As described in recent posts, Russia’s current leadership – which translates quite literally to Vladimir Putin – has chosen to establish and maintain its power through an appeal to national security (NATO as a threat) and Russian nationalism. In doing so Putin has been extremely heavy handed in returning the Russian media to virtually total government control. For Putin it was simply a calculated risk and one that had to be taken, his only route to regaining and maintaining political power was though the traditional appeal to Russian nationalism, reinforced with an assertive and successful Russian foreign policy. Events in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine quickly validated the approach and also demonstrated that traditional Soviet era techniques were still effective in quashing the free press that had emerged following the collapse of the communist regime.
To this point Putin has proved extremely successful with his political strategy and in managing his resources – advertising Russian strategic and nuclear weapons while selectively using his tactical military assets sparingly and largely for intimidation, letting third party surrogates do most of the actual dyeing in both the Ukraine and Syria. Maintaining the fiction of some undefined but existential western threat has also allowed Putin to funnel virtually all available monies into a resurgent Russian military, including the initial development of new ICBM’s, strategic bombers, powerful naval vessels- and very advanced submarines. All of which are highly symbolic of Russian power and make for great internal media opportunities.
After two years of Putin’s strategy, Russia has seen over two billion dollars leave the country, its gross national product is down by almost four percent in the last year, the Ruble has lost half its value and inflation is now around 17%. In most other countries this would be politically disastrous, but that assumes a viable political opposition (now nonexistent in Russia) and the fact that Putin has managed to establish his own personal persona as a leader – symbolizing Russian power yet disassociated from the day to day administrative and financial problems of the Russian government.
Syria proved to be an excellent example of Putin’s tactical sophistry, allowing Russia to put trade and political pressure on perhaps the most internally challenged and conflicted NATO member – Turkey – while simply using up a portion of their older, “dumb” weapons, showing off Russian air power in a low threat environment against the Syrian rebels and demonstrating new long range cruise missiles to boost foreign weapons sales. When it was becoming clear that Russian aircraft were about to become exposed to man portable antiaircraft missiles being fed into Syria, they began drawing down their air strikes while leaving advisors and advanced helicopters in action, and totally securing at least two Mediterranean ports under their direct control, protected by highly advanced, very long range anti-aircraft missile systems. I’m going out on a limb here and saying that the Russia will hold those ports for decades, much like is holding the Crimea, regardless of what happens to Assad.
As an update to the original post, the following link will provide some good insight into the Russian withdrawal from Syria – which is most definitely tactical only:
So from the Russia perspective all this is really pretty obvious, old school strategy. The reason I’m writing about it here has to do with the concepts of strategic deterrence and mirroring. To this point Putin has been highly successful in focusing Russian dollars on a military resurgence, both strategic and tactical. And the Russians are very good at engineering high powered weapons and are coming up with some extremely advanced and capable designs.
They are also quietly and very effectively supporting a set of new buffer state armies.
What is fascinating is that Putin and the successes of his domestic/international power politics strategy seems to be having no significant impact on American politics. That is truly a major change. The American political contests have become so socially charged and so internally focused that Putin is simply not registering as either a threat or a challenge – in fact you have one of the major presidential candidates stating that he views Putin as being a powerful and assertive leader and feels they will have much in common. This is all something really new, there are no debate questions of weapons “gaps”, of the cost of sustaining the nuclear triad (which is probably good since several of the candidates had no idea what that was), of a European Assurance Initiative which would begin to rebuild NATO capabilities against further Russian territorial moves in Eastern Europe or of national security issues beyond immigration and terrorism.
Those things have just not been given a place on this year’s campaign table. They will however be very much on the budgetary table and administration table for the 2017 budget. So, the question is, has “mirroring” become a thing of the past, are the politicians now sophisticated enough to understand that Putin is only playing to his internal public and all those new weapons systems and all those troop movements around Eastern European borders are just propaganda (after all, it’s one thing to design new systems or even to build prototypes but to produce and deploy them in quantity is an entirely different financial challenge). Will a new administration be able to resist the national security budget initiatives that the military services have already put on record? Will someone step forward to propose an international moratorium on hyper-sonic weapons development – a weapons technology which by itself has the potential for starting a highly expensive arms race? Such weapons hold first strike/preemptive strike capabilities and any defense against them would be far beyond that of comparatively simple ballistic missile defense – the military in both Russian and Chinese fully recognize their value in offsetting many of America’s current weapons advantages and are aggressively developing them.
As I explored in Surprise Attack, post-World War II American politics has always been highly driven by national security and “deterrence”; the question now is whether or not we have actually gotten smarter about such issues – are we seeing a sea change – or is it all just a matter of an overriding political urge to “defer” national security issues as most all other decisions are being deferred these days.