Russia has expelled USAID, and the pundits are wagging a collective finger at the Kremlin. Complaints about the lack of democracy in Russia recall the late Sam Kinison’s monologue about food in the desert. There has never been democracy in Russia, least of all during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. Yeltsin and his oligarch friends stole more than any thieves in world history, which is why so many of the world’s richest people are Russian and why Russia went bankrupt in July 1998. The free-for-all following the collapse of Communism ultimately gave us the Putin regime, and there he remains. It is easy to to support a noble democracy activist like Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion. It’s a bit harder to cheer for the women of Pussy Riot, who didn’t deserve long prison sentences for their disgusting behavior in a Moscow cathedral. In America, we would ignore them, while Russia characteristically made a horrible example of them.
But it really doesn’t matter much. Russians never learned how to stand up for their rights, and most of the prospective leaders of a hypothetical Russian democracy did what Kinison advised in the case of world hunger: they moved to where the democracy was. Their kids take a lot of the science prizes in New York public schools and ace medical school admissions in Israel.
Americans instinctively sympathize with democracy movements everywhere. I sympathize, too: I took part in the first wave of neo-conservative economists commuting to Moscow in the early 1990s, trying to help the Russians build a free market, as chief economist for a supply-side consulting firm. The fact is that complaining about the Putin regime’s misbehavior is about as effective as shooting spitballs through a straw at the bears in the zoo. Go and do it if it makes you feel brave or self-righteous, but keep the expectations down.
Let’s talk about how to tame the bear, rather than just tease it.
The real problem is that Russia has played a weak hand into a strategic resurgence, thanks to the fecklessness and stupidity of the Obama administration. By throwing its support behind the Muslim Brotherhood, Obama threw not just Israel but also Saudi Arabia under the bus. The Brotherhood styles itself a “modern” Islamist alternative to the KSA’s medieval throwback of a monarchy, and rightly so. The Brotherhood is just as modern as the Fascist or Communist parties of Europe; it is a modern totalitarian vanguard party rather than an antiquated monarchy. The Brotherhood threatens the Sunni Gulf states from within, and Iran threatens them from the outside. There isn’t a policy-maker or business leader in Europe or Japan who expects the Saudi monarchy to last another ten years, or thinks that Obama’s silly sanctions will prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
Among other things, Obama has turned his back on America’s longstanding commitment to energy security in the Persian Gulf. If Iran has nuclear weapons, it can close the Straits of Hormuz at will, and bring the other Gulf states to their knees (unless, of course, they get their own nuclear weapons — which is not especially comforting for energy security, either).
That is why Russia, the world’s largest hydrocarbon producer, has the undivided attention of the Europeans and the Japanese: if they can’t rely on the Persian Gulf, the have no choice but to do more business with Moscow. That gives Putin huge strategic leverage, on a silver platter, thanks to the Obama administration.
Russia has a couple of other cards to play. The most important of these is Russian excellence in surface-to-air missile technology. Putin has played an on-again, off-again game with Iran about prospective delivery of the S-300 interceptor system. At the moment the deal is off. But who knows what concessions Putin extracted from other players for this demurral.
If we want to reduce Russian influence, we need to
1) Thwart rather than support the Muslim Brotherhood,
2) Stick by our allies (including the Gulf states as well as Israel) and undermine our enemies,
3) Neutralize Iran’s nuclear weapons program right away and by any means necessary (a gun to the head might do it, but I would prefer an immediate bombing campaign, just to be on the safe side) and
4) leapfrog Russia’s SAM technology. That’s the hard part. Suppose, instead of spending some part of the $1 trillion we unwisely spent on the great nation-building folly in Iraq and Afghanistan, we had invested more in defense R&D with an emphasis on missile defense? It’s a fair bet that Russia’s S-300 (and even its reportedly hyper-advanced S-500) would look like yesterday’s junk by comparison.
5) Drill, drill, drill for hydrocarbons and build nuclear power plants at home to eliminate dependence on foreign oil.
Acting tough doesn’t help. Being tough does. The one area where it does not pay to tangle with Russia is in parts of what it calls the “near abroad” with very large Russian-speaking populations, notably Ukraine. Former Secretary of State Rice made a mess of things by backing the so-called Orange Revolution, as I discussed in a 2008 analysis. It didn’t take long for the Russians to regain the upper hand.
We should run rings around the Russians in energy and strategic defense, and make selective concessions on issues that Russia views as existential. Some of my Catholic friends will never agree to this, in light of the late Pope John Paul II’s special affection for the Ukrainian Uniate Church. But Ukraine is a dying country with catastrophic demographics. Before long there won’t be anything to quarrel about. If we restore American power, then some day, some Russians will take a chance and follow our example. To get there we need deeds rather than words.
Image courtesy shutterstock / gillmar