Monday, October 19, 2015

What's Russia really up to?

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



  1. Richard QuattrocchiRussia wants to see the middle east further destabilized so oil prices go up. It is not rocket science. Putin also wants to put the cold war band back together because it is good for Russian business. Higher prices for oil and weapons are in Russia's strategic interests. Further, Russia has no interest in seeing extremism impact their southern boarders so containing it in Syria is also in their security interests. Europe is Russia's biggest customer and they have no interest in stopping the flow of energy money back to Russia. Is a Russia a threat to the US - maybe - but religious extremism aggravated by drought and population migration is a far more pressing root cause issue

  2. John D. Morgan: If Putin can save Europe from the Syrian refugee crisis, he hopes to gain enough goodwill that the EU will drop the sanctions against the Ukraine. Once Syria is stabilized, Syrians will return home

  3. John, this would be a fun one to discuss over drinks! Most of the Syrian refugees are likely never going home. Politics and religion aside, one of the practical root causes of the Syrian conflict is severe drought. For the cotton farmers there is nothing to go back to... Putin couldn't care less about the plight of the Syrian people. He is motivated by money, nationalism and security concerns over growing religious extremism spilling over into Azerbaijan, Georgia and Southern Russia. He prefers secular dictators stay in control in the middle east and if he can thumb his nose at the US and NATO while doing it, so much the better for his ego.

  4. Tom Uryga
    Is this a serious quetion?

    What was the territorial objective of the Soviet Union elementary school kids learned about until the leftist loons took over around the early 1970s?


    They now have them.

    Of course, they now have greater exposure to radical islamists because of geography, & because they have multiplied because western nations aren't killing enough of them.

    Russia faces a situation much akin to the USA with respect to our border with mexico...except our invaders are largely Catholic (albeit worshiping the patron saint of drug dealers instead of Mary), and are placated by welfare checks, food stamps, free medical care, and free education for tbeir plentiful offspring, while Russia's border threat and invading hordes (into the "stans" that were considered the "Blackass" republics of the old USSR) are moslem radcals bent on world domination, are not amenable to compromise, and instead of carrying tortillas, water, and a bag of drugs on their back, carry AK-47s, RPGs, head-chopping swords, and, those who can even read...they carry the Tactical Manual of the Pedophile Death Cult known as a koran.

    Facing these head-chopping, boy-buggering, child-raping hordes, is it any wonder Putin is acting as he is?

  5. John W. Stevens, Jr.
    John --I believe you have quite nailed a large part of the issue -- as Tom says, "WARM WATER PORTS." The Russians want access from warm water ports to the Med and to the Caspian Sea. Syria gives them one and Iran the other. Russia also wants alternative routes for its oil pipelines from their Caspian oil fields.

    I see my computer is about to restart itself so that is the end of my input for the moment.

  6. Ken Ashe CPA, PMP, CGMA, MAcc
    Russia is trying to be relevant and be a global player, but they're entering a war they can not win.

  7. Joseph Vaughan, MS, MBA
    They are trying to hold their people together. They are still struggling with civil concerns, and substance abuse is epidemic. Putin needs to get new people and new ideas.