Calling Putin's Bluff

April 12, 2014 Topic: Great PowersSecurity Region: Russia

Calling Putin's Bluff

Russia relies on Ukraine more than you think.

In East Asia, there is a genuine fear that China might learn the “wrong” lessons, especially if the Putin regime appears to pay only a modest price for its forceful annexation of Crimea. The Obama Administration has taken this prospect seriously with Secretary Hagel’s recent announcement in Tokyo that additional missile defense ships will be permanently deployed to Japan.


As for the turbulent Greater Middle East, a radical downturn in U.S.-Russian relations could transform the ongoing negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran to create a “grand bargain” that contains the Iranian nuclear infrastructure under tight international supervision while giving significant financial and economic sanction relief. In a form of geo-strategic “Roller Ball” Moscow could well decide to act as a spoiler to these negotiations. That disruptive role might emerge in the form of providing Iran with advanced air defense systems (currently denied) and taking additional actions that undermine the current sanction regime.

The prospect of a new Cold War between Moscow and Washington will put other very important bilateral cooperation at risk. For example, Moscow could close down the Northern Distribution Network that provides the ISAF with an alternative route of supplies to Afghanistan than through Pakistan. On another matter of logistics, Moscow may decide to end its special relations with the United States by denying NASA space taxi services to the International Space Station (ISS) and disallow further sales of Russian-made rocket engines that propel important U.S. space launch vehicles.

Finally, a second Cold War would end the prospect of any further progress in nuclear-arms reductions below the limits set by the New START and even put the viability of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear (INF) Treaty at risk. The prospect of setting in motion a robust, bilateral nuclear-arms reduction process that opens the vista of long-term global abolition of nuclear weapons would be terminated for the foreseeable future.

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Distinguished Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation. Peter A. Wilson is an adjunct senior defense analyst at RAND and an adjunct professor in the Strategic Studies Program at Georgetown University.