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Analysis & Opinion
19.09.08 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: A New Arms Race?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Eugene Kolesnikov

Last week, Russia sent strategic bombers and a nuclear guided missile cruiser task force to Venezuela for “maneuvers,” an apparent tit-for-tat for the United States sending its warships to the Black Sea to “deliver humanitarian aid” to Georgia.

The U.S. Congress voted to approve the construction of missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as in another unidentified country. A Russian commander of missile forces once again indicated that Russia would target those sites with nuclear missiles.

Speaking on the anniversary of September 11, 2001, Medvedev said that the United States would have been much better off working with Russia to defeat international terrorism as opposed to propping up “rotten regimes” (alluding to Mikheil Saakashvili’s Georgia). Prime minister Putin also made it clear that Russia harbored no designs on the territory of former Soviet states, but would respond with overwhelming force if provoked.

What is Russia’s leadership up to? Is Moscow indicating its readiness to engage the West in a new arms race or in a new round of cooperation? Are there any preconditions for a new arms race? Or is Moscow signaling that it is prepared to work with the West constructively, provided that Russia’s interests are respected? How will the West read these seemingly conflicting signals from Russia?

Eugene Kolesnikov, Private Consultant, the Netherlands:

The arms race during the Cold War was about maintaining full parity between two irreconcilable ideologies and socio-economic systems. The arrangement of the world governance system and related military potentials during that era was quite simple: it consisted of two competing camps and a collection of non-aligned countries that were either too big to swallow or too unimportant to worry about. The military forces of the non-aligned block were not threatening the status quo between the big players.

After the peaceful disbanding of the Soviet empire, a very short period of disarmament ensued. The United States and Western Europe started to reduce their armies and arsenals on the premise that a new benign world order was in the offing, while Russia largely neglected its military, being completely preoccupied with the economic, social and political devastation. Only parity in the nuclear “mutually assured destruction” was maintained.

This brief interlude, having excited the pacifists and believers in the post-modern world order based on supranational interests, ended as abruptly as it started. The United States single-mindedly embarked on a new mission of imposing a U.S.-centric democratic world hegemony, underpinned, not surprisingly, by military force. The ABM treaty was scrapped, the “star wars” concept was dusted off, space military predominance was declared a vital U.S. interest, NATO rushed to the countries around Russia, Iraq was invaded, the EU countries were continuously pressured into increasing their NATO military budgets, and Japan was encouraged to graduate from its anti-war policies and increase its offensive military capability.

This “unipolar” moment, however, did not last long. Four major factors started to determine the course of militarization around the world, while U.S. policymakers were still congratulating each other on the great opportunities that the unipolar moment offered for the planet. These four major factors were the rise of China, the revival of Russia, fast economic growth in Asia and South America and a sense of insecurity setting in everywhere as a result of the collapse of the bi-polar world, as well as the United States’ inability to be the world policeman and security guarantor—made abundantly clear by the U.S. failures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The world as a whole has taken to arms. This time, however, the race is fueled by different goals. America wants to maintain its military predominance. China and Russia are re-arming as fast as they can without hurting economic growth, to be able to defend their sovereign status. Enriched Asian countries are snapping up arms to secure their positions vis-?-vis each other and the rising China. South American regimes are doing a similar thing. And now the EU is seriously thinking about creating its own military capability. The world has become more insecure and arguably much more dangerous than it was during the second half of the 20th century.

In this context, Russia is undeniably in the arms race, but the race is not about achieving full parity with the United States. It is about catching up with the advances in military technology and re-building military forces for the purposes of securing Russia's independence, particularly vis-?-vis the United States and China.

The unfortunate aspect of modern militarization is that it is likely to transform into a truly Cold-War-type mode as far as anti-ballistic defense systems and space militarization are concerned. Despite the sense of superiority that overwhelmed the U.S. establishment, it must realize that a country with only three percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s GDP cannot maintain a 50 percent share of the world’s military spending forever. This realization is the true reason behind the American plans for global anti-ballistic missile defense and space militarization. The United States believes that over the next two to three decades, it can beat the others (Russia and China) in these spheres and gain a decisive strategic military advantage.

Both Russia and China will do everything possible to thwart this vital threat. A frightening Cold-War-type arms race to counter the U.S. missile defense systems and militarization of space is about to take off in earnest, unless the United States gives in to the Russian and Chinese demands to leave the nuclear and space parity alone. This arms race is perhaps as dangerous as the Cold War one. This time, however, the trigger is in the hands of only one party –the U.S. establishment. Unfortunately, the signs are that the United States is already pulling the trigger.
Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, & Scholar-in-Residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington DC

With the price for a barrel of oil dropping to about $100, foreign direct and portfolio investment in the country plummeting, and the Russian infrastructure deteriorating, the Russian government can ill-afford a new arms race. Similarly, given the size of the U.S. budgetary and trade deficits, adding more defense spending to an already huge defense budget would create major funding problems for key domestic programs, and would be difficult to justify politically.

The same cannot be said for many European NATO countries. The situation in Georgia may have made the Europeans more willing to increase their paltry defense expenditures. The Poles and the Czechs do not regard military preparedness as an abstraction.

While I am not a specialist on South American politics, I recently returned from a week of teaching in Bogota. Russia's decision to send strategic bombers and a nuclear guided missile cruiser task force to Venezuela, combined with the expulsion of the U.S. Ambassador to Caracas, probably has more to do with President Hugo Chavez's political machinations in advance of his country's elections in November than a desire to send a message to Washington. In all likelihood, the Russian military maneuvers represent an attempt to make the Russian and Venezuelan populations believe their governments' efforts to blame an external military threat for their inability to achieve domestic policy goals.

The anti-Chavez opposition in Venezuela is outraged by many of his recent actions, including decrees that seek to end the legislature’s right to oversee governmental borrowing, grant him the authority to appoint regional officials, and increase governmental control over the economy. While Chavez has increased his power, he cannot overplay his hand.

I doubt that the Floridians are losing sleep over the movement of Russian military forces into the Western hemisphere. Although the Monroe Doctrine is ancient, the United States will stand behind Colombia should the Russians act recklessly. In Washington, Alvaro Uribe is not Mikheil Saakashvilli.

Could it be that the Russian leadership wants American voters to focus more on national security matters, which is likely to result in a victory for John McCain in November, so that both the Venezuelan and Russian governments have excuses for failing to respond to the needs of their citizens?

It is a shame that the Russian Air Force and Navy don’t consider the financial costs of their actions, which are not worth the fuel that will be expended. Russia's power is economic, not military. It seems that some influential people in Moscow are living in the past.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

It would appear that there is nothing conflicting about these signals. Russia is telling the West that it is prepared to cooperate with the West if the latter gives Moscow everything it wants. This would include renouncing NATO enlargement, missile defenses, abandoning Georgia (and Ukraine), accepting Russian energy dominance in Europe, a revision of the European security system, including Russia as a major and legitimate economic and financial power, etc. But at the same time, since Russia does not really believe in the prospect of such cooperation (which clearly would constitute surrender, and not cooperation) it is going ahead with a major military buildup because it has convinced itself, due to distorted and self-serving intelligence and military perceptions, of a permanent Western military threat and the need to cement domestic loyalty by invoking that threat with an enormous military buildup.
That buildup envisages both nuclear and conventional rebuilding and is likely to surpass any rational assessment of what threats Russia faces. Despite all the hullabaloo from Moscow and its acolytes abroad, since 1991 the only military threat Russia has faced is terrorism. NATO has substantially disarmed, and does not even have contingency plans against Russia. Nor, based on its experience in Afghanistan, can anyone rationally assume that NATO has the will or capability to threaten Russia. Instead, there is a direct link between the failure to achieve democracy dating back to Boris Yeltsin, and particularly the failure to reform the “silovye struktury,” and the advancement of a foreign and defense policy based on the presupposition of conflict, and on resentment and revanchism.

No doubt, in accord with Medvedev's recent invocation of an unlimited sphere of influence and the right to intervene on behalf of Russia and its energy wealth, Moscow feels it can throw its weight around. But in fact, this effort to simultaneously advance dialogue with the West and intimidate it is reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev's tactics and is taken from a position much weaker than that enjoyed by the Soviet Union at the time. They are certain to fail and bring down Russia with a crash. Its economy is already visibly in trouble, and press accounts indicate it cannot meet its conventional targets leading to a heightened reliance on nuclear weapons.

Undoubtedly, Russia's partisans will claim that this is a Cold War analysis seeking to isolate Russia. But Russia has already insisted on its own self-isolation. So it is not surprising that Western organizations and states will begin working up a military response to Russia regardless of who is elected here or in European capitals, because they cannot allow Russia to threaten the indivisibility of a secure Europe--the great achievement of 1989-91. Russia cannot afford these fantasies even if oil costs $100 per barrel or even more. But Putin and Co. (for he is clearly calling the shots) seem hell-bent on reenacting Russian history. So as Santayana observed, those who cannot and will not learn form the past will repeat it. Can Russia, not to mention its neighbors, really afford to stand by passively as it heads toward another entirely foreseeable crash?
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