The Russian Strategy: Tactics of the Roving Forward

March 26, 2003

The Russian Strategy: Tactics of the Roving Forward

 "You know how the Americans operate.

 "You know how the Americans operate.  First they start with the little finger, then with the palm, and finally they bite off the entire arm!"  This was the response a senior Russian official gave to me when I posed the question of what he felt the "true motives" of the United States were concerning Iraq, and whether Moscow could hope to reap any dividends from "regime change" in Baghdad. 

In Moscow it has long been felt that this whole affair is not really about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or whether Baghdad has supported terrorists or extremists.  It is also a nearly unanimous opinion that oil is not the primary reason motivating the United States to take action against Saddam's regime.  Certainly, oil and the interests of American business are important, but, in the final analysis, these concerns are subordinate to a larger plan--the extension of America's global reach and with it, the ability to reshape the political map of the world. 

Moscow is not very pleased at the prospect of acting in the role Washington has cast for it--the role of a "junior regional policeman," working for a "miserly wage."  The Moscow elite feels that Washington is using the Iraq situation to forcibly jam Russia into its geopolitical and economic plans, something that has been going on for the past year.  It is said in Moscow, at times sincerely, and at times cynically, that the degree of Russian support for America's overall strategy and indeed, the durability of the Russian-American partnership directly depends on the number and size of the "treats" that should be provided from overseas.  

Yet, no senior member of the Bush Administration has been willing to utter in public even the very vague promise to "take into account" Russian interests in Iraq.  This has disturbed the Russian establishment.  Neither the business elite, nor the General Staff, nor anyone who has grown accustomed to Russia playing a serious diplomatic role in the world shares Vladimir Putin's assessment of how the relationship has developed with America.  When Putin, answering the question of what Russia had received from America for this or that service, he stresses that the relations between our two countries cannot be reduced to mere bargaining. 

But why not bargain with Washington for major things?  Not only his domestic political opponents, but even the people who form his close entourage have put this question to Putin not only.  And ignoring this advice today is dangerous.  Indeed, in the eyes of the radical "state-patriots" (derzhavniki), Vladimir Putin appears to be continuing down the path of Gorbachev and Yeltsin.  They "gave away" Germany, the Baltic States and God knows what else! Now the current president has given way before the West in terms of NATO expansion, and has reconciled himself to the American withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the deployment of U.S. forces into Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the closure of Russian bases in Cuba and Vietnam. 

"There is nowhere to retreat--behind Baghdad."  I have altered for today's situation this famous phrase of a Russian hero of the 1812 war with Napoleon, which I believe accurately represents the sentiment in Moscow.  However, Russians today believe that in opposing America's plans for war, Russia is not going to find itself in any sort of geopolitical isolation or in opposition to the West. 

For today Russia finds herself in distinguished company--not with the puppets of the "socialist camp" of the Cold War era, but with the leading continental powers of Europe--France and Germany.  And even though it is not as visible, we are also very close to our "strategic partner," China.  It also does not need to be said that other players are on the same side of the barricade with Russia --the majority of Arab and Islamic countries, as well as an influential antiwar front which is forming in the political and social circles within the majority of Western countries. 

For the Kremlin it is becoming quite apparent that the close relationship with America (within the framework of the antiterrorist coalition) is no longer quite as profitable as it was a year ago.  Then, it was noted that, with American aid, the threat posed by the Taliban in Afghanistan was dealt with.  Now, however, it is being said that that the Americans hope to "democratize" the Middle East (starting with Iraq and Palestine), and will in short order increase pressure on North Korea (and indirectly therefore on China), and then direct its full attention upon Iran, and so on. 

All of these goals of American policy disturb Russia.  Moscow, along with France, Germany and China, doesn't feel that that its own security is threatened by Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, nor does it consider the hypothetical threat that WMD might fall into the hands of terrorists from these sources as likely. 

No, a greater threat to the Russian establishment is that if the United States is successful in democratizing the Middle East, this will lead to a democratic restructuring of Central Asia and the whole of the southern periphery of the post-Soviet space.  And this challenges Russia's national interests.  Such a development would not be in the interests of a large portion either of the Russian elite or of the post-Soviet elite in the other countries of the CIS connected to it.  This is why it has sought to hinder democratization and the creation of open economies, since under such conditions it would not be competitive. 

Moscow does not like the growing pressure of Washington on North Korea.    The Kremlin is concerned that all of this is being done with a hidden agenda--to strengthen the American military presence on the Korean peninsula and to lay the foundations for a regional ballistic missile defense system for the Asian-Pacific region as a means to counter a rising China and to counter its threats to Taiwan.  Obviously, Beijing has sought solidarity with Moscow on a common position to prevent the realization of the American strategic plans. 

There is also another factor working against any convergence of Moscow's goals with American policy: the fabric of economic relations binding Russia to Europe and even China is much tighter than that with America.  The United States has not really demonstrated any clear commitment to the Russian establishment that it wants to be a serious economic partner for and investor in Russia.  So when the Senate finally began to consider graduating Russia from the provisions of Jackson-Vanik--after ten years of talking--the Russian elite was not convinced that this was the result of any real desire toward cementing the U.S.-Russia partnership, but was rather taken in the context of the current political maneuvering.   

Moreover, in Russia--as in Europe--it is well remembered that after the conclusion of "Desert Storm" the most lucrative contacts in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (for arms deliveries, telecommunications and a whole host of other projects) were awarded exclusively to American firms.  The winner takes all!  This position is likely to be repeated in the reconstruction of Iraq--even though there is a unique chance to use this situation to bring together all of these various corporate interests in a common international project.  (This is in American interests as well since the physical security of American businessmen and specialists in postwar Iraq is likely to be at risk in a way that Europeans and others would not face.)   

Now, in Russian analytical circles there are different opinions as to what extent the way in which the game of patience is being played by the Russian side with regard to Iraq question diverges between the Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry. 

Some think that President Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov are playing a game, each one responding to the last thing said by the other, along a well thought-out path, and that the final step will be something unexpected and out of the ordinary. 

Others believe that Russian tactics are part of a general campaign of disinformation that was agreed upon with the White House, in which Russia strives, in defense of the highest principles, not to be numbered among the "aggressors" or their defenders. 

Some think that Russia has been carried away by this game of forming a "quasi-alliance" with France and Germany against America.  Sooner or later this "adultery" will come to a close, and the leading European powers will return to forming one family with the United States, but Russia will be left in the position of the unlucky divorcee. 

There is also a further obstacle--Russia's presidential campaign starts earlier than in the United States.  America's success or failure in Iraq will have little impact on the elections.  "This war is foreign to us," is the general sentiment.  So therefore the goal of Russian tactics is to be the "roving forward" engaged in passive defense, not only to score a goal in the opponent's net, but to prevent the ball from being driven into your own.  In other words, to minimize the negative fallout of any American action while maximizing Russia's benefits.  Essentially, these are the goals of the Russian political elite: