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>What Shakles Russia’s Military Threat?

>Has Russia Become The International Spoiler?

August 22, 2008
Moscow–There is mounting tension between the U.S. and Russia since the invasion of Georgia. The West is concerned that this may mark a turning point in aggression from the East and that Georgia is just the starting point for the acquisitive Russians.

But there are forces abroad that will limit Russia’s aggression, and they don’t include it’s lack of passion for war, it’s desire to sell war assets to Syria and Iran, or its desire to re-paint it’s boundaries back to pre-1991 Soviet Union dimensions.

The New York Times believes Russia may yet hold back from some of the more disruptive options depending on how both sides play these next few weeks and months.

We have come a long way with Russia since the Cold War. But lest we delude ourselves, Russia has played ball with the U.S. in terms of wanting to limit Iran’s nuclear bomb capabilities, defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, and helping with the fight against terrorism in its own self interest.

Everything they do is because it has some lasting benefit for Russia. The Bear is not altruistic, but measures every diplomatic decision, every economic and political move to its final goal, that of more territory and returning to the hegemony of the old days.

Many in Washington hope Russia will restrain itself out of its own self-interest. My view is that is the only way they will restrain themselves. Dmitri Rogozin, a hard-liner who serves as Russia’s ambassador to NATO, told the newspaper Izvestia this week that Moscow still wanted to support the alliance in Afghanistan. “NATO’s defeat in Afghanistan would not be good for us,” he said.

“Moscow may also be checked by the desire of its economic elite to remain on the path to integration with the rest of the world,” said the Times. The main Russian stock index fell sharply in recent days, costing investors $10 billion — many with close ties to the circle of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin. Don’t ever believe that Putin lacks an economic head, that those investors don’t dictate certain policy to the Russian dictator.

The outbreak of violence in Georgia demonstrated just how abruptly the international scene can change. Now Russia is the top focus in Washington and some veteran diplomats fret about the situation spiraling out of control.

There are many, including Senator John McCain, who believe that the West must apply pressure and “punish the Russians for what is going on in Georgia, first the invasion and second the failure to live up to its agreement and the placement of missiles in Ossetia aimed at Tbilisi. Presidential candidate McCain wants to exclude Russia from the Group of 8 major powers. Such a move would effectively admit the failure of 17 years of bipartisan policy aimed at incorporating Russia into the international order.

Yet Washington’s menu of options pales by comparison to Moscow’s. Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said “there’s a lot more” that the United States needed from Russia than the other way around, citing efforts to secure old Soviet nuclear arms, support the war effort in Afghanistan and force Iran and North Korea to give up nuclear programs. “Hence Russia has all the leverage,” she said.

In forecasting Russia’s potential for causing headaches, most specialists look first to Ukraine, which wants to join NATO. The nightmare scenario circulating in recent days is an attempt by Moscow to claim the strategic Crimean peninsula to secure access to the Black Sea.

Ukrainian lawmakers are investigating reports that Russia has been granting passports en masse to ethnic Russians living in Crimea, a tactic Moscow used in the Georgian breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to justify intervention to protect its citizens.

Arms sales, as Mr. Assad’s visit underscored, represent another way Russia could create problems. Israeli and Western governments have already been alarmed about reports that the first elements of the Russian-built S-300 antiaircraft missile system are now being delivered to Iran, which could use them to shoot down any American or Israeli planes that seek to bomb nuclear facilities should that ever be attempted. If Israel and/or the U.S. are going to take action against Iran, now would be better than later.

While Mr. Rogozin expressed support for assisting NATO in the war in Afghanistan, other officials have warned darkly about cutting off ties with NATO. The two sides have already effectively suspended any military cooperation programs. But Russia could also revoke its decision in April to allow NATO to send nonlethal supplies overland through its territory en route to Afghanistan.

Russia could also turn up pressure on Kyrgyzstan to evict American forces that support operations in Afghanistan and could block any large-scale return to Uzbekistan, which expelled the Americans in 2005. “The argument would be, ‘Why help NATO?’ ” said Celeste A. Wallander, a Russia scholar at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.

Even beyond the dispute over Iran, Russia could obstruct the United States at the United Nations Security Council on a variety of other issues. Just last month, Russia vetoed sanctions against Zimbabwe’s government, a move seen as a slap at Washington.

“If Russia’s feeling churlish, they can pretty much bring to a grinding halt any kind of coercive actions, like economic sanctions or anything else,” said Peter D. Feaver, a former strategic adviser at the National Security Council.

Russia could also accelerate its withdrawal from arms control structures. It already has suspended the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty to protest American missile defense plans and threatened to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. Renewed tension could fray a recently signed civilian nuclear cooperation agreement and doom negotiations to extend soon-to-expire strategic arms control verification programs.

“Ironically, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there’s always been the concern about Russia becoming a spoiler,” said Ms. Stent, of Georgetown, “and now we could see the realization of that.”

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