Are US – Russian Relations A Zero-Sum Game?

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Vladimir Putin - Russia President Not so HappyThose who view the world through the Cold War spectrum look at every conflict zone around the world as a theater of action where the one time rivals needed to insert themselves or risked “losing” it to its rival power. Obama’s worldview is clearly different and his administration has been focused on taking the U.S. out of different such theaters of action that the Bush administration had thrust America into.

Russia is still trying to discover its place in the world after the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union followed by the messy introduction of democracy in the ‘90s. With its long history of being a once-great empire, Russians are receptive to the notion of once again reclaiming their place in the world as a ‘great power.’ And Putin is cleverly stressing that nationalistic zeal and harping on hyper-nationalism using all the levers of power accessible to a Russian Presidency that has seen an incredible amount of power concentrated in one man’s hands.

The Obama Retreat And Its Strategic Advantages

A “retreat” may have a ring of defeatism to it and Obama’s opponents in the Republican Congress and among strategic experts who believe in America as the “indispensable nation” have already and often accused Obama of having committed many sins drawing immediate and inevitable comparisons to Chamberlin and appeasement.

Obama has reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba and invested multiple years of diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement with Iran to end UN sanctions on it in return for Iran scaling back its nuclear program. Israel and its Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu have been apoplectic in anger at this “betrayal” by its friend America and made apocalyptic predictions about a nuclear Iran and what that portends in the Middle East. However, despite the loud protests even the US and inside the Republican dominated Congress, Obama has stuck to his “diplomacy-first” policy doctrine rather than opting for a “bomb-first” or “regime-change-through-bombing” policy.

As the multi-trillion American adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 15 years have shown, it doesn’t appear to be very smart foreign policy to proclaim without evidence that people in nations with very different cultures than America’s will “welcome” American soldiers as liberators if American forces bomb that nation’s infrastructure to smithereens and remove the government by force.

When Obama came into office, it was only about 8 years after 9/11 and America was suffering heavy casualties in battle on two fronts while teetering on the brink of an economic collapse. Obama had promised to withdraw American troops from those unnecessary wars and to focus his energies on the crises at home. He has mostly stuck to his foreign policy goals by effectively withdrawing American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan even though with the rise of the ISIS threat, there has been a slow trickle of special forces personnel back into Iraq (as well as Syria, possibly, as required).

To his credit, Obama has been circumspect when new opportunities for American interventions have presented themselves — in Libya, Syria, and Iran. While his opponents derisively defined his foreign policy as “leading from behind,” Obama stuck to remain in the sidelines as the Quadaffi regime collapsed in Libya.
In Syria, despite drawing a red line about the use of chemical weapons, the US government chose to step back as intelligence showed there was uncertainty about whether it was actually the regime of Bashar al Assad that had used those chemicals.

Putin’s Adventures And The Weaknesses They Camouflage

In contrast to American reticence, Putin has been anything but. From his annexation of Crimea in the Ukraine to his brutal suppression of any expression of democratic dissent at home, President Putin is a chip of old Russian block of authoritarianism. But Russia has seen a long period of relative economic calm and growth and its people have enjoyed relative economic well-being. As the memories of communist-era shortages of foodstuff and basic items slowly dissipate, the new generation of Russians is more Westernized and Moscow is home to numerous billionaires and snazzy cars and malls.

The collapse of global crude and natural gas prices are a problem for an energy-export intensive economy such as Russia’s. Putin’s assertive foreign policy at its borders in Ukraine and farther from home, in Syria, are said to be a way to divert the attention of Russians from more basic problems at home. If that is so, then trying to camouflage weakness by projecting power will have disastrous consequences as happened with the Cold War era military build-up to keep up with Reagan’s America.

But things may not be as simple. The history of Russian – Syrian relations goes decades back and includes substantial Russian military weapons exports to the Assad regime going back to the time when Hafez al Assad, Bashar’s father, was the president of Syria and even before that. In the immediate post-Second World War period, there was a secret pact between Syria and the Soviet Union that included a pledge of political and military support to Syria’s national army and followed by a non-aggression pact. The Soviet Union leased a naval base at Tartus, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, in 1971 and this remains a crucial base for Russian military interests even now.

The current Russian air campaign is predictably targeted at forces opposed to the Assad regime rather than targeted at ISIS (although some Russia cruise missiles have been targeted at the ISIS). President Putin was categorical about this in his recent UN speech in September when he stated unequivocally that Russia was committed to keeping the Assad regime in power. This puts American and Russia in adversarial positions in Syria as America and other Western allies are helping certain vetted rebels to fight the Syrian regime. The regime is known to have become considerably weakened after years of protracted battle so much so that the members of the Alawite minority of Syria, of which the Assad family is a part, have begun fleeing the country.
Why would Putin want to prop up a failing regime? Russia says it wants to target Islamic militants away from Russian territory in Syria rather than face them at home where there are significant numbers of Muslims some of whom may be receptive to the ISIS. The Western viewpoint usually is that this intervention in the Middle East is intended to reassert Russia as a global power and meant to poke a finger in the eye of Western powers that support the Ukrainian government that is opposed to Russia.

The Syrian adventures continue to remain popular among people of Russia so far based on what limited polling data is available — just as the Ukrainian adventure was. Putin’s advantage is his iron grip over Russian media where the news channels are little more than government propaganda vehicles. The government has been able to project the Ukrainian actions as a necessary response to the US and allies’ efforts to undermine Russia.

That being said, Syria is a lot farther away from the Russian homeland and costs can escalate quite a bit — both financially and in human terms if Russia decides to put soldiers on the ground in Syria as it did in Ukraine. While the Russian government may not necessarily be as scared of the public perception of “body bags” arriving in Russia as the US government is of American soldiers dying in foreign wars, certainly those and other financial considerations will be taken into account when the policymakers in the Kremlin make their next moves on the geopolitical chessboard, as it were.

The Russian economy is already seeing a 15 percent rate of inflation and with falling income from oil and gas exports, financing costly international military adventures in distant foreign lands may soon turn out to be a huge financial burden and that may give Putin pause.

The Cycle of History

It would be ironic if Putin is ultimately deterred from any overly ambitious moves in Syria not because of fears of any American challenge but financial pressures at home. After all, that is what had ultimately doomed the Soviet Union once. A flood of dead Russian soldiers can also be persuasive for the Russian government as it once was for the Soviet government during its adventures in Afghanistan when Bin Laden and the Taliban were allies of the US government.

It would be a repeat of history if Russian forces march into Syria three decades after Soviet forces marched into Afghanistan despite knowing that it was the graveyard of empires.
The ironies of history are many when you consider how the US turned on the Taliban and bin Laden turned on the US. The ultimate killing of bin Laden inside Pakistan by US Special Forces was some sort of a fitting revenge for the 9/11 attacks as well as putting a lie to anyone who claims that Obama prevaricates or that he has a weak foreign policy posture or hesitates to project American power.

The Obama Doctrine

So, what’s the Obama Doctrine? Is it about “leading from behind” as his opponents would have it or “don’t do anything stupid” as those more friendly towards him would put it? Roger Cohen in the New York Times has called it the Doctrine of Restraint, which is as good a description of the overall Obama worldview as any. Others may perceive “opportunities” in a climate where America is hesitant to send its armies or deploy its warships and aircraft carriers but Obama is merely learning the lessons of a non-restrained deployment of American forces in conflicts abroad by his predecessor. American people are wary of Captain America and American taking upon itself the role of the “indispensable power” or trying to bring democracy everywhere.

America is steadfast where it needs to remain steadfast. America’s commitments are to its long-term allies such as Japan and South Korea in Asia and the countries of Western Europe. Neither Russia nor anyone else is challenging American power in those theaters. As China rises, asserting American power in the South China Sea is going to be a trickier challenge than getting into any unnecessary shows of machismo with Putin. While restrained abroad, Obama has been far from restrained in “taking on” his domestic opponents in the Republican Congress who must often seem more intransigent than even Putin, at least to Obama and his friends considering the role the GOP lawmakers have played in opposing some of Obama’s signature domestic policy initiatives such as expanding health insurance to all Americans.

It’s to Obama’s credit that he has managed to ensure that the US government has been able to function at all with a government shutdown often looming year after year as the US Congress and the White House fought over Federal debt limits and tax policy. Obama has mostly managed to outmaneuver and outfox the legislators in Congress and as he enters the final year of his administration, he is nowhere near as unpopular as his predecessor was at this point in his presidency

In fact, Obama said in this weekend’s 60 Minutes interview that he’s confident that he would be able to win the presidency again if it were allowed and if he were to run again. That is something that perhaps even Bill Clinton would not have claimed in 1999. Obama appears set to exit the White House on a high and that is no small accomplishment.

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