The Closet Moderate: Rah-Rah-Rasputin

Friday, September 19, 2008


Over the past couple of weeks, the Russians have been up to their old tricks: helping Cuba build a space program, selling military technology to Iran and Venezuela, test-firing a new long-range missile, sending a fleet into the Carribean and claiming dominion over the North Pole. (That said, once you've planted a flag on the Arctic seabed it's all good.) Oh, right, and the whole "invading another sovereign nation" thing.

Edit: And their secret underground vodka pipeline. Seriously.

Russia's recent shenanigans prompted Secretary of State Condi Rice to scold the Russians at length for their military adventures and assorted ne'er do well tendencies. I particularly enjoyed this part:
Russia’s attack on Georgia merely proved what we had already known – that Russia could use its overwhelming military advantage to punish a small neighbor... Russia’s invasion of Georgia has achieved – and will achieve – no enduring strategic objective... their choices could put Russia on a one-way path to self-imposed isolation and international irrelevance.

In a display of appalling racial insensitivity, the Russians in the audience burst into laughter and began banging pots and kettles together while chanting "black, black, black." Let me put it another way: when people talk about America's diminished standing abroad, they are referring to our inability to use the limp noodles of international norms/law to chastise other nations (or get others to do so on our behalf with a straight face). What I'm getting at is what every IR nerd secretly loves about the Russians: they just don't give a shit. Human rights? Fuck 'em. Democratic norms? Don't care. Rule of law? Go take a flying fuck at the moon. Which we own.

The last Russian leader to actually give a shit was Gorbachev, and that didn't really work out so well for him. Point being, this is not a new line of Russian foreign policy. From Tsarist times through the fall of the USSR, Russia has always played bare-knuckle politics with the rest of the world, and is ideally positioned to do so in the next few years. The interesting question is why they've started up again, and while I'm no commie-ologist, I'll speculate a bit below.

1. Opportunity--For a long time after the fall of the USSR, the balance of forces was so lopsided that the Russians, with virtually no relevant institutional power (not in NATO, etc) was basically unable to successfully oppose US measures in Europe and the Middle East. What coalition did they have? As they would see in the march to Iraq, the UK would bugger itself with a harpoon to avoid pissing off the US, and while France and Germany weren't that extreme, their strategic interest coincided with US interest far more than it did with Russian interests. In short, they couldn't insert themselves into the Cold War old boys network, because that network was built for the express purpose of not including Russia. The US misadventure in Iraq means that our forces are insufficient to either deter or contain Russia's ambitions vis-a-vis third rate countries like Georgia. In the end, while Condi talks a good game, she's basically saying to Europe "we got shit, it's up to you guys."

2. Strategic Interest--The "color revolutions" and NATO expansion have sharply curtailed what was traditionally Russia's sphere of influence. While NATO is no longer explicitly a hostile military alliance, we can forgive Russian strategic thinkers for feeling a little bit hemmed in by nations of questionable friendliness. It turns out, one way of opening a region up is to take it over and build bases/install friendly leaders. Another way is by building friendly relations with other powers opposed to the dominant paradigm.

3. Nationalism--Inasmuch as the end of the Cold War was a victory for the USA, it was a defeat for Russia. Although many sectors of Russian society railed against the oppressive policies of the USSR, there was a profound sense of national humiliation that spread throughout the Russian Federation in the aftermath of the fall. I wouldn't posit nationalism as a cause of Russia's ambitions, I would say that the legacy of that humiliation means that Russia flexing its muscles on the international stage is unlikely to meet a great deal of criticism at home. In short, it functions as an enabler.

The real question is how the international community will respond to these provocations, but my feeling is that it's hard to punch someone while you're busy grabbing your ass with both hands, but we'll see. One of the problems with the current US-led order is that there's no #2 to hold the fort while we're busy fucking up half a world away.


Anonymous Crazy said...

I'm a little weirded out that the automated Google ads on this page now point to mail-order Russian "beauties".

I guess this now more completely illustrates the "pros and cons" of Russia.

Silent Cal said...

Our method of deterring Roosia was never based on conventional forces, in which they outnumbered us. It was based on big ass nuclear bombs, the use of which is unaffected by the occupation of Iraq.

Statler said...

Cal, why are you trying to show me up when you already know you're wrong?

Silent Cal said...

Never stopped me before.