[Arclist] The Russian Factor

Ralph Melcher melcher at nets.com
Wed Oct 3 07:50:52 MDT 2007

Again, from George Friedman at STRATFOR.COM, the view from another  
angle, that of the strategic chessboard of global politics. Whether  
we agree or disagree with Friedman's analysis, he always puts forth  
the view that all of global politics are interrelated and intertwined  
and that it is a mistake to focus only on one part of the puzzle,  
even if that portion is as all consuming in our daily attentions as  
the war in Iraq.

On another note, putting things in a visual perspective, check this out.

Running The Numbers: http://www.chrisjordan.com/

Sent to me some weeks ago by Angela W. and brought out more publicly  
since with coverage in the Utne Reader and the major news magazines  
as well as an interview with Bill Moyers on his Journal the week  
before last.


By George Friedman

The course of the war in Iraq appears to be set for the next year. Of  
the four options we laid out a few weeks ago, the Bush administration  
essentially has selected a course between the first and second  
options -- maintaining the current mission and force level or  
retaining the mission but gradually reducing the force. The mission  
-- creating a stable, pro-American government in Baghdad that can  
assume the role of ensuring security -- remains intact. The strategy  
is to use the maximum available force to provide security until the  
Iraqis can assume the burden. The force will be reduced by the 30,000  
troops who were surged into Iraq, though because that level of force  
will be unavailable by spring, the reduction is not really a matter  
of choice. The remaining force is the maximum available, and it will  
be reduced as circumstances permit.

Top U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus and others have made  
two broad arguments. First, while prior strategy indeed failed to  
make progress, a new strategy that combines aggressive security  
operations with recruiting political leaders on the subnational level  
-- the Sunni sheikhs in Anbar province, for example -- has had a  
positive impact, and could achieve the mission, given more time.  
Therefore, having spent treasure and blood to this point, it would be  
foolish for the United States not to pursue it for another year or two.

The second argument addresses the consequence of withdrawal. U.S.  
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suammed it up in an interview  
with NBC News. "And I would note that President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad  
said if the United States leaves Iraq, Iran is prepared to fill the  
vacuum. That is what is at stake here," she said. We had suggested  
that the best way to contain Iran would be to cede Iraq and defend  
the Arabian Peninsula. One reason is that it would release troops for  
operations elsewhere in the world, if needed. The administration has  
chosen to try to keep Iraq -- any part of it -- out of Iranian hands.  
If successful, this obviously benefits the United States. If it  
fails, the United States can always choose a different option.

Within the region, this seems a reasonable choice, assuming the  
political foundations in Washington can be maintained, foundations  
that so far appear to be holding. The Achilles' heel of the strategy  
is the fact that it includes the window of vulnerability that we  
discussed a few weeks ago. The strategy and mission outlined by  
Petraeus commits virtually all U.S. ground forces to Iraq, with  
Afghanistan and South Korea soaking up the rest. It leaves air and  
naval power available, but it does not allow the United States to  
deal with any other crisis that involves the significant threat of  
ground intervention. This has consequences.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki attended a meeting of the  
Iranian-Russian Joint Economic Commission in Moscow over the weekend.  
While in the Russian capital, Mottaki also met with Russian Atomic  
Energy Chief Sergei Kiriyenko to discuss Russian assistance in  
completing the Bushehr nuclear power plant. After the meeting,  
Mottaki said Russian officials had assured him of their commitment to  
complete the power plant. Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali  
Larijani, said, "With regards to the Bushehr power plant, we have  
reached good understanding with the Russians. In this understanding a  
timetable for providing nuclear fuel on time and inaugurating this  
power plant has been fixed." While the truth of Russian assurances is  
questionable -- Moscow has been mere weeks away from making Bushehr  
operational for the better part of the last three years, and is about  
as excited about a nuclear-armed Iran as is Washington -- the fact  
remains that Russian-Iranian cooperation continues to be substantial,  
and public.

Mottaki also confirmed -- and this is significant -- that Russian  
President Vladimir Putin would visit Tehran on Oct. 16. The occasion  
is a meeting of the Caspian Sea littoral nations, a group that  
comprises Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.  
According to the Iranians, Putin agreed not only to attend the  
conference, but also to use the visit to confer with top Iranian  

This is about the last thing the United States wanted the Russians to  
do -- and therefore the first thing the Russians did. The Russians  
are quite pleased with the current situation in Iraq and Iran and do  
not want anything to upset it. From the Russian point of view, the  
Americans are tied down in an extended conflict that sucks up  
resources and strategic bandwidth in Washington. There is a  
similarity here with Vietnam. The more tied down U.S. forces were in  
Vietnam, the more opportunities the Soviets had. Nowadays, Russia's  
resources are much diminished compared with those of the Soviets --  
while Russia has a much smaller range of interest. Moscow's primary  
goal is to regain a sphere of influence within the former Soviet  
Union. Whatever ambitions it may dream of, this is the starting  
point. The Russians see the Americans as trying to thwart their  
ambitions throughout their periphery, through support for anti- 
Russian elements via U.S. intelligence.

If the United States plans to stay in Iraq until the end of the Bush  
presidency, then the United States badly needs something from the  
Russians -- that they not provide arms, particularly air-defense  
systems, to the Syrians and especially the Iranians. The Americans  
need the Russians not to provide fighter aircraft, modern command-and- 
control systems or any of the other war-making systems that the  
Russians have been developing. Above all else, they want the Russians  
not to provide the Iranians any nuclear-linked technology.

Therefore, it is no accident that the Iranians claimed over the  
weekend that the Russians told them they would do precisely that.  
Obviously, the discussion was of a purely civilian nature, but the  
United States is aware that the Russians have advanced military  
nuclear technology and that the distinction between civilian and  
military is subtle. In short, Russia has signaled the Americans that  
it could very easily trigger their worst nightmare.

The Iranians, fairly isolated in the world, are being warned even by  
the French that war is a real possibility. Obviously, then, they view  
the meetings with the Russians as being of enormous value. The  
Russians have no interest in seeing Iran devastated by the United  
States. They want Iran to do just what it is doing -- tying down U.S.  
forces in Iraq and providing a strategic quagmire for the Americans.  
And they are aware that they have technologies that would make an  
extended air campaign against Iran much more costly than it would be  
otherwise. Indeed, without a U.S. ground force capable of exploiting  
an air attack anyway, the Russians might be able to create a  
situation in which suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD, the first  
stage of a U.S. air campaign) would be costly, and in which the  
second phase -- battle against infrastructure -- could become a war  
of attrition. The United States might win, in the sense of ultimately  
having command of the air, but it could not force a regime change --  
and it would pay a high price.

It also should not be forgotten that the Russians have the second- 
largest nuclear arsenal in the world. The Russians very  
ostentatiously announced a few weeks ago that their Bear bombers were  
returning to constant patrol. This amused some in the U.S. military,  
who correctly regard the Bear as obsolete. They forget that the  
Russians never really had a bomber force designed for massive  
intercontinental delivery of nuclear devices. The announcement was a  
gesture -- and reminder that Russian ICBMs could easily be pointed at  
the United States.

Russia obviously doesn't plan a nuclear exchange with the United  
States, although it likes forcing the Americans to consider the  
possibility. Nor do the Russians want the Iranians to gain nuclear  
weapons. What they do want is an extended conflict in Iraq, extended  
tension between Iran and the United States, and they wouldn't much  
mind if the United States went to war with Iran as well. The Russians  
would happily supply the Iranians with whatever weapons systems they  
could use in order to bleed the United States a bit more, as long as  
they are reasonably confident that those systems would not be pointed  
north any time soon.

The Russians are just as prepared to let the United States have a  
free hand against Iran and not pose any challenges while U.S. forces  
are tied down in Iraq. But there is a price and it will be high. The  
Russians are aware that the window of opportunity is now and that  
they could create nightmarish problems for the United States.  
Therefore, the Russians will want the following:

In the Caucasus, they want the United States to withdraw support for  
Georgia and force the Georgian government to reach an accommodation  
with Moscow. Given Armenian hostility to Turkey and closeness to  
Russia, this would allow the Russians to reclaim a sphere of  
influence in the Caucasus, leaving Azerbaijan as a buffer with Iran.

In Ukraine and Belarus, the Russians will expect an end to all U.S.  
support to nongovernmental organizations agitating for a pro-Western  

In the Baltics, the Russians will expect the United States to curb  
anti-Russian sentiment and to explicitly limit the Baltics' role in  
NATO, excluding the presence of foreign troops, particularly Polish.

Regarding Serbia, they want an end to any discussion of an  
independent Kosovo.

The Russians also will want plans abandoned for an anti-ballistic- 
missile system that deploys missiles in Poland.

In other words, the Russians will want the United States to get out  
of the former Soviet Union -- and stay out. Alternatively, the  
Russians are prepared, on Oct. 16, to reach agreements on nuclear  
exchange and weapons transfers that will include weapons that the  
Iranians can easily send into Iraq to kill U.S. troops. Should the  
United States initiate an air campaign prior to any of this taking  
effect, the Russians will increase the supply of weapons to Iran  
dramatically, using means it used effectively in Vietnam: shipping  
them in. If the United States strikes against Russian ships, the  
Russians will then be free to strike directly against Georgia or the  
Baltic states, countries that cannot defend themselves without  
American support, and countries that the United States is in no  
position to support.

It is increasingly clear that Putin intends to reverse in practice,  
if not formally, the consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union. He  
does not expect at this point to move back into Central Europe or  
engage in a global competition with the United States. He knows that  
is impossible. But he also understands three things: First, his armed  
forces have improved dramatically since 2000. Second, the countries  
he is dealing with are no match for his forces as long as the United  
States stays out. Third, staying out or not really is not a choice  
for the United States. As long as it maintains this posture in Iraq,  
it is out.

This is Putin's moment and he can exploit it in one of two ways: He  
can reach a quiet accommodation with the Americans, and leave the  
Iranians hanging. Conversely, he can align with the Iranians and  
place the United States in a far more complex situation than it  
otherwise would be in. He could achieve this by supporting Syria,  
arming militias in Lebanon or even causing significant problems in  
Afghanistan, where Russia retains a degree of influence in the North.

The Russians are chess players and geopoliticians. In chess and  
geopolitics, the game is routine and then, suddenly, there is an  
opening. You seize the opening because you might never get another  
one. The United States is inherently more powerful than Russia, save  
at this particular moment. Because of a series of choices the United  
States has made, it is weaker in the places that matter to Russia.  
Russia will not be in this position in two or three years. It needs  
to act now.

Therefore, Putin will go to Iran on Oct. 16 and will work to complete  
Iran's civilian nuclear project. What agreements he might reach with  
Iran could given the United States nightmares. If the United States  
takes out Iran's nuclear weapons, the Russians will sympathize and  
arm the Iranians even more intensely. If the Americans launch an  
extended air campaign, the Russians will happily increase the supply  
of weapons even more. Talk about carpet-bombing Iran is silly. It is  
a big country and the United States doesn't have that much carpet.  
The supplies would get through.

Or the United States can quietly give Putin the sphere of influence  
he wants, letting down allies in the former Soviet Union, in return  
for which the Russians will let the Iranians stand alone against the  
Americans, not give arms to Middle Eastern countries, not ship Iran  
weapons that will wind up with militias in Iraq. In effect, Putin is  
giving the United States a month to let him know what it has in mind.

It should not be forgotten that Iran retains an option that could  
upset Russian plans. Iran has no great trust of Russia, nor does it  
have a desire to be trapped between American power and Russian  
willingness to hold Iran's coat while it slugs things out with the  
Americans. At a certain point, sooner rather than later, the Iranians  
must examine whether they want to play the role of the Russian cape  
to the American bull. The option for the Iranians remains the same --  
negotiate the future of Iraq with the Americans. If the United States  
is committed to remaining in Iraq, Iran can choose to undermine  
Washington, at the cost of increasing its own dependence on the  
Russians and the possibility of war with the Americans. Or it can  
choose to cut a deal with the Americans that gives it influence in  
Iraq without domination. Iran is delighted with Putin's visit. But  
that visit also gives it negotiating leverage with the Americans.  
This remains the wild card.

Petraeus' area of operations is Iraq. He may well have crafted a  
viable plan for stabilizing Iraq over the next few years. But the  
price to be paid for that is not in Iraq or even in Iran. It is in  
leaving the door wide open in other areas of the world. We believe  
the Russians are about to walk through one of those doors. The  
question in the White House, therefore, must be: How much is Iraq  
worth? Is it worth recreating the geopolitical foundations of the  
Soviet Union?
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