Over the past few years, the Obama administration has intentionally pursued a dramatic expansion of policies that the Russian government and military consider threatening to Russia’s national security. Curiously, the Obama administration launched some of the most concerning elements of this expansion very recently. The policies fall into two overlapping categories: NATO and missile defense.
NATO – Enlargement and Posture
Russia is not a fan of NATO for a few reasons that arose out of the last days and immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. First, Russia was under the impression that – claims it was promised – that NATO would not expand its membership, particularly to countries on Russia’s border. Second, and less important, Russia thought that it would be invited to join NATO at some point, which clearly is not happening anytime soon. Although there are various reasons for Russia’s exclusion from NATO, there is only one logical strategic explanation that has made sense from NATO’s inception to the present: the military alliance is aimed at Russia! Two foreign policy heavyweights admitted as much in a 2014 NPR interview, essentially arguing that Russia would “obstruct NATO’s continuing viability” and undermine NATO’s “cohesion” by introducing a second ‘great power’ to the group. When you consider that we are talking about a collective defense organization, it is difficult not to read these statements other than: “NATO is USA’s platform for deterring and defeating potential great power rivals.”
When you look at recent enlargement efforts, the reason for Russia’s exclusion is pretty obvious. In December 2015, NATO sent Montenegro an invitation to the Russia-bashing party. I am confident most Americans could not point out Montenegro on a map and know literally nothing about it (except perhaps a vague memory of it belonging to Serbia at some point). Montenegro is very small, with a population of 677K people (166/233 countries) and total land area of around 14K square kilometers (156 out of 195 countries). It has just under 2K active duty members in its military. Ask yourself: are Americans ready to go to war for Montenegro?
On a side note, it is interesting that the expansion of NATO has continued with virtually zero public debate or discussion in the United States. Indeed, if you try to search for debates on NATO enlargement, you mostly find references from 1997, in the lead-up to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joining the alliance. The 2016 presidential election, however, has been a notable exception. Credit for elevating the issue unfortunately goes to Donald Trump, who has advocated reducing (“getting better deals”) our spending on Europe’s defense via NATO. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders appeared to agree with Trump on this issue, whereas Hillary Clinton has cited the Russia “being more aggressive” as a reason for continued support of NATO.
Of course, Montenegro is not what really bothers the Russian government – Ukraine and Georgia membership, which we’ll get to – but extending membership to countries like Montenegro in principle makes the case easier for countries like Georgia and Ukraine. Indeed, in April 2008 NATO issued a statement that read, “These countries will become members of NATO.” The Bush administration had supported initiating the membership process immediately, but the Germans and French were opposed. A few months later, Russia invaded Georgia after fighting broke out in South Ossetia. Less than six years later, Russia invaded Ukraine in response to what it called an illegal ‘coup’ against the pro-Russian Yanukovych government; Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula after the region held a referendum in support of joining Russia. I won’t get into the debate about these two conflicts – who’s to blame, what actually happened, etc. But my interpretation is this: Russia appears committed to ensuring that neither country joins NATO, by diplomatic means or otherwise.
Another area of concern relates to NATO’s posture in Europe, in terms of deployments, military exercises, etc. The changes in posture over the past year have been far more significant than the addition of Montenegro. Indeed, the moves have been so controversial within NATO, that the German Foreign Minister recently warned NATO against “warmongering.” The German FM’s comment was in response to a 10-day exercise simulating a Russian attack on Poland. The exercise follows on a number of other exercises in recent years throughout Russia’s western flank including, yes, Ukraine and Georgia. NATO has also increased troop commitments in Eastern Europe, with an additional 1,000 troops added at the NATO summit this month. Another expansion in NATO’s capabilities – missile defense – brings us to the next topic.
Shortly after Obama was elected in 2008, I addressed the missile defense issue and the reactions proponents of the system had to Obama’s election. In the post, I noted that proponents of missile defense were concerned Obama would kill the program. And indeed, Obama did kill the program as designed by the Bush Administration. But rather than scrap the idea of missile defense in Europe entirely, Obama instead proposed an alternative system, which would host missile systems on ships instead of on land in Poland and the Czech Republic.
But Obama’s more conciliatory missile defense program was slowly walked back to the Bush-era approach. By 2010, the Obama Administration was signing an agreement with Poland for hosting missile defense installations on their territory. And the formerly-ship-based program added a radar in Turkey, and an interceptor (missile installation) in Romania. The latter system, which came online this summer, will be under NATO ‘control’, as announced at the most recent summit in Warsaw. In reality, the Poland-based interceptor will be folded into the the currently operational missile defense shield.
Parallel to these efforts – although far less reported in the media – was the creation of a missile defense shield in Asia. This shield is purportedly aimed at deterring North Korea’s nascent and as-yet-ineffective ballistic missile program. Talks between the United States and South Korea began in February 2016, with an agreement-in-principle concluded in June 2016.
China, which has actual ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads that actually work, believes the missile defense shield is in fact aimed at them and not North Korea. Indeed, it is easy to see the hastily-concluded missile defense talks between the U.S. and South Korea as a reaction to increasing tensions over China’s territorial claims in the region, specifically the South China Sea. In October 2015, the Obama Administration released a statement supporting the ‘right of navigation’ around the Spratly archipelago in the South China sea, thereby rejecting China’s territorial claims to the same. Obama backed up his words with action by sending a U.S. Navy warship – the USS Lassen – through the very waters that China claims to itself.
China has claimed – accurately, I think – that these moves have collectively disrupted the ‘strategic balance’ in the region. What China and the Russians mean by this is that, essentially, the U.S. is full of shit and they know that the missile defense systems are aimed at them. Thus, they will need to respond accordingly in terms of military planning, mobilization, and deployment.
Deploying missile defense in Europe and Asia simultaneous has strengthened the Russo-Chinese alliance, still in its infancy. For a number of reasons to lengthy to cover here, Russia and China are not natural allies. Indeed, ‘great’ powers that share borders rarely make for durable partnerships unless motivated by some clear, common enemy. Putin has pursued better relations with China for years now, particularly following the sanctions related to its annexation of Crimea. But China has always seemed more willing to talk than to act. Perhaps China believed that U.S. antipathy towards Russia was of a different species than its feelings towards China. After all, the U.S. has made less political hay out of China’s human rights abuses, lack of democracy/rule of law, etc. Maybe China thought it was special because of its economic relationship with the U.S.
If this is the case, the nearly simultaneous announcement of missile defense shields in Europe and Asia has been a gift to factions in the Russian and Chinese governments pushing for closer relations between the two countries. We may already be seeing evidence of growing ties between China and Russia: two days ago, China’s military announced that it will conduct joint Russian-Chinese military exercises in the South China Sea in the near future.
WWIII, Here We Come?
The developments in Europe and Asia raise the scary question of whether we are slowly inching towards World War III. Certainly our military actions in those regions suggests as much. And for those who say we are merely moving towards a Cold War 2.0, I would reply that a hot war is much more likely, for several reasons:
- In a bipolar world, each side was far better prepared to anticipate, learn about, and respond appropriately to the adversary’s actions. In a multipolar world, we cannot be sure that the Russia-Chinese alliance is for real, which distorts our threat perception.
- In the Cold War, we had exceedingly pliant allies in Europe and Asia, all of which still had the memory of WWII fresh in their minds. Now, you cannot say that NATO members are united in treating Russia as a critical threat. Germany and France do not agree with this assessment. And if Brexit is a trend, we can expect more nationalism in Europe and less willingness to carry U.S. water (or those who are, more extreme and willing to engage in off-script antics that ratchet up tensions). In Asia, there is not a broad consensus in South Korea for the missile shield. In Japan, our presence has grown less welcome due to incidents of U.S. soldiers breaking local laws.
- Conflicts in Europe and Asia are more fluid than at any time in the second half of the Cold War (the era during which all senior decision makers in Russia/U.S./Asia matured).
In an upcoming series of posts, I will expand on U.S.-Russian relations in the context of the current U.S. presidential elections.