As the U.S.-jihadist war has developed, it has absorbed American military resources dramatically. It is overstated to say that the United States lacks the capacity to intervene anywhere else in the world, but it is not overstated to say that the United States cannot make a major, sustained intervention without abandoning Iraq. Thus, the only global power has placed almost all of its military chips in the Islamic world.
Exploiting U.S. Distractions
Russia has taken advantage of the imbalance in the U.S. politico-military posture to attempt to re-establish its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. To this end, Russia has taken advantage of its enhanced financial position — due to soaring commodity prices, particularly in the energy sector — as well as a lack of American options in the region.
The Russians do not have any interest in re-establishing the Soviet Union, nor even in controlling the internal affairs of most of the former Soviet republics. Moscow does want to do two things, however. First, it wants to coordinate commodity policies across the board to enhance Russian leverage. Second, and far more important, it wants to limit U.S. and European influence in these countries. Above all, Russia does not want to see NATO expand any further — and Moscow undoubtedly would like to see a NATO rollback, particularly in the Baltic states.
From a strategic point of view, the United States emerged from the Cold War with a major opportunity. Since it is not in the United States’ interests to have any great power emerge in Eurasia, making certain that Russia did not re-emerge as a Eurasian hegemon clearly was a strategic goal of the United States. The Soviet disintegration did not in any way guarantee that it would not re-emerge in another form.
The United States pursued this goal in two ways. The first was by seeking to influence the nature of the Russian regime, trying to make it democratic and capitalist under the theory that democratic and capitalist nations did not engage in conflict with democratic and capitalist countries. Whatever the value of the theory, what emerged was not democracy and capitalism but systemic chaos and decomposition. The Russians ultimately achieved this state on their own, though the United States and Europe certainly contributed.
The second way Washington pursued this goal was by trying to repeat the containment of the Soviet Union with a new containment of Russia. Under this strategy, the United States in particular executed a series of moves with the end of expanding U.S. influence in the countries surrounding Russia. This strategy’s capstone was incorporating new countries into NATO, or putting them on the path to NATO membership.
NATO Expansion and Color Revolutions
The Baltic states were included, along with the former Soviet empire in Central Europe. But the critical piece in all of this was Ukraine. If Ukraine were included in NATO or fell under Western influence, Russia’s southern flank would become indefensible. NATO would be a hundred miles from Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad. NATO would also be less than a hundred miles from St. Petersburg. In short, Russia would become a strategic cripple.
The U.S. strategy was to encourage pro-American, democratic movements in the former Soviet Republics — the so-called “color revolutions.” The Orange Revolution in Ukraine was the breaking point in U.S.-Russian relations. The United States openly supported the pro-Western democrats in Ukraine. The Russians (correctly) saw this as a direct and deliberate challenge by the United States to Russian national security. In their view, the United States was using the generation of democratic movements in Ukraine to draw Ukraine into the Western orbit and ultimately into NATO.
Having their own means of influence in Ukraine, the Russians intervened politically to put a brake on the evolution. The result was a stalemate that Russia appeared destined to win by dint of U.S. preoccupation with the Islamic world, Russian proximity, and the fact that Russia had an overwhelming interest in Ukraine while the Americans had only a distant interest.
U.S. interest might have been greater than the Russians thought. The Americans have watched the re-emergence of Russia as a major regional power. It is no global superpower, but it certainly has regained its position as a regional power, reaching outside of its own region in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Iranians and Germans must both take Russia into account as they make their calculations. The Russian trajectory is thus clear. They may never be a global power again, but they are going to be a power that matters.
The Closing Window
It is far easier for the United States to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon than to control one that has already emerged. Logically, the United States wants to block the Russian re-emergence, but Washington is running out of time. Indeed, one might say that the Americans are already out of time. Certainly, the United States must act now or else accept Russia as a great power and treat it as such.
This is why U.S. President George W. Bush has gone to Ukraine. It is important to recall that Bush’s trip comes in the context of an upcoming NATO summit, where the United States has called for beginning the process that will include Ukraine — as well as Georgia and other Balkan powers — in NATO. Having gone relatively quiet on the issue of NATO expansion since the Orange Revolution, the United States now has become extremely aggressive. In traveling to Ukraine to tout NATO membership, Bush is directly challenging the Russians on what they regard as their home turf.
Clearly, the U.S. window of opportunity is closing: Russian economic, political and military influence in Ukraine is substantial and growing, while the U.S. ability to manipulate events in Ukraine is weak. But Bush is taking a risky step. First, Bush doesn’t have full NATO support, which he needs since NATO requires unanimity in these issues. Several important NATO countries —particularly Germany — have opposed this expansion on technical merits that are hard to argue with. Germany’s stance is that not only is Ukraine not militarily ready to start meaningful membership talks, but that the majority of its population opposes membership in the first place.
Assuming Bush isn’t simply making an empty gesture for the mere pleasure of irritating the Russians, the United States clearly feels it can deal with German objections if it creates the proper political atmosphere in Ukraine. Put another way, Bush feels that if he can demonstrate that the Russians are impotent, that their power is illusory, he can create consensus in NATO. Russia’s relatively weak response over Kosovo has been taken by Washington and many in Europe (particularly Central Europe) as a sign of Russian weakness. Bush wants to push the advantage now, since he won’t have a chance later. So the visit has been shaped as a direct challenge to Russia. Should Moscow fail to take up the challenge, the dynamics of the former Soviet Union will be changed.
The Russians have three possible countermoves. The first is to use the Federal Security Service (FSB), its intelligence service, to destabilize Ukraine. Russia has many assets in Ukraine, and Russia is good at this game. Second, Russia can use its regional military power to demonstrate that the United States is the one bluffing. And third, Russia can return the favor to the Americans in a place that will hurt very badly; namely, in the Middle East — and particularly in Iran and Syria. A decision to engage in massive transfers of weapons, particularly advanced anti-aircraft systems, would directly hurt the United States.
Of these options, the first is certainly the most feasible. Not only is it where the Russians excel — and will such a strategy leave few fingerprints and produce results quickly — but the other two options risk consolidating the West into a broad anti-Russian coalition that may well return the favor across the entire Russian periphery. The latter two options would also commit much of Russia’s resources to a confrontation with the West, leaving precious little to hedge against other powers, most notably a China which is becoming more deeply enmeshed in Central Asia by the day.
The Middle East Connection
Still, the United States must focus on where most of its troops are fighting. It would thus appear that provoking the Russians is a dangerous game. This is why events in Iraq this week have been particularly interesting. A massive battle broke out between two Shiite factions in Iraq. One, led by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim — who effectively controls Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki due to the small size and fractured nature of al-Maliki’s party — confronted the faction led by Muqtada al-Sadr. Clearly, this was an attempt by the dominant Shiite faction to finally deal with the wild card of Iraqi Shiite politics. By the weekend, al-Sadr had capitulated. Backed into a corner by overwhelming forces, apparently backed by U.S. military force, al-Sadr effectively sued for peace.
Al-Sadr’s decision to lay down arms was heavily influenced by the Iranians. We would go further and say the decision to have al-Sadr submit to a government dominated by his Shiite rivals was a decision made with Iranian agreement. The Iranians had been restraining al-Sadr for a while, taking him to Tehran and urging him to return to the seminary to establish his clerical credentials. The Iranians did not want to see a civil war among the Iraqi Shia. A split among the Shia at a time of increasing Sunni unity and cooperation with the United States would open the door to a strategically unacceptable outcome for Iran: a pro-American government heavily dominated by Sunnis with increasing military power as the Shia are fighting among themselves.
The Americans also didn’t want this outcome. While the Iranians had restrained al-Sadr at the beginning of the U.S. surge — and thereby massively contributed to the end of the strategy of playing the Sunnis against the Shia — Tehran had not yet dealt with al-Sadr decisively. Just like Iran, the United States prefers not to see a new Sunni government emerge in Iraq. Instead, Washington wants a balance of power in Baghdad between Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, and it wants intra-communal disputes to be contained within this framework. If a stable government is to emerge, each of the communities must be relatively (with an emphasis on “relatively”) stable. Thus, not for the first time, American and Iranian interests in Iraq were aligned. Both wanted an end to Shiite conflict, and that meant that both wanted al-Sadr to capitulate.
This is the point where U.S. and Iranian interests can diverge. The Iranians have a fundamental decision to make, and what happens now in Iraq is almost completely contingent upon what the Iranians decide. They can do three things. First, they can hold al-Sadr in reserve as a threat to stability if things don’t go their way. Second, they can use the relative unity of the Shia to try to impose an anti-Sunni government in Baghdad. And third, they can participate in the creation of that government.
We have long argued that the Iranians would take the third option. They certainly appeared to be cooperating in the last week. But it has not been clear what the U.S. government thought, partly because they have been deliberately opaque in their thinking on Iran, and partly because the situation was too dynamic.
Bush’s Long Shot
It is the decision to visit Ukraine and challenge the Russians on their front porch that gives us some sense of Washington’s thinking. To challenge Moscow at a time when the Russians might be able to support Iran in causing a collapse in the Iraqi process would not make sense. The U.S. challenge is a long shot anyway, and risking a solution in Iraq by giving the Iranians a great power ally like Russia would seem too much of a risk to take.
But Bush is going to Ukraine and is challenging the Russians on NATO. This could mean he does not think Russia has any options in the Middle East. It also could mean that he has become sufficiently confident that the process (let’s not call it a relationship) that has emerged with the Iranians is robust enough that Tehran will not sink it now in exchange for increased Russian support, and that while a crisis with Syria is simmering, the Russians will not destabilize the situation there — Syria lacks the importance that Iran holds for U.S. strategy in Iraq, anyway.
Bush’s decision to go to Ukraine indicates that he feels safe in opening a new front — at least diplomatically — while an existing military front remains active. That move makes no sense, particularly in the face of some European opposition, unless he believes the Russians are weaker than they appear and that the American position in Iraq is resolving itself. Bush undoubtedly would have liked to have waited for greater clarity in Iraq, but time is almost up. The Russians are moving now, and the United States can either confront them now or concede the game until the United States is in a military position to resume Russian containment. Plus, Bush doesn’t have any years left in office to wait.
The global system is making a major shift now, as we have been discussing. Having gotten off balance and bogged down in the Islamic world, the only global power is trying to extricate itself while rebalancing its foreign policy and confronting a longer-term Russian threat to its interests. That is a delicate maneuver, and one that requires deftness and luck. As mentioned, it is also a long shot. The Russians have a lot of cards to play, but perhaps they are not yet ready to play them. Bush is risking Russia disrupting the Middle East as well as increasing pressure in its own region. He either thinks it is worth the risk or he thinks the risk is smaller than it appears. Either way, this is an important moment.