Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Resurgent Russia Means the U.S. Should Change its Military Procurement Strategy

Whatever the Russian-Georgian War means for Russia or Europe, it means that U.S. strategic thinking must change once again. For the last four years, it has been in vogue to talk about irregular warfare and boots on the ground as if the only possible warfare contingency in the next two decades would be fighting poorly equipped insurgencies. Discussions about platforms like the F-22 fighter were treated as discussions about battles that might take place twenty or thirty years from now. But the actions of Russia have demonstrated that our NATO allies, who we are obligated to defend, are just one Vladimir Putin temper tantrum away from being subjected to Russian aggression. As a result, America’s strategic focus must not ignore upgrading sophisticated systems that only last week were believed by many to be decades away from being needed.

The Economist astutely observes that fighting is Georgia is “... about more than simply punishing Georgia for its aspirations to join NATO, or even trying to displace Mikheil Saakashvili, ... It is about Russia, resurgent and nationalistic, pushing its way back into the Caucasus and chasing others out, and reversing the losses Russia feels it has suffered since the end of the cold war.”[1]

Or it could also be said that Russia is a resurgent imperialistic nation. Russia, flush with oil and natural gas money, now has the capability to unilaterally strong arm much of its former empire with little fear that the militarily stretched U.S. or timid NATO will interfere.

If one subscribes to the “great man” theory of history, recent events might come as little surprise. Under that theory, a man like Vladimir Putin, by sheer force of personal will and ambition (or out of spite) ends up shaping history by his acts and decisions. In the case of the Russian-Georgian War, one need only look to Mr. Putin’s resentment of the west (George Bush in particular) to find sufficient catalyst for Russia’s actions. As one observer put it, “In Putin’s view, President Bush did not reciprocate for the help and support Putin provided in the immediate wake of Sept. 11, 2001. Instead, the Americans continued to push for NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia, decided to place U.S. missile defenses near the Russian border, and egged on the Europeans in granting Kosovo an independence from Serbia that Russians refuse to recognize.”[2]

Even if all this could be described as simply the escapades of a Russian ex-president scorned by the west, it doesn’t change the fact that other former Soviet satellites in the region have been “... dealt a lesson, about Russia’s willingness and ability to exert its influence ...” in the region.[3] It also delivers an equally discouraging lesson about Western ally’s lack of capability or inclination to provide a deterrent to Russian aggression against nations bordering the former imperial power.

Assessments about the meaning of the Russian-Georgia War are dire. One observer believes that Russia has begun to fall back on old instincts: authoritarianism and empire.[4] The Economist, similarly, predicts that “The war in Georgia will make Russia more isolated. Worst of all, it will further corrode the already weak moral fabric of Russian society, making it more aggressive and nationalistic. The country has been heading in the direction of an authoritarian, nationalistic, corporatist state for some time. The war with Georgia could tip it over the edge.”[5]

U.S. strategic thinking must change once again. While irregular warfare in hellholes around the globe is a real possibility for U.S. forces in the coming years, a confrontation with a resurgent Russia cannot be ruled out. America must not ignore the procurement of sophisticated systems that could be needed sooner than anyone could have conceived just a few short days ago.

[1] “A Scripted War,” The Economist, August 14, 2008, p24.
[2] Jim Hoagland, “A Measured Response to Putin,” The Washington Post, August 17, 2008, B7.
[3] “A Scripted War,” The Economist, August 14, 2008, p26.
[4] John McLoughlin, “Russia’s Challenge,” The Washington Post, August 17, 2008, B7.
[5] “A Scripted War,” The Economist, August 14, 2008, p26.