Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Russia Makes its Moves

A decision by the Kremlin to pay a naval visit to Syria as reported in Izvestia spells trouble.  Russia is clearly ramping up its position regarding what it sees as encirclement redux by the West.  Sending its flagship aircraft carrier the "Admiral Kuznetsov" along with a patrol ship, an anti-submarine craft and other vessels is a signal to NATO that Russia is willing to irritate the West - such as threatening to shut down the supply line to Afghanistan as well - to assert its resurgent foreign policy. 

Aside from the natural position of any country to protect its interests, the move to send a naval contingent to Syria is curious because the blow-back to Russian economic interests in Syria could be serious in long run.  Assad is going down and it is unlikely that the new government will recall the support given to him by the visiting ships with any fondness.  It may have been pre-planned, but it was not cancelled, and under the circumstances is a supremely stupid move by Moscow. Defending one's interests is one thing - supporting a bloody murderer is another. Not that the Russians don't have a history of supporting people like Assad - just look to Serbia. 

The other somewhat provocative move is the recent threat to cut off the supply route to NATO troops in Afghanistan.  Coupled with this weeks border closure by Pakistan, this could spell real trouble.  NATO is withdrawing anyway and the logic of the threat speaks more to the perceived and somewhat real containment of Russia by the US in Eastern Europe.  But, again, such a threat, if implemented, would affect real NATO interests and lives.  This would be a profoundly dumb move by the Kremlin unless it actually desires a return to the cold war - one it did not win. 

The timing of the threats from another standpoint is also curious. The US is Russia's greatest competitor. It is withdrawing from Afghanistan and has largely completed its withdrawal from Iraq.  Russian ability to reign-in its near-abroad depended on the window of opportunity provided by the distraction caused by those two wars.  The window is almost shut and the US will have more opportunity to shift its foreign policy focus away from these wars, much to the detriment of Russian foreign policy should it continue on this course. 

It is difficult to understand the choices that are made by those in power in Russia regarding how they protect their interests.  They certainly have other leverage points but appear to be deliberately choosing those that maximize the chance of long-term damage in relations with the West - a partner they desperately need.  The imminent re-assumption of power by Vladimir Putin coupled with militaristic muscle flexing does not auger well for future.

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