Friday 22 December, 2017 Update: Putin Accuses US of INF Treaty Violations

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Less than two days after the US government penalized a pair of Russian companies for violations of the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of breaking the treaty themselves, and further, of laying the groundwork for a formal withdrawal from the INF treaty. Speaking on Friday, Putin lashed out at the US on a vast array of defense and geopolitical-related subjects. His points of contention give some insight to the issues that are irking the Russian leader beneath the surface, as well as providing an glimpse at where Cold War 2.0 might potentially take is in 2018.

Russia has still not come to terms with the US deployment of Aegis Ashore to Europe as part of a US-NATO missile shield being constructed to contend with the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles. From the earliest days of the program, Russia has opposed it, with Moscow claiming that the system’s true intent is to neutralize Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal.

Putin also took aim at President Trump’s national security strategy, labeling it as offensive and aggressive. The new US doctrine has labeled Russia as one of the nation’s strategic competitor, though experts and insiders agree the term means the US considers Russia to be a major threat to US interests, and policies. In spite of Putin and Trump making an effort to play nice in public, there’s suspicion and animosity growing on both sides. The US investigation into Russia’s possible tampering with the 2016 election is certainly not helping US-Russian relations. However, growing US economic sanctions are a larger bone in Putin’s throat for the moment.

The growing number of NATO troops present in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States was also brought up. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO encroachment has become a major domestic issue in Russia. Putin has used the average Russian citizen’s suspicions about NATO intentions as the rallying cry for a more aggressive foreign policy. The fact that the increase in NATO forces was made because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and continuing involvement in the War in Donbass is conveniently left out of the discussion.

 

Wednesday 23 November, 2016 Update: More Missiles To Kaliningrad

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There has been a great deal of public concern and posturing by NATO over recent Russian military activity in the exclave of Kaliningrad. NATO officials and politicians from member-nations have labeled Russia’s movement of SS-26 Stone (Iskander) short-range ballistic missiles, SA-21 Growler (S-400) surface-to-air missiles, and now SS-C-5 Stooge (K-300P Bastion) land-based anti-ship missiles as ‘destabilizing.’ At first glance, the observation seems accurate. Russia is currently introducing a considerable number of these weapons platforms. The SS-26 Stones are particularly worrisome since they are nuclear capable. All of these platforms can be either offensive or defensive in nature depending on Moscow’s intentions.

Behind closed doors in Brussels, NATO military leaders understand what the motivation behind Russia’s buildup in Kaliningrad. Moscow has initiated it as a counter to the component of the US/NATO ballistic missile defense shield now under construction in Poland. The first site, situated in Romania, became operational in May of this year. That site does not concern Russia as much as the one in Poland does. Geographically, Poland is much closer to Russian territory than Romania. The placement of the Aegis Ashore site in Poland is viewed as a potential offensive threat by Moscow. Aegis Ashore uses the same vertical launch system and magazine that US Navy destroyers and cruisers are equipped with to launch SM-3 surface-to-air missiles. What makes Russia especially anxious is the fact that the VLS can also launch Tomahawk cruise missiles just as easily.

So Moscow’s latest moves are in response to Aegis Ashore coming to Poland, and the recent NATO military buildup in close proximity to Russia’s western border. Eastern Europe has become quite the chessboard in recent years with move and countermove between Russia and NATO continuing at a regular pace. The tension that comes with the situation cannot be discounted or minimized since Moscow’s view of the situation is strikingly different from NATO’s. With that in mind, it also has to be noted that the military buildups by both sides have been, for the most part, gradual and controlled.

The military situation in the Baltics and Eastern Europe could be one of the first challenges the Trump administration finds on its plate in January, 2017. President-elect Trump’s desire for better relations with Russia, Vladimir Putin’s own aspirations, and geopolitical realities will intersect. From that point, we could be looking at anything from a de-escalation of East-West tensions to a sharp rise in them leading to armed conflict.

*Authors Note- Between Thanksgiving and Christmas we will be taking a closer look at some of the foreign policy challenges that await the Trump Administration. Putin and the situation in Eastern Europe will be one of them*

Putin And US/NATO Missile Defense Part 2

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Over the weekend, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said that the United States has refused Russia’s requests to discuss the US/NATO missile defense system being constructed in Eastern Europe. His comments were made while attending the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la 15 Dialogue in Singapore. He was also quoted as calling the system ‘very dangerous’.  The public statements by Antonov, as well as those made by Putin last month were likely intended to nudge the Obama administration towards reconsidering its decision. Unfortunately for Moscow, President Obama refuses to discuss Russia’s concerns about missile defense. For all intents and purposes, the diplomatic avenue for Vladimir Putin to seek a compromise on the US-led initiative is closed.

Russia’s actions and behavior over the past two and a half years severely limit its diplomatic currency with the US and Europe. In the face of Russia deliberately increasing tensions with NATO member states, its annexation of Crimea, support of Ukrainian separatists, and its involvement in Syria, why should Washington want to open serious talks with Moscow on this matter? Putin needs to understand the box he has placed himself in. He has used a US missile defense system in Europe to whip up anti-US and nationalistic sentiments in Russia. With a fraction of the system now operational, Putin has to be seen by his constituents as doing something about it. Diplomatic efforts were his best avenue to reach a compromise on the missile shield, even though he cannot bargain from a position of strength. For the time being, that option is off the table, however. Putin will have to consider an alternative approach for contending with the missile shield.

Unfortunately, the non-diplomatic alternatives leave much to be desired. All of them come equipped with a hearty helping of risk and danger, while others are blueprints for nuclear war. If Putin chooses to launch a conventional strike against the Aegis Ashore components, a nuclear war could be the result. A Russian attack against a NATO member will force the alliance to respond accordingly. Russian air strikes against the Aegis Ashore site in Romania, for example, would be answered by NATO airstrikes against Russian bases in Crimea. Where the situation goes from there is anyone’s guess. Escalation leading to a wider NATO-Russia conflict perhaps, or worse.

If Putin sincerely believes that the missile defense system will effectively negate Russia’s strategic forces, the nuclear option becomes a very possible course of action for him. One of the reasons why the US refuses to open talks on its missile defense is that it does not believe Putin would risk a nuclear war over Aegis Ashore, despite what he says publicly. Most people would like to assume the same, however, it is anyone’s guess what the Russian President’s mode of thinking is. He has won on risky foreign policy gambles in the past. Who is to say he would not take a calculated risk now when the stakes are so high?

In spite of the fact that the US claims its missile defense system is in place to defend against Iranian missiles, Putin remains skeptical. Inside of the Russian Federation the majority of citizens view the US reassurances suspiciously. Those same people are looking to Putin right now in expectation of a response, and at the moment his options are limited to non-existent. As more Aegis Ashore components are constructed, and a new administration takes the helm in Washington next January, Putin could approach the US again, in a more conciliatory manner, and encourage talks.

At current, Russia’s only viable option is to accept the placement of the system on its front doorstep. Moscow needs to exercise patience and sound judgement in the coming year and show the West that it is no longer a potential threat. It cannot rely on coercive leverage, and the application of economic and military pressure upon NATO, and Europe to achieve its strategic objectives. None of those actions have been successful. Instead, they have had the opposite reaction and helped recommission containment as the predominant Western defense policy regarding Russia.

Putin And US/NATO Missile Defense Part 1

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The Russian populace has traditionally embraced xenophobia. For centuries they have generally viewed their nation as one being besieged by aggressive, opportunistic outsiders, eager to corrupt, pillage and destroy their land. History has supported this position. Russia, in spite of its colossal size and ability to absorb immense amounts of damage, has been invaded many times throughout the centuries. Mongols, Napoleon, Hitler, even the Swedes have all invaded Russia throughout the centuries. Napoleon and Hitler came dangerously close to succeeding. The Mongol hordes did succeed, ushering in an age of Tartar rule and the eventual division of Eastern Slavs into three separate nations.

With these examples in mind, it should come as no surprise that today the majority of Russians believe that the United States is deliberately attempting to encircle, weaken and possibly even destroy Russia. They view the expansion of NATO and the West’s commitment to democracy as a cloak, hiding US ambitions to increase its own power and leverage in an area that is Russia’s own sphere of influence. This view is shared by many in the Kremlin, especially Vladimir Putin. Russia’s actions in Georgia, and the Ukraine, have at least partly stemmed from the concern about NATO’s continuing encroachment on Russia’s western frontier. These actions have produced consequences of their own. The US military is re-pivoting to Europe and NATO is steadily positioning more military assets close to Russia’s borders. To put it another way, Russia is in the midst experiencing the security dilemma; the actions it is taking to increase its own security have led to its neighbors responding with similar measures. The primary danger arising from this type of situation is that it can bring about unintended consequences such as increased tension and conflict.

Now, Russia has to contend with a US/NATO a missile defense system in close proximity to its borders The appearance of Aegis Ashore in Romania did not come as a surprise, at least. The United States first began exploring the idea of basing a missile defense system in Eastern Europe back in the early 00s. Russia’s concerns had been made clear early on: a US missile defense shield in Eastern Europe represented a threat to Russia’s nuclear forces. The US assured Moscow that the purpose of a defensive system was to defend against ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East. Moscow remained skeptical and unsatisfied with this reasoning. US efforts to build and field the system moved forward with Russia’s concerns and views being summarily ignored and dismissed by two successive administrations in Washington.

Considering Moscow’s perception of US and NATO strategic intentions in the region, the Kremlin cannot simply ignore the existence of the system. This situation is somewhat different from NATO’s reinforcement in the east; a more direct, and permanent threat after a fashion. Aegis Ashore undermines Russia’s own strategic objectives in Eurasia, as well as its desire to achieve hegemony in its historic sphere of influence. Vladimir Putin’s dilemma will be in determining an appropriate response. The avenues available are paved with uncertainty, variables and potentially peril.

In Part 2 of this article, some of the options available to Putin will be laid out and examined. It will be posted Tuesday (Sorry, scheduling conflict, I need a bit more time) morning. Until then, enjoy the weekend.

Sunday 29 May, 2016 Update: Putin’s Warning

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On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Romania and Poland that they are now potentially in the crosshairs of Russian missiles because of both nations involvement in the US missile defense shield. Earlier this month, the Aegis Ashore site in Romania was activated, while construction on the facility in Poland began the following day. A US missile defense shield in Eastern Europe has been an issue of contention for Russia since the late nineties when the idea of such a system was conceived. Russia’s greatest fear is that the system will eventually evolve into an instrument to neutralize Russia’s strategic weapons. The US has long maintained that the sole purpose of the system is to provide defenses against current and projected Iranian missiles.

With the amount of nationalism that the Kremlin has injected into the Russian populace, Putin will have to response to the missile defense system’s continued progress. Many observers in Europe are speculating about the form Russian retaliation could take. On the surface it may not seem that Russia has many viable options, however, upon closer inspection, there are effective, if potentially escalatory, measures that Putin can take. This week, DIRT will examine what Russia’s options are and provide a detailed analysis of the directions that this situation could wind up going in.