Putin has given an impressive gift to the next American president; an opportunity to create new webs of influence in Central Asia and initiate the grounded beginnings of a US-China security relationship (though not an alliance).
America’s legitimate issues with Islam Karimov’s misrule of Uzbekistan notwithstanding (a regime which incubates Islamist groups that threatens its long-term survival), Russia’s neighbors are bound to not feel secure both in the near and long terms with a Russia that is seemingly willing to invade them on whatever pretext fits the momentary need. Russian motives are various yet a degree of uncertainty exists for its neighbors as to what exactly they are using pressure and military force to do.
China is understandably not keen on unreliable energy suppliers or threats to its energy sources (it cannot have ignored the not so veiled Russian threats to the BTC pipeline running through Georgia). A building tension is near certain to define Russia-China relations in the long term as Russia’s position weakens and China grows stronger.
Now is the opportunity for US leadership and vision. A new president can create new partnerships within the former Soviet Union energy corridor after an understanding with the Chinese has been reached regarding the safety of these supplies and the need for continued, unabated Chinese investment in existing and new pipelines, particularly those that do not flow through Russia. As Steve LeVine concludes, America could help to build these pipelines its already quietly backing.
The new president can also reinvigorate European relations by cooperating in expansive energy R&D projects that can help reduce Europe’s exposure to Russia’s natural gas blackmail and help America become more energy efficient and flexible. Given the questionable viability of NATO’s European members in a conflict where a NATO member is invaded or menaced by what is essentially today a rogue corporation with a country (Russia), steps should be taken to improve the strength and ability of the Eastern European nations bordering Russian territory.
In the end, confronting Russia right now is not so much a matter of strength or force, but of exploiting Russian mistakes. Russian liberties taken in Georgia should be carefully documented and exposed, as well as Russian threats against its neighbors. The intent should be to paint Russia to the rest of the world as unreliable, reckless and exploitative. In the medium to long term, America needs to take Mark Safranski’s advice and craft an actual Russia policy.
Incidentally, these are the qualities America’s enemies enjoyed ascribing to America in the past 12 years. Russia’s actions offer an opportunity for the next president to shred these impressions of America and define a kleptocratic rogue corporation within a state by them.
If you are more interested in the topic, Ralph Peters and his fellow Task Force Russia members in uniform fought tooth and nail to keep as much of their documentation and evidence reports declassified. The fruits of their under appreciated labor are available through the Library of Congress:
Earlier, I neglected to mention a prime reason for the opening America had with the Russians was that at the time, it was thought by members of the Russian government that the POW issue was of vital importance to Boris Yeltsin. Once they realized it was of only passing interest to him, the stonewalling began in earnest.
A correction! It was the Bush-era ambassador to Russia, Robert Strauss, whom Peters criticized for not taking the matter seriously and not pressing the Russians. My apologies for writing it was the Clinton-era appointee, Ambassador Pickering.
In Looking For Trouble, Ralph Peters takes the reader through his travels across the Soviet Union, Latin America, Pakistan, SE Asia and the Mexican border while an Army intel officer. More will be written about this book (its a well-written travelogue with compelling insight and a very introspective Peters) later in a review post, but I wanted to share Peters’ thoughts on his time serving on the Task Force Russia group that sought in the aftermath of the Cold War to investigate claims made by Soviet soldiers and civilians that a substantial number of American POWs were held by the Soviets.
Peters was “volun-told” by his superior at the Pentagon as a known Russia hand to go to Moscow and join the working group (created for Russia after Boris Yeltsin told a reporter American POWs had been held in the USSR). In the beginning, Peters was skeptical, critical of hacks who found in the POW cause something to believe in and had passed bitter conspiracies onto POW/MIA families and raising false hopes. Yet over time, he as well as many of the others, became converts in the sense that evidence was too compelling to ignore to dismiss the possibility out of hand.
According to Peters, at least some Americans from the Korean War were possibly taken by the Soviets and held in gulags. He douses cold water on the claims that Vietnam War POWs were taken as well, noting how the Vietnamese tightly controlled access to POWs they held and bilked the Soviets and Chinese for all they could while giving little in return.
He blames Bush-era officials like the ambassador to Russia for focusing too much on keeping the Russians happy and not rocking the boat when early chances at opening fissures among the Russian delegation popped up. By the time evidence and testimonies had amassed to such an extent that even the Ambassador had to admit the Russians needed to be pressured on various fronts, the Russians had clammed up, already understanding how to exploit the hubris of Bill Clinton’s Russia point man, Strobe Talbott.
Peters concludes the Task Force failed, but not for lack of effort.
For a bit more detail, VFW Magazine in 2002 wrote an interesting piece about the 10 year mark of the ongoing effort. Needless to say, the kinds of secret documents that might been procured with firm American pressure in 1992 at a moment of Russian weakness and overriding desire for good relations with America, will likely not see the light of day for years to come.