy for dealing with the other power with the most influence in the country, Iran. This, in turn, leaves the United States with two options: It can simply attempt to run Iraq as a protectorate forever, a singularly unappealing option, or it can attempt to strike a deal with Iran on the issue of Iraq -- and find some way to share influence.
Since the release of the Petraeus report in September, seeking terms with Iran has become the Bush administration's unofficial goal, but the White House does not want substantive negotiations until the stage is appropriately set. This requires that Washington build a diplomatic cordon around Iran -- intensifying Tehran's sense of isolation -- and steadily ratchet up the financial pressure. Increasing bellicose rhetoric from European capitals and the lengthening list of major banks that are refusing to deal with Iran are the nuts and bolts of this strategy.
Not surprisingly, Iran views all this from a starkly different angle. Persia has historically been faced with a threat of invasion from its western border -- with the most recent threat manifesting in a devastating 1980-1988 war that resulted in a million deaths. The primary goal of Persia's foreign policy stretching back a millennium has been far simpler than anything the United States has cooked up: Destroy Mesopotamia. In 2003, the United States was courteous enough to handle that for Iran.
Now, Iran's goals have expanded and it seeks to leverage the destruction of its only meaningful regional foe to become a regional hegemon. This requires leveraging its Iraqi assets to bleed the Americans to the point that they leave. But Iran is not immune to pressure. Tehran realizes that it might have overplayed its hand internationally, and it certainly recognizes that U.S. efforts to put it in a noose are bearing some fruit. What Iran needs is its own sponsor -- and that brings to the Middle East a power that has not been present there for quite some time: Russia. Option One: Parity
The Russian geography is problematic. It lacks oceans to give Russia strategic distance from its foes and it boasts no geographic barriers separating it from Europe, the Middle East or East Asia. Russian history is a chronicle of Russia's steps to establish buffers -- and of those buffers being overwhelmed. The end of the Cold War marked the transition from Russia's largest-ever buffer to its smallest in centuries. Put simply, Russia is terrified of being overwhelmed -- militarily, economically, politically and culturally -- and its policies are geared toward re-establishing as large a buffer as possible.
As such, Russia needs to do one of two things. The first is to re-establish parity. As long as the United States thinks of Russia as an inferior power, American power will continue to erode Russian security. Maintain parity and that erosion will at least be reduced. Putin does not see this parity coming from a conflict, however. While Russia is far stronger now -- and still rising -- than it was following the 1998 ruble crash, Putin knows full well that the Soviet Union fell in part to an arms race. Attaining parity via the resources of a much weaker Russia simply is not an option.
So parity would need to come via the pen, not the sword. A series of three treaties ended the Cold War and created a status of legal parity between the United States and Russia. The first, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), restricts how much conventional defense equipment each state in NATO and the former Warsaw Pact, and their successors, can deploy. The second, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), places a ceiling on the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles that the United States and Russia can possess. The third, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), eliminates entirely land-based short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles with ranges of 300 to 3,400 miles, as well as all ground-launched cruise missiles from NATO and Russian arsenals.
The constellation of forces these treaties allow do not provide what Russia now perceives its security needs to be. The CFE was all fine and dandy in the world in which it was first negotiated, but since then every Warsaw Pact state -- once on the Russian side of the balance sheet -- has joined NATO. The "parity" that was hardwired into the European system in 1990 is now lopsided against the Russians.
START I is by far the Russians' favorite treaty, since it clearly treats the Americans and Russians as bona fide equals. But in the Russian mind, it has a fateful flaw: It expires in 2009, and there is about zero support in the United States for renewing it. The thinking in Washington is that treaties were a conflict management tool of the 20th century, and as American power -- constrained by Iraq as it is -- continues to expand globally, there is no reason to enter into a treaty that limits American options. This philosophical change is reflected on both sides of the American political aisle: Neither the Bush nor Clinton administrations have negotiated a new full disarmament treaty.
Finally, the INF is the worst of all worlds for Russia. Intermediate-range missiles are far cheaper than intercontinental ones. If it does
come down to an arms race, Russia will be forced to turn to such systems if it is not to be left far behind an American buildup.
Russia needs all three treaties to be revamped. It wants the CFE altered to reflect an expanded NATO. It wants START I extended (and preferably deepened) to limit long-term American options. It wants the INF explicitly linked to the other two treaties so that Russian options can expand in a pinch -- or simply discarded in favor of a more robust START I.
The problem with the first option is that it assumes the Americans are somewhat sympathetic to Russian concerns. They are not.
Recall that the dominant concern in the post-Cold War Kremlin is that the United States will nibble along the Russian periphery until Moscow itself falls. The fear is as deeply held as it is accurate. Only three states have ever threatened the United States: The first, the United Kingdom, was lashed into U.S. global defense policy; the second, Mexico, was conquered outright; and the third was defeated in the Cold War. The addition of the Warsaw Pact and the Baltic states to NATO, the basing of operations in Central Asia and, most important, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine have made it clear to Moscow that the United States plays for keeps.
The Americans see it as in their best interest to slowly grind Russia into dust. Those among our readers who can identify with "duck and cover" can probably relate to the logic of that stance. So, for option one to work, Russia needs to have leverage elsewhere. That elsewhere is in Iran.
Via the U.N. Security Council, Russian cooperation can ensure Iran's diplomatic isolation. Russia's past cooperation on Iran's Bushehr nuclear power facility holds the possibility of a Kremlin condemnation of Iran's nuclear ambitions. A denial of Russian weapons transfers to Iran would hugely empower ongoing U.S. efforts to militarily curtail Iranian ambitions. Put simply, Russia has the ability to throw Iran under the American bus -- but it will not do it for free. In exchange, it wants those treaties amended in its favor, and it wants American deference on security questions in the former Soviet Union.
The Moscow talks of the past week were about addressing all of Russian concerns about the European security structure, both within and beyond the context of the treaties, with the offer of cooperation on Iran as the trade-off. After days of talks, the Americans refused to budge on any meaningful point. Option Two: Imposition
Russia has no horse in the Iraq war. Moscow had feared that its inability to leverage France and Germany to block the war in the first place would allow the United States to springboard to other geopolitical victories. Instead, the Russians are quite pleased to see the American nose bloodied. They also are happy to see Iran engrossed in events to its west. When Iran and Russia strengthen -- as both are currently -- they inevitably begin to clash as their growing spheres of influence overlap in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In many ways, Russia is now enjoying the best of all worlds: Its Cold War archrival is deeply occupied in a conflict with one of Moscow's own regional competitors.
In the long run, however, the Russians have little doubt that the Americans will eventually prevail. Iran lacks the ability to project meaningful power beyond the Persian Gulf, while the Russians know from personal experience how good the Americans are at using political, economic, military and alliance policy to grind down opponents. The only question in the Russian mind pertains to time frame.
If the United States is not willing to rejigger the European-Russian security framework, then Moscow intends to take advantage of a distracted United States to impose a new reality upon NATO. The United States has dedicated all of its military ground strength to Iraq, leaving no wiggle room should a crisis erupt anywhere else in the world. Should Russia create a crisis, there is nothing the United States can do to stop it.
So crisis-making is about to become Russia's newest growth industry. The Kremlin has a very long list of possibilities, which includes:
- Destabilizing the government of Ukraine: The Sept. 30 elections threaten to result in the re-creation of the Orange Revolution that so terrifies Moscow. With the United States largely out of the picture, the Russians will spare no effort to ensure that Ukraine remains as dysfunctional as possible.
- Azerbaijan is emerging as a critical energy transit state for Central Asian petroleum, as well as an energy producer in its own right. But those exports are wholly dependent upon Moscow's willingness not to cause problems for Baku.
- The extremely anti-Russian policies of the former Soviet state of Georgia continue to be a thorn in Russia's side. Russia has the ability to force a territorial breakup or to outright overturn the Georgian government using anything from a hit squad to an armored division.
- EU states obviously have mixed feelings about Russia's newfound aggression and confidence, but the three Baltic states in league with Poland have successfully hijacked EU foreign policy with regard to Russia, effectively turning a broadly cooperative relationship hostile. A small military crisis with the Balts would not only do much to consolidate popular support for the Kremlin but also would demonstrate U.S. impotence in riding to the aid of American allies.
Such actions not only would push Russian influence back to the former borders of the Soviet Union but also could overturn the belief within the U.S. alliance structure that the Americans are reliable -- that they will rush to their allies' aid at any time and any place. That belief ultimately was the heart of the U.S. containment strategy during the Cold War. Damage that belief and the global security picture changes dramatically. Barring a Russian-American deal on treaties, inflicting that damage is once again a full-fledged goal of the Kremlin. The only question is whether the American preoccupation in Iraq will last long enough for the Russians to do what they think they need to do.
Luckily for the Russians, they can impact the time frame of American preoccupation with Iraq. Just as the Russians have the ability to throw the Iranians under the bus, they also have the ability to empower the Iranians to stand firm.
On Oct. 16, Putin became the first Russian leader since Leonid Brezhnev to visit Iran, and in negotiations with the Iranian leadership he laid out just how his country could help. Formally, the summit was a meeting of the five leaders of the Caspian Sea states, but in reality the meeting was a Russian-Iranian effort to demonstrate to the Americans that Iran does not stand alone.
A good part of the summit involved clearly identifying differences with American policy. The right of states to nuclear energy was affirmed, the existence of energy infrastructure that undermines U.S. geopolitical goals was supported and a joint statement pledged the five states to refuse to allow "third parties" from using their territory to attack "the Caspian Five." The last is a clear bullying of Azerbaijan to maintain distance from American security plans.
But the real meat is in bilateral talks between Putin and his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the two sides are sussing out how Russia's ample military experience can be applied to Iran's U.S. problem. Some of the many, many possibilities include:
- Kilo-class submarines: The Iranians already have two and the acoustics in the Persian Gulf are notoriously bad for tracking submarines. Any U.S. military effort against Iran would necessitate carrier battle groups in the Persian Gulf.
- Russia fields the Bal-E, a ground-launched Russian version of the Harpoon anti-ship missile. Such batteries could threaten any U.S. surface ship in the Gulf. A cheaper option could simply involve the installation of Russian coastal artillery systems.
- Russia and India have developed the BrahMos anti-ship cruise missile, which has the uniquely deadly feature of being able to be launched from land, ship, submarine or air. While primarily designed to target surface vessels, it also can act as a more traditional -- and versatile -- cruise missile and target land targets.
- Flanker fighters are a Russian design (Su-27/Su-30) that compares very favorably to frontline U.S. fighter jets. Much to the U.S. Defense Department's chagrin, Indian pilots in Flankers have knocked down some U.S. pilots in training scenarios.
- The S-300 anti-aircraft system is still among the best in the world, and despite eviscerated budgets, the Russians have managed to operationalize several upgrades since the end of the Cold War. It boasts both a far longer range and far more accuracy than the Tor-M1 and Pantsyr systems on which Iran currently depends.
Such options only scratch the surface of what the Russians have on order, and the above only discusses items of use in a direct Iranian-U.S. military conflict. Russia also could provide Iran with an endless supply of less flashy equipment to contribute to intensifying Iranian efforts to destabilize Iraq itself.
For now, the specifics of Russian transfers to Iran are tightly held, but they will not be for long. Russia has as much of an interest in getting free advertising for its weapons systems as Iran has in demonstrating just how high a price it will charge the United States for any attack.
But there is one additional reason this will not be a stealth relationship.
The Kremlin wants Washington to be fully aware of every detail of how Russian sales are making the U.S. Army's job harder, so that the Americans have all the information they need to make appropriate decisions as regards Russia's role. Moscow is not doing this because it is vindictive; this is simply how the Russians do business, and they are open to a new deal.
Russia has neither love for the Iranians nor a preference as to whether Moscow reforges its empire or has that empire handed back. So should the United States change its mind and seek an accommodation, Putin stands perfect ready to betray the Iranians' confidence.
For a price.