At the risk of sounding rude, I am afraid my friends may be suffering from a mild case of…err…localitis.
Here is a reality check:
— Population: Over the next 25 years, the American advantage is to go from two-to-one today, to three-to-one in 2038. That would be 400 million Americans versus 133 million Russians.
— Economy: The U.S. economy is eight times bigger than Russia’s.
— Military: The U.S. outspends Russia 10-to-one.
Barring wild card factors – like worldwide weather chaos – there is no foreseeable reason why these fundamental disparities should change significantly in the medium term.
Indeed, the biggest game changer of our time — the shale gas revolution — benefits the US. With energy self-sufficiency looming and low gas prices a reality, the United States is re-industrializing. In contrast, Russia faces falling gas export revenues.
To compensate for its reduced clout on the world stage, the Kremlin glues Russia to China. It is like the medium size kid who gets protection by bonding with the biggest boy in the playground. The Kremlin works overtime to massage Russia’s relationship with China. The Chinese clear cut Siberian forests, pollute international rivers, and refuse to build manufacturing plants in Russia – and that is OK with Russia’s rulers.
In contrast, the Kremlin goes out of its way to pick fights with Washington.
After January’s infamous ban on Americans adopting Russian children, last week saw Russia slap a ban beef and pork imports from the United States, and a delay in certifying the latest model Boeing 777 passenger jet for use by Aeroflot. Given the already large US trade deficit with Russia, new restrictions on American exports will only further alienate the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress.
But, protest a few remaining voices in Washington, we have to be nice to the Putin Administration because we really need Russian support on key world issues.
Let’s run down the checklist:
– North Korea — The Kim dynasty is a political Frankenstein that long, long ago escaped control of its Kremlin creators — probably half a century ago. On the subject of nuclear bombs, Pyongyang simply ignores Moscow. A Russian ambassador once told me that the North Koreans play a shell game, hiding their nuclear bombs in caves – and North Korea’s military has dug thousands of caves. With North Korea apparently preparing a nuclear bomb test this month, the only concrete reaction by Russia has been to turn on radiation detectors around Vladivostok. Only China has real leverage over North Korea.
– Syria – Saturday’s meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and a Syria opposition leader was encouraging, but not a first. Outsiders long hoped that a political deal could be brokered if the Russians delivered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the Americans delivered the Syrian opposition. Now, it seems clear that the Kremlin will not – and probably can not – persuade Syria’s president to step aside for a political solution. With 60,000 already dead, there is no harm in trying to enlist Russian diplomatic support for a political solution. But after 18 months of failed diplomacy, Washington has little illusions.
– Iran – Whoever is in the Kremlin has to step carefully here. Russian caution is tempered by a 500-year history of dealing with Persia. Russia does not want a nuclear-armed Iran on its southern border. Nor does it want to take a step today that Persians will hold against Russians for decades to come. That said, Russia’s cancellation of the sale of its S-300 air defense system to Iran put pressure on Tehran to negotiate its nuclear weapons program. Talks resume later this month in Kazakhstan.
– Afghanistan – During the Falklands War, Henry Kissinger once described Argentina as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.” For many Americans, Afghanistan has a similar strategic importance. President Obama recently said in his inaugural address: “A decade of war is ending.” For Russia, that means that, after a decade of criticizing from the sidelines, the Kremlin will soon have the privilege of spending Russian taxpayer money to stabilize Afghanistan and prevent the spread of Islamic extremism into Central Asia – a genuine security concern for Russia. At the same time, Russian companies and the Russian government will lose revenues from ferrying NATO war material in and out of the Northern Distribution Network. Billed by the Kremlin as a favor to the West, Russia’s participation in this supply route was highly lucrative and in its own strategic interest.
– Missile Defense – Russian cooperation would be nice in building a picket line against a lone Iranian missile flying West. But Russia’s loud opposition has not slowed the program. For stopping missiles from Iran, today’s sea-based U.S. Navy Aegis interceptors are better positioned than yesterday’s land missiles in Central Europe. The Patriot missiles installed in Turkey in January could also play a role. Last month, Minister Lavrov accurately complained of Washington’s position: “They sort of offer to continue the dialogue, but do what they have decided to do.”
– Nuclear Arms Reduction – This is an issue dear to the heart of President Obama, but not terribly high on the worry lists of American voters. A North Korean nuclear test could change that. Obama Administration envoys are to come to Moscow in coming weeks to start talks. Some mutual cuts can be achieved by executive orders. But given the American congressional skepticism of the Putin government, a new bilateral treaty would be a hard sell. If Russia’s unilateral trade bans expand beyond beef and Boeings, forget it.
– United Nations Security Council Veto – UN Security Council approval gives solid international legitimacy to diplomatic or military actions. In the post-Soviet era, one of the Kremlin’s most cherished powers is Russia’s veto. But after the Bush era invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama Administration is wrapping up American involvement in these wars and limiting engagement in new ones. Libya was an example of Washington “leading from behind.” Mali was handed off to the French. Syria is largely under observation. With American voters wary of getting dragged into faraway civil wars, one can predict fewer American appeals to the Security Council for its seals of approval. If there is a direct threat to the security of the United States, the American President, Republican or Democrat, will act – with Security Council approval, or without it.
And what does Russia need from the United States?
Here is a short checklist:
– Industrial investment to diversify from dependency on natural resource exports;
– A boycott-free 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics;
– Support in countering the spread of Islamic radicalism from Afghanistan into Central Asia;
– Continued access for Russian exporters to the world’s largest economy;
– Continued easy access for Russian tourists to the United States
– Continuation of the pax americana where the US Navy has guaranteed freedom of world shipping since World War II.
Last week, then-Senator John Kerry briefly touched on Russia during his confirmation hearings for the post of Secretary of State. His caution — and limited expectations — were clear. He said of Russia: “I would like to see if we can find some way to cooperate.”
PS This just in: Russia bans imports of American turkey meat, effective Feb. 11. That wipes out 10s of millions of dollars of US sales to Russia this year. On the upside, Aeroflot just won permit to fly its new Boeing 777-300ER jet. Good news because they have 16 on order.