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Russia's Window of Opportunity

Tuesday, August 21, 2007 - 13:54 Print Text Size

By George Friedman

All U.S. presidents eventually become lame ducks, though the lameness of any particular duck depends on the amount of power he has left to wield. It not only is an issue of the president's popularity, but also of the opposition's unity and clarity. In the international context, the power of a lame duck president depends on the options he has militarily. Foreign powers do not mess with American presidents, no matter how lame one might be, as long as the president retains military options.

The core of the American presidency is in its role as commander in chief. With all of the other presidential powers deeply intersecting with that of Congress and the courts, the president has the greatest autonomous power when he is acting as supreme commander of the armed forces. There is a remarkable lot he can do if he wishes to, and relatively little Congress can do to stop him — unless it is uniquely united. Therefore, foreign nations remain wary of the American president's military power long after they have stopped taking him seriously in other aspects of foreign relations.

There is a school of thought that argues that President George W. Bush is likely to strike at Iran before he leaves office. The sense is that Bush is uniquely indifferent to either Congress or public opinion and that he therefore is likely to use his military powers in some decisive fashion, under the expectation and hope that history will vindicate him. In that sense, Bush is very much not a lame duck, because if he wanted to strike, there is nothing legally preventing him from doing so. The endless debates over presidential powers — which have roiled both Republican and Democratic administrations — have left one thing clear: The courts will not intervene against an American president's use of his power as commander in chief. Congress may cut off money after the fact, but as we have seen, that is not a power that is normally put to use.

Yet for all this, Bush is a lame duck commander in chief. He has the inherent legal power, but his military power is so limited that any action he might take — in Iran, for example — would be shaped and constrained by those limitations, and therefore, unlikely to achieve a meaningful goal.

The problem for Bush, of course, is that he is fighting two simultaneous wars, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. These wars have sucked up the resources of the U.S. Army to a remarkable degree. Units are either engaged in these theaters of operation, recovering from deployment or preparing for deployment. To an extraordinary degree, the United States does not have a real strategic reserve in its ground forces, the Army and the Marines. A force could probably be scraped up to deal with a limited crisis, but U.S. forces are committed and there are no more troops to scatter around.

The Air Force and Navy could be used against Iran, such as a naval blockage of Iran's ports. But this assumes that foreign powers such as the Chinese, Russians or Europeans would respect the blockade. Would the United States be prepared to seize or sink third-power ships that run the blockade? In addition, for a blockade to work, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan would have to collaborate and the Iraqi and Afghan border would have to be sealed. The United States has no troops for that mission. Airstrikes are, of course, a possibility, though air campaigns have not been particularly successful in forcing regime change historically — and there are no follow-on ground forces with which to invade.

Most important, if the United States went after Iran, not only would the U.S. Army and Marines be tapped out, the United States would be throwing all of its chips on the table, with few reserves left. With all U.S. forces engaged in a line from the Euphrates to the Hindu Kush, the rest of the world would be wide open to second-tier powers. This is Bush's strategic problem — the one that shapes his role as commander in chief. He has committed virtually all of his land forces to two wars. His only reserves are the Air Force and Navy. If they were sucked into a war in Iran, it would limit U.S. reserves for other contingencies. In all likelihood, the president will not attack Iran, gossip notwithstanding.

Thus, Bush is a lame duck commander in chief as well. Even if he completely disregards the politics of his position, which he can do, he still lacks the sheer military resources to achieve any meaningful goal without the use of nuclear weapons. But his problem goes beyond the Iran scenario. Lacking ground forces, the president's ability to influence events throughout the world is severely impaired. Moreover, if he were to throw his air forces into a non-Iranian crisis, all pressure on Iran would be lifted. The United States is strategically tapped out. There is no land force available and the use of air and naval forces without land forces, while able to achieve some important goals, would not be decisive.

The United States has entered a place where it has almost no room to maneuver. The president is becoming a lame duck in the fullest sense of the term. This opens a window of opportunity for powers, particularly second-tier powers, that would not be prepared to challenge the United States while its forces had flexibility. One power in particular has begun to use this window of opportunity — Russia.

Russia is not the country it was 10 years ago. Its economy, fueled by rising energy and mineral prices, is financially solvent. The state has moved from being a smashed relic of the Soviet era to becoming a more traditional Russian state: authoritarian, repressive, accepting private property but only under terms it finds acceptable. It also is redefining its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union and reviving its military.

For example, a Russian aircraft recently fired a missile at a Georgian village. Intentionally or not, the missile was a dud, though it clearly was meant to signal to the Georgians — close allies of the United States and unfriendly to Russian interests in the region — that not only is Russia unhappy, it is prepared to take military action if it chooses. It also clearly told the Georgians that the Russians are unconcerned about the United States and its possible response. It must have given the Georgians a chill.

The Russians planted their flag under the sea at the North Pole after the Canadians announced plans to construct armed icebreakers and establish a deepwater port from which to operate in the Far North. The Russians announced the construction of a new air defense system by 2015 — not a very long time as these things go. They also announced plans to create a new command and control system in the same time frame. Russian long-range aircraft flew east in the Pacific to the region of Guam, an important U.S. air base, causing the United States to scramble fighter planes. They also flew into what used to be the GIUK gap (Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom) probing air defenses along the Norwegian coast and in Scotland.

Most interestingly, they announced the resumption of patrols in the Atlantic, along the U.S. coast, using Blackjack strategic bombers and the old workhorse of the Russian fleet, the Bear. (The balance does remain in U.S. favor along the East Coast). During the Cold War, patrols such as these were designed to carry out electronic and signal intelligence. They were designed to map out U.S. facilities along the Eastern seaboard and observe response time and procedures. During the Cold War they would land in Cuba for refueling before retracing their steps. It will be interesting to see whether Russia will ask Cuba for landing privileges and whether the Cubans will permit it. As interesting, Russian and Chinese troops conducted military exercises recently in the context of regional talks. It is not something to take too seriously, but then they are not trivial.

Many of these are older planes. The Bear, for example, dates back to the 1950s — but so does the B-52, which remains important to the U.S. strategic bomber fleet. The age of the airframe doesn't matter nearly as much as maintenance, refits, upgrades to weapons and avionics and so on. Nothing can be assumed from the mere age of the aircraft.

The rather remarkable flurry of Russian air operations — as well as plans for naval development — is partly a political gesture. The Russians are tired of the United States pressing into its sphere of influence, and they see a real window of opportunity to press back with limited risk of American response. But the Russians appear to be doing more than making a gesture.

The Russians are trying to redefine the global balance. They are absolutely under no illusion that they can match American military power in any sphere. But they are clearly asserting their right to operate as a second-tier global power and are systematically demonstrating their global reach. They may be old and they may be slow, but when American aircraft on the East Coast start to scramble routinely to intercept and escort Russian aircraft, two things happen. First, U.S. military planning has to shift to take Russia into account. Second, the United States loses even more flexibility. It can't just ignore the Russians. It now needs to devote scarce dollars to upgrading systems along the East Coast — systems that have been quite neglected since the end of the Cold War.

There is a core assumption in the U.S. government that Russia no longer is a significant power. It is true that its vast army has disintegrated. But the Russians do not need a vast army modeled on World War II. They need, and have begun to develop, a fairly effective military built around special forces and airborne troops. They also have appeared to pursue their research and development, particularly in the area of air defense and air-launched missiles — areas in which they have traditionally been strong. The tendency to underestimate the Russian military — something even Russians do — is misplaced. Russia's military is capable and improving.

The increased Russian tempo of operations in areas that the United States has been able to ignore for many years further pins the United States. It can be assumed that the Russians mean no harm — but assumption is not a luxury national security planners can permit themselves, at least not good ones. It takes years to develop and deploy new systems. If the Russians are probing the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic again, it is not the current threat that matters, but the threat that might evolve. That diverts budget dollars from heavily armored trucks that can survive improvised explosive device attacks, and cuts into the Air Force and Navy.

The Russians are using the window of opportunity to redefine, in a modest way, the global balance and gain some room to maneuver in their region. As a result of their more assertive posture, American thoughts of unilateral interventions must decline. For example, getting involved in Georgia once was a low-risk activity. The risk just went up. Taking that risk while U.S. ground forces are completely absorbed in Iraq and Afghanistan is hard for the Americans to justify — but rather easy for the Russians.

This brings us back to the discussion of the commander in chief's options in the Middle East. The United States already has limited options against Iran. The more the Russians maneuver, the more the United States must hold what forces it has left — Air Force and Navy — in reserve. Launching an Iranian adventure becomes that much more risky. If it is launched, Russia has an even greater window of opportunity. Every further involvement in the region makes the United States that much less of a factor in the immediate global equation.

All wars end, and these will too. The Russians are trying to rearrange the furniture a bit before anyone comes home and forces them out. They are dealing with a lame duck president with fewer options than most lame ducks. Before there is a new president and before the war in Iraq ends, the Russians want to redefine the situation a bit.

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