Streetwise Professor

August 18, 2008

Never, Never, Never Give Up: Deny Putin the Victory He Craves

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:02 am

The Russian incursion into Georgia has led to much hand-wringing about American impotence. Certainly, our immediate response to the Russian blitz has not been encouraging, because we were no doubt truly surprised (thanks again, CIA! Keep up your stellar work!) But the medium-to-long term prospects are not nearly so dim. Indeed, if we—and Georgia—can hang on and deny Putin and Russia control over that country, he/it will lose, and we will win. There are myriad steps that we can take that will weaken Russia’s strategic position and allow the time for Russia’s inherent structural deficiencies to prove decisive. Steadfastness now will pay large dividends later. And the steadfastness must begin in Georgia. The current Georgian government and a considerable portion of Georgian territory (not necessarily including the disputed provinces) must be maintained. Beyond that, a series of other steps will make Putin et al rue the day that they crossed the Ossetian frontier.

Here are a few steps that we can take:

Deal directly with the New Frontier States
. Putin says that Russia cannot abide NATO in the near abroad. I agree! Taking a cue from the just announced agreement with Poland, the United States should negotiate bilateral mutual-commitment guarantees with key states, most notably Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltics, and perhaps eventually, Azerbaijan. (Armenia is an interesting case. It could also serve as a transit state linking the Caspian and Turkey, but the continuing conflict with Azerbaijan over Nargono-Karabakh, the historic animosity with Turkey, and the country’s resulting virtual complete dependence on Russia make it highly unlikely that Armenia will stray from the Russian orbit.)

The Georgian episode is only the latest in a series in events that raises serious questions about NATO’s future as an alliance. Afghanistan and the Bucharest fiasco (which arguably emboldened Putin and accelerated the events culminating in the current crisis) are only the most pronounced symptoms of an ill alliance. Western European nations were too often timorous free riders even when they were frontline states directly threatened with a Soviet onslaught. Now that they are no longer on the firing line, with the frontier having shifted hundreds of miles east, their fecklessness is even more pronounced. They are military nullities, with social service organizations masquerading as armies. They certainly have no ability to project power to the east, no logistical capability, no expeditionary capacity—not much of anything militarily useful, in fact. Certainly nothing that is useful in defending Poland or Estonia or Ukraine. Politically and economically they quake before Moscow’s energy power, ruthlessly wielded. (Though I argue below that their fears are overblown.) Their business and political elites thirst after deals in Russia, all the while ignoring the precarious nature of their investments there, investments that yield returns only at Putin’s sufferance. (Cf. Yukos, BP-TNK, Sakhalin II, etc., etc., etc.) Not inconsiderable numbers of European business and political leaders have been compromised, not to say corrupted, by their Russian engagements (Cf. Schroeder, Berlusconi). Russia’s successful divide and conquer strategy has completely eroded any pretense at a unified European response.

And as it has expanded, NATO has exhibited all of the deficiencies of military-political coalitions, especially those with diverse members and sometimes incompatible interests and goals. The division of councils within NATO has precluded any robust action on a variety of future threats—and, pace Georgia, with respect to some of those threats, the future is now. I remember a story, likely apocryphal, that illustrates the inherent defects of alliance warfare. As I remember it, Napoleon was told that another nation had joined the coalition against him. He replied: “Excellent. Our victory is assured.” Napoleon knew that broad and fractious coalitions lack the unity of command necessary to prevail in warfare, and that coalitions present an aggressive foe with many joints and fissures vulnerable to attack. Even a relatively small and homogeneous Anglo-American alliance in WWII suffered from these problems. Going further back into history, managing a fractious coalition posed far more problems to Marlborough than did his ostensible French enemies.

Tusk’s cutting remark that “Poland and the Poles do not want to be in alliances in which assistance comes at some point later – it is no good when assistance comes to dead people” puts matters succinctly and plainly, and may serve as NATO’s epitaph. From the American perspective, NATO’s cost-benefit balance is increasingly unfavorable. NATO impedes US strategic autonomy, and provides virtually nothing militarily substantive in return. (At least the Dutch provided Marlborough with the bulk of his army and much of his money.) In a new environment in which hard power realities have returned to the fore, this is a luxury the US cannot afford.

And, if the US deals bilaterally with the “New Europe” (Donald Rumsfeld, where have you gone?), Old Europe may well decide it is necessary to man up rather than be rendered irrelevant and voiceless.

The Baltic states and the Czechs are clearly candidates for security arrangements directly with the US along the lines of those negotiated with Poland, but the major focus should be on Ukraine (more on Georgia later.) This is clearly Putin’s/Russia’s ultimate target for geopolitical and deeply emotional reasons. It is also the most strategically vital and potentially powerful state in the region. The main challenge will be the Byzantine Ukrainian political situation. Although President Yuschenko has been outspoken in his support for Georgia, the same cannot be said of other key Ukrainian politicians. Ukrainian politics too often resembles the three-way Mexican standoff at the end of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Erstwhile allies from the Orange Revolution battle one another with a zest that few blood enemies can muster, and this presents divide-and-conquer masters Russia with considerable ability to undermine any robust, unified Ukrainian action. So, Ukraine will be difficult to navigate, especially since Russia will be focusing intense (and dirty) efforts there as well. But it is the keystone. (The nature of American security and military involvement there is also complicated by the Ukrainian constitution, which forbids a foreign military presence in the country.)

Rebuild the Relationship With Turkey. Turkey is another frontline state, and a largely overlooked one in commentary and analysis on the Russo-Georgian War. Turkey has a strong interest in keeping Georgia independent of Russia. The Turks have ambitions to be an energy hub, a bridge from the Caspian to Europe. Georgia is essential to realizing those ambitions. The Turks also have an ethnic affinity with Turkic peoples in Azerbaijan and the ‘Stans that would be more firmly in Moscow’s thrall if Russia controls the Georgian cork to the Caspian bottle. Turkey is also a historical enemy of Russia, with Russia’s 18th and 19th century expansion having come largely at Turkey’s (or, more precisely, the Ottoman Turks’) expense.

As both a potent military force, and as a host for American airpower that could provide a daunting security umbrella for Georgia (especially in light of the shockingly poor performance of the Russian Air Force in Georgia and the vulnerability of its logistical links through the Caucasus, like the Roki Tunnel and the Kodori Gorge, to interdiction from the air), Turkey could make Russia think more than twice about swallowing the rest of Georgia.

American relations with Turkey have been rocky, especially since the Iraq war (with Turkey’s refusal to permit the 4th ID to attack from Turkey into northern Iraq), due to the impact of Iraq on the Kurdish issue, and the increasing Islamicization of the Turkish government. These fractures were perhaps inevitable in the absence of the perception of a common threat and a common interest that made the US and Turkey close allies during the Cold War. Russian revanchism in general, especially as manifested in the Georgian campaign, could bring these two somewhat estranged nations back together. It should certainly be a major objective of US policy to achieve this.

Don’t Tremble Before the Energy Weapon
. European paralysis is largely traceable to its fear of the Russian energy weapon. Russia has indeed employed this weapon in limited circumstances, against Ukraine, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic. Over the longer haul, however, this weapon is very costly for the Russians to employ.

Recall that even during the Cold War, the USSR continued to sell oil (and, towards the end, natural gas). Hell, the only way that the USSR could keep the Cold War going was to sell oil, and the steep decline in the commodity’s price in the mid-to-late-1980s was a crucial factor in undermining the Soviet’s ability to continue the conflict.

When Russia attempts to allay European fears about energy, and to convince the Europeans to give them greater access to European markets, Gazprom and the government (to the extent they are distinct) argue that there is bilateral dependence between Russia and Europe, that Russia depends on Europe as much (or more) than Europe depends on Russia. They talk about “security of demand.” This is true to a considerable extent. This is their only viable market for the foreseeable future.

Energy still represents upwards of 60 percent of Russian exports. Asian markets for Russian gas are still largely a pipe dream (or, should that be, “pipeline dream”?). As a result, a Russian Europe-wide energy embargo is unlikely, although individual Eastern European countries are always at risk to a cutoff. But, if the Europeans hang together (yeah, I know), resist Russian “disaggregation,” they needn’t have great fears of a Russian energy cutoff against them in retaliation for robust western actions against Russia undertaken in the common defense.

But, At the Same Time, Dull That Weapon’s Edge
. Russia’s economic dependence on energy sales is as much of an acute vulnerability as it is a threat to its neighbors, particularly over the longer run. Energy prices are volatile, and highly sensitive to economic conditions. There is evidence that recent price spike has induced some enduring behavioral adjustments. Harking back again to the 1980s, oil prices can crash as well as spike, and a Russia dependent on energy is a brittle power.

However, European, and to a lesser extend American policy has enhanced Russian energy leverage, and the flow of rents into Russian (and siloviki) coffers; rents that are fueling Putin’s pugnacity. Eroding these rents is both a good offensive and a good defensive tactic.

The key battleground here is Central Asia and the Caspian. West is admittedly at a disadvantage here. Russia has advantages of proximity, historical connections, and a wider range of tools (notably, corruption, force, and a complete lack of scruple at dealing with unsavory regimes) at its disposal. We may not prevail in Central Asia, but we should make the Russians work for it.

Nabucco is a crucial elements here. Just build the damn thing. It will pay for itself even if it never carries a molecule of gas. At $10 billion, or even $20 billion, it is a national security bargain. (To put things in perspective, the US spends about $5 billion/month in Iraq and Afghanistan.) A financing guarantee would change the dynamics dramatically. How would South Stream look then?

Georgia is also essential here. As I said before, that nation is the cork in the Caspian/Central Asian bottle. If Russia controls it, everything to the east is out of reach. If it does not, everything to the east is in play.

Rebuild and Arm Georgia—and base US troops there
. Georgia is vitally important both for its geographic position and its symbolism. I have already touched on the geopolitical and economic issues. Georgia’s symbolic importance comes from its status as a victim of Russian force, and as a litmus test of American credibility. Responding to Russia’s actions in Georgia will defend a vital interest and make it clear that aggression will not prevail.

The efforts should incorporate a robust humanitarian and rebuilding effort that will involve the presence of large numbers of Americans, but they should not end there. (The initial humanitarian flight and the announcement of the dispatch of US Navy hospital ships is a canny beginning to such a strategy.) Arming Georgia with improved anti-aircraft capability, including both Stingers and area defense systems, will raise the cost that Russia would pay for a return engagement. Similarly, improving Georgian anti-armor capability, by supplying Javelin or similar systems, would make things much more difficult next time around. (Recall the difficulties that Hezbollah caused for the Israelis by employing anti-armor teams employing Russian made, Syrian supplied Kornet anti-tank missiles. Turnabout is fair play—and payback is a bitch.) The US should enhance its military training mission to Georgia, and expand its scope beyond anti-guerrilla training.

But there should also be a Berlin-like, or Korea-like, permanent US military presence in Georgia. Like the US force in Berlin, it need not be sufficiently powerful to blunt a determined Russian advance. Like the Berlin force, it would be a tripwire that would dramatically raise the stakes for a repeat engagement. A small American military presence in Georgia would be sufficient to defend Georgia by linking it directly to the US, and to ensure its ability to function as an energy bridge to the east.

The Russians, of course, understand that Georgia is vitally important. Hell, that’s why they did what they did in the first place. They are unlikely to give up their position without a struggle. The to-and-fro over the largely chimerical “cease fire”; the scorched earth actions in Poti and Gori; the insistence on the ability of Russian “peacekeepers” to intervene beyond the boundaries of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; Lavrov’s categorical assertion that Georgian territorial integrity is off the table; all point to Russian intentions to exercise as much control over Georgia as possible. Look for foot dragging—and possibly an eventual veto—in the UN, and violations of any agreement that is eventually signed.

In the short run, this makes it necessary for the US and the Europeans to make the diplomatic price for Russia maintaining a presence in Georgia (outside of the breakaway provinces) as high as possible. We don’t have tremendous leverage, but I seriously doubt that Russia can pay the price that it could be charged if it were to remain in Georgia outside of the secessionist provinces. That should provide the breathing space necessary to provide the military and economic support necessary to protect Georgia against future incursions.

As Steve LeVine just noted, the entire credibility of the US’s Central Asian and Caspian policies rests on what happens in Georgia. It is the decisive point, the schwerpunkt. In some sense, Putin has done us a favor by using force now. If he can be denied complete victory, he will have suffered defeat. For him, complete victory requires complete control over all of Georgia. It must become a Russian satrapy. If the United States can provide enough support to the current Georgian government to permit it to hold on, and to maintain a corridor to the east, Putin’s gambit will have failed miserably. He will have solidified opposition against him in Eastern Europe, galvanized the US, catalyzed closer and more substantive military and political ties between Eastern Europe and the US, and undermined Russia’s position in Western Europe, but failed to gain his true strategic objective. He would probably be willing to suffer these consequences if he ruled Georgia, but it will not have been worth the candle if he does not. Putin has put it all on the line in Georgia—deny him that, he loses big. (So much for the patient, cagey judo master image. If the US plays this right, he could be the one thrown due to his precipitate action, not the one doing the throwing.)

So, if necessary leave Putin with what he says he wants—South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Sorry Vlad, but we do have a wonderful parting gift . . . . Good luck with that. That will be hard for Georgia to swallow, but they will be far better off without them; securing them will allow Putin to save face; they will, in the end, however, cause him more trouble than they are worth—and they are not what he really wants. They are just pawns in his game. Give him those scraps, but keep the rest of Georgia out of his paws, and this will turn out to be a stunning strategic defeat for Putin.

Cry “Havoc” and Let Slip the Dogs of Accounting
. Russia has employed asymmetric weapons, notably cyberware, in recent conflicts with Estonia and Georgia. The financial interests of the Russian power structures are probably their greatest asymmetric vulnerability.

As one of the most corrupt nations in the world, it is almost certain that most Russians who matter politically, including perhaps Putin himself, have large sums of dubious origin stashed in banks outside of Russia. Unleashing forensic accountants and money laundering experts to identify these funds would present all sorts of interesting opportunities to put pressure on the ruling clique. Prosecution or confiscation are possible, but unlikely—but knowledge is power. Credible revelations—or even the threat of credible revelations—regarding siloviki billions in Swiss banks would pose difficulties for Putin and the clans. And just think of the interesting dramatic possibilities that could arise from informing silovik X that silovik Y has HOW much in Switzerland? As kompromat, or as a reminder of what they have to lose personally from an escalation, detailed knowledge about the Putinists’ murky financial dealings can be a highly effective tool of asymmetric warfare.

Recall that accountants brought down Capone, and that they have played a crucial role in bringing down other criminal enterprises. Since there are more than passing similarities between the Russian political structures and organized crime, they may well be effective here too.

So, how ’bout a little game of “What’s all this then, Gunvor, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.” [If you get the joke, then you’ve been paying attention–or you don’t have a life’-) If you don’t, read this.]

Be patient. Too much commentary about the Georgian Crisis (and this is a true crisis, unlike many of the kerfluffles too often dignified with the name) has bewailed the lack of immediate responses to Putin’s adventurism. Well, it would be nice if there was an Easy Button that could fix things before the next commercial, but we have to recognize that we face a long standoff with Russia. We should gird ourselves accordingly

Although it may seem counterintuitive, time is on our side. As I have written before, Putin is a man in a hurry. This is not unusual in highly personalized political regimes where the leaders have grandiose visions. They often have what Paul Johnson called, in reference to Hitler and Stalin, “imminent eschatologies.” (And no, I am not elevating (?) Putin to the status of a Hitler or Stalin.) They want to realize their visions in their lifetimes. In Putin’s/Russia’s case, moreover, I believe that Putin and the siloviki are acutely aware of Russia’s long term strategic weaknesses—weaknesses that I have often written about on SWP. Hence, they feel compelled to move now. This compulsion is enhanced by a sense of division and weakness in the western camp; like most men who respect only force, the Russian leadership no doubt perceives the US and Europe as weak and degenerate, and unlikely to respond with steely resolve. It is further encouraged by a recognition that the energy price explosion has changed the relative strengths of the contending parties—and an understanding that this explosion may not last forever. A combination of personal impatience and a sense of a closing window of opportunity is a powerful impetus to action—and sometimes precipitate, ill-considered action.

Viewed from this perspective, Russia’s aggressiveness reminds me of the Japanese during WWII. They had vast ambitions, but realized that their fundamental strategic and economic weaknesses vis a vis the United States would make it impossible to achieve them once the US confronted them in earnest. They also doubted the resolve of a degenerate US in the face of a hard blow. Hence, they calculated (at least the Army/”Northern” Faction did—the Navy was far more circumspect) that they needed to move rapidly, and land a knockout blow on the US. In the beginning they were wildly successful. In the end, of course, they were utterly destroyed; they sowed the wind, and reaped the whirlwind.

In such a confrontation, sometimes the best policy is to take the strategic defensive; deny the opponent the rapid victories he seeks; and let time and the adversary’s fundamental weaknesses do their work. Protecting Ukraine and Georgia, enlisting the Turks, exerting pressure in the Caspian, and deepening the US security relationships with Poland, the Baltics, and other Eastern European nations are all vital ingredients of this policy. Putin cannot afford to remain still. Like a shark, he must continue to move and eat. Deny him that freedom of action, and demographics, technological backwardness, institutional weakness, military dysfunction, and systemic brittleness will eventually overwhelm him. In other words, don’t aim for immediate rollback. Contain—contain aggressively—and wait for the implosion.

And start in Georgia. Now.

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