With ISIS and the Syrian refugee crisis on the news so often, it’s hard for some Americans to relate to the comments of General Joseph Dunford, the new Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Testifying before the U.S. Senate during his confirmation hearing in July, he identified Russia – not Iran, North Korea, China or ISIS – as the greatest threat to US national security.
Many analysts and journalists have speculated on the motives of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Following the Russian incursion into Ukraine, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed piece titled ‘Is Vladimir Putin Insane?’ In it, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is quoted as saying that Putin lives in “another world’. Other pieces have described him as a tyrant and compared him to Hitler. Meanwhile, General Lloyd Austin, Commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East admitted to Congress that he was completely flummoxed by Russia’s military actions in Syria.
Yet, I have seen very little said or written about Russia’s compelling national security interests as a key driver of their behavior. As I see it, there are two geographic factors driving Putin’s and Russia’s behavior.
Russia is a vast plain that is easy to attack from every angle, except the sea. So, they have been attacked throughout their history from both the East and West. Their compelling interest is to create buffers between themselves and potential attackers.
That said, Putin knows he doesn’t possess the military strength stand up the US. So, he exploits the vacuum we created in the Middle East to his advantage by becoming the enabler of Iran’s compelling interest. The consolidation of Shia power from Iran through Iraq to Syria serves them as well as it does Russia, which gains a buffer zone to its south. It also threatens both Turkey (a NATO member) and Saudi Arabia, an American ally and, like Saddam’s Iraq, an Arab nation ruled by a Sunni minority.
As for Ukraine, Russia’s actions — from annexing Crimea to carving out a swath of land that gives them access to it — are driven by another compelling interest, access to the sea. Like all nations, access to sea routes is essential to commerce. Securing Crimea provides them with access to the Mediterranean.
There was a bit of coverage about the Arctic Ocean when President Obama visited Alaska a few months ago. Our Coast Guard has only one icebreaker to Russia’s 27 securing their access to the sea routes that open up as the ice floes melt.
Americans tend to take our security for granted. We are geographically too far from Europe and Asia to have suffered from the ravages of war in the last century. Very few are aware that the US Navy has secured 100% of the world’s waterways since WW II. We ensure peaceful commercial sea traffic for every nation in the world.
Now, we are reducing our military presence throughout the world and downsizing our navy. Is it any wonder that Russia sees an advantage and takes it? Their incursion into Ukraine tests NATO’s resolve while their support of Syria’s Assad advances a refugee crisis that tests the EU’s economic resilience.
The Obama administration has been criticized in the press for lacking a cohesive foreign policy. Yet, there may be long-term benefit to the U.S. letting the Middle East and Russia be Europe’s problem. Our so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ will have greater economic benefit through stronger trading and security relationships that challenge China. Our Asian allies seem to care about that.
Does Europe care? Will they stand up for themselves? They are already sounding like Chamberlain.
WHO WILL LEAD?