Commentary | U.S. Needs To Get Real about Russia

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The response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea has been disbelief, denial or condemnation. The reality is that the Russians are a nationalistic power whose leader sees the post-Soviet order as illegitimate, much as many Germans saw the Treaty of Versailles settlement. Clearly, Russian President Vladimir Putin understands that both cooperation and competition are essential in the 21st century, but he is focused on maximizing Russian resources — natural and technological — to shape a more powerful position for Russia in the period ahead.

Sanctions as a response are so late-20th century and do not recognize that the interest groups in the West that benefit most from working with the Russians will work hard to deflect the impact of such sanctions. No greater example of this could be a former chancellor of Germany who is a beneficiary of the Russian energy complex traveling to Russia in the height of the first phase of the Ukrainian crisis. Gerhard Schroeder celebrated his 70th birthday with Putin at the end of April. The Russian president welcomed his friend at a reception organized by Nord Stream AG, a pipeline operator controlled by Russian gas giant Gazprom OAO. Mr. Schroeder is chairman of Nord Stream’s shareholder committee.

A seminal Latvian report on the Russians’ rethink and reshaping of their approach to military power as an integral element of augmenting their “soft” power underscored how the West needs to get realistic with regards to Putin and the nationalistic Russians, but feared that the growing stake the West has in Russia will simply blunt the West’s ability to understand its own interests.

As the author of the report on Russia’s “New Generation Warfare,” Janis Berzins, noted, “Economic interests are more important to some politicians than moral issues. One example is a document from the United Kingdom’s government stating that there should not be trade and financial sanctions against Russia so as not to harm the City of London.”

One of the greatest failures of Western strategic thinking and of the strategic class is to assume progress for the inevitability of globalization when history does not operate that way. There is no inevitability of progress; there is the certainty of conflict, entropy, collapse and development.

As Putin rewrites the map and inserts his interpretation of Russian interests into the Western calculus, Western states need to rethink and rework a number of core agenda items to ensure that Putin and like-minded Russians understand that aggression has a significant cost. Simply generating sanctions as a substitute for more fundamental shifts in policy will be seen as a short-term and short-sighted solution that will go away as vested interests in the West succeed in their rollback.

To be effective, key Western states need to make hard decisions and to shape new strategic realities, which the Russians will need to adjust to in order not be marginalized in the global competition.

One example of a hard decision would be for the French to reverse their sale of their Mistral amphibious ships to the Russians. The Russians are in the throes of buying two to four ships from the French. These ships are sold as basic entities, which the Russians will arm and equip.

But these amphibious ships will include ice-hardened versions, and certainly the Nordics and the Baltics understand where they will be used. As these countries focus on deepening their joint defense, adding new capabilities to the Russians who are precisely the threat makes little sense.

The level of anger in the Nordics is very high. While the Northern Europeans, and the Baltic states in NATO, are focusing on dealing with the direct threat of Russia to the north of Europe, it makes little sense for France to simply provide new warships for the Russians to be used precisely in this region.

In many ways, U.S. space policy and its dependence on the Russians is the functional equivalent of the Mistral. Dependency is significant in terms of the engines used by one of the two key rockets that launch Pentagon missions, and indeed, in the views of many experts, the better of the two rockets.

Also, with the retirement of the space shuttle, only the Soyuz is available currently for moving humans to the international space station. And with the Russians in a central place in space station policy, they can play havoc with the U.S. equity in the space station. This was not a Russian trick but deliberate U.S. policy. 

Reversing course is doable but costly. However, in the presence of Russian map-making, it is essential. And past decisions such as not building a domestic variant of the RD-180 engine, not pursuing an effective alternative to the space shuttle, and not working with the Europeans on the Automated Transfer Vehicle as a player in an alternative space station policy are all parts of taking a relaxed view of Russian involvement in a number of strategic areas for U.S. space policy.

Such a relaxed view, which really was done because of the absence of U.S. effort and investment, will only aid and abet further Russian map-making. And the current U.S. administration, which clearly committed itself to a “reset” of policy toward Russia as opposed to making tough decisions about building real space capabilities, needs to stop the rhetoric and get on with policies to build real capabilities. 

One can hope that a sidebar debate about the role of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. in the nation’s launch future is not used as a diversion from getting on with central decisions about whether the United States intends to become a 21st century space power, rather than operating as a custodian for what we did in the 20th century.

The 21st century is not the 20th, and this is not a replay of the Cold War. It is something profoundly different from what the U.S. policy community is focused upon. The Russians are not accepting the nice divide between soft and hard power that folks who believe in the inevitability of globalization eliminating military conflict continue to push.

Rather, the Russians under Putin understand that carrots and sticks and pressures combined with tactical flexibility can advance a national agenda. Particularly when your competitors unilaterally eliminate core capabilities in key sectors, like the United States has done in space, you can use their weaknesses to your advantage. This is about power, in which military power used as a leverage tool can be very effective. 

 

Robbin Laird is co-founder of Second Line of Defense and an analyst of defense, space and security issues, based in Paris and Washington.