As Russia Moves West, America Must Look East
The United States is under ceaseless attack from cyberspace. The Russian Federation is a primary culprit (along with other actors like the Chinese) in this ongoing cyberwar. Russia has engaged in highly unorthodox behavior. In 2008, they invaded independent Georgia. In 2014, they annexed Crimea away from Ukraine and are now poised for further aggression directed against Eastern Europe. In 2015, they began openly fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. They may have had a hand in the Turkish coup that occurred in summer of 2016 as well.
Essentially, Russia has become a major foreign policy obstacle for the United States. Tensions between the West and Russia are today as high they have been during some of the darkest days of the Cold War. Indeed, with the apparent (or, at least, perceived) disparity in military power between the U.S. and Russia, I fear that the chance for open warfare between the two sides is far greater than it was during the Cold War.
But, the Russian military has been undergoing a pretty intensive modernization program that has been funded by Russia’s increasing economic prosperity (until recently) from their natural gas resources. Meanwhile, American forces are stretched thin, underfunded, and woefully under-resourced to engage in a sustained fight with the highly-focused Russian military in Eastern Europe.
Thus, America must look at unorthodox methods for overcoming the Russian Bear in the event that kinetic warfare was upon us. The U.S. must look to Russia’s Far East as key point of weakness from which to exploit in the outbreak of conflict.
Go East, My Friends
Russia is not so much a country as it is an amalgamation of peoples and cultures collected over the last seven centuries through conquest and colonization. Traditionally, the Russian state has been threatened by forces to its west, east, and south. Since the most recent reinvigoration of Russia’s foreign policy, the west and south have been the targets of its most recent territorial aggrandizements. To the west, Russia has plucked Crimea from Ukraine and now threatens all of Eastern Europe. To its south, Russia has meddled in the affairs of Turkey, it is actively conducting military operations in defense of the Assad Regime, and it previously invaded Georgia.
Meanwhile, it continues to support Central Asian autocrats that are predisposed to Moscow over the West. To its east, however, Moscow has been restrained. The east is where Russia built its largest empire. Yet, the east is also the most underdeveloped part of the country. Indeed, the east is so poorly developed and maintained by the Russian federal authorities that it is now being overrun by the Chinese (as well as Japanese, Koreans, and several other subgroups from Asia).
A hodgepodge of conquered cultures and peoples, the east is the most resource rich area of Russia (and the most beautiful), yet it is also the most often ignored by Russian authorities. Due to this inattention, President Vladimir Putin has had to take conciliatory tones with not only the more powerful Chinese but also with the headstrong Japanese. Due to the weakness of the Russian government in the Wild East (as well as the ongoing economic downturn that Russia has experienced since incurring the wrath of the international community over its aggressive actions in Ukraine and Syria), Russia must soon face a choice: continue bullying their western neighbors or redouble their development of the east. Whatever Putin has said about Russia pivoting to the east, I believe, that Mr. Putin is intrinsically committed to a western strategy. This is his weakness.
The U.S. has had a hell of a time orienting its overstretched forces toward recommitting in Europe. What’s more, America’s NATO partners in Western Europe in particular seem reticent to actually stand firm against increasing Russian assertiveness in Europe. After all, most of these states are themselves under siege from overwhelming migration flows from North Africa and the Middle East, they are suffering through a horrendous economic period, their native populations are dwindling, their military capacity has been gutted over two decades, and they are farther removed from Russia than their Eastern European counterparts are. A recent RAND Corporation war game analysis determined that Europe needs seven more divisions of U.S. troops to make a believable line in the sand against further Russian aggression. That’s the bare minimum. Where is the depleted and shrinking U.S. military going to call these forces from? Which critical battlefield elsewhere will suffer because of this? Are we willing to draw down further from the Mideast and North Africa, even as Wahhābī terror and Mahdī madness consume the region? Will we further induce China toward greater revanchism in the Asia-Pacific because of our weak pivot there?
Perhaps we will abandon the already forgotten African continent, and all of the stabilization, anti-piracy, and counterterrorism operations we are increasingly involved in there (especially when one considers China’s increasing involvement on the continent). Or maybe we will continue to turn a blind eye to the instability to America’s south: the Mexican Drug War and the Venezuelan implosion have been left unattended to thus far. Let’s just see how much longer we can ignore the problem until it really affects us up here!
None of these are solutions. American interests must be viewed from a strategic policy perspective rather than a reactionary tactical one. While America needs to ensure that it does not lose Europe to Russian aggrandizement, the fact is that the Europeans must ultimately be able to better defend themselves than they currently are. For two decades, American policymakers have decried the increasingly sclerotic spending patterns that NATO members have been contributing to NATO. A minimum of 2% GDP spending on defense is the baseline request from the U.S. for its NATO allies. Most European states have ignored this request–even the United Kingdom.
While Europe is an important part of the American grand strategy, it is no longer the most vital. Indeed, in many respects, it never was. The most vital global region for U.S. grand strategy outside of the Western Hemisphere is undoubtedly Asia. And, as I noted here, the U.S. is rapidly losing Asia.
But, in Asia, the U.S. can have its cake and eat it too. For, Asia is the world’s most dynamic region of the world right now. Traditionally, the U.S. has been a country oriented toward Asia far more than it has been toward Europe (though that changed from the Second World War until the end of the Cold War). During the 19th century, the U.S. sought to expand itself from the Wild West to Hawaii to the Philippines to China and Japan, both militarily and economically. Vital linkages were formed during this period that have yet to be fully broken, at least in the American mindset. Today, with a rising China and rogue North Korea threatening so much of the American-led order in Asia, the U.S. must pivot to this region–and it must do so far better and faster than it has been doing.
This, in turn, allows a new opportunity for American policymakers seeking to complicate Russian global designs. As the U.S. pivots to Asia to resist China and North Korea, it should also prepare its forces to potentially attack Russia from its vulnerable eastern periphery. After all, Asia is a region of the world with vast amounts of territory exposed to the Pacific Ocean. America is a cosmopolitan seafaring state, much like Athens of old or the British Empire. Russia is predominantly a land power. It, of course, has a naval force but that force is decrepit and not what makes it a potent military. Indeed, until recently, the country’s Pacific Fleet in particular was left in tatters.
On top of the competing ethnicities with various loyalties to entities other than Russia (i.e. historical tribes that predate the Russian conquest or those who swear fealty to neighboring states like China), the population density of this resource rich land is small. In 2001, as I noted here, Vladimir Putin went to the Russian Far Eastern province of Blagoveshchensk, which was right across the Amur River from the economically dynamic China, and warned his citizens there that they would be overrun by Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese immigrants in twenty years from that point (so around the year 2021). There was a quiet resignation in Mr. Putin’s comments on that day: it was almost as though he were a doctor giving a terminal diagnosis…it was just a matter of time before he lost the Wild East to the Chinese and others.
This was followed on by his desperate Treaty of Friendship with the Chinese in 2001. In that agreement, he vowed Russian military support for any Chinese invasion of Taiwan. This agreement gave the Chinese the upper hand in the relationship; it was more of a relationship between a senior powerhouse (i.e. China) and a junior member desperately trying to stay relevant (e.g. Russia). As I noted in the linked article, Putin is desperate to try and make an amicable deal with Japan over the ongoing Kuril Island Dispute. Although the Russians and Japanese in recent years have vacillated between hostility and amicability, I believe the ultimate intention of Putin is to resolve any abnormalities that exist in his far off but vital eastern periphery as peacefully as possible. As such, I remain convinced that he is looking to make a deal with the Japanese: in all likelihood Mr. Putin is seeking to trade the disputed Kuril Islands for a massive Japanese investment into the Russian Far East.
Divide & Conquer
What would an American threat to Russia’s Far East look like? First, let’s look at the competing ethno-religious tensions that exist just beneath the surface of the Russian Far East. As the venerable Peter Hopkirk illustrated in his brilliant history of the Russian Far East, The Great Game: The Struggle For Empire in Central Asia, Russia conquered vast swathes of peoples and then embarked on a centuries-long campaign of colonization in those lands to turn the Wild East away from the lands of Asians, Muslims, and Turks, and into the lands of Russia. But, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ongoing collapse of Russian demographics, the native cultural dispositions of people are on the rise once more. Preeminent Russian scholar, Paul Goble, has recently documented in his excellent blog, Window on Eurasia, on how a new “parade of sovereignties” is beginning to emerge in the Middle Volga region.
In fact, in recent weeks, the Russian internal security forces (mainly the FSB) have rounded up 135 members of a separatist movement in this area. These separatists were well armed and preparing to conduct attacks in the mostly ethnically Turkish regions of Russia–Ufa and Kazan–in the name of fighting for the creation of a predominantly Turkish breakaway republic in Russia’s Far East. These groups are not alone. If the U.S. is seriously concerned about Russia militarily than it must look beyond Europe and the Mideast and toward the Russian Far East for keeping the Big Bear off-balance. Covert aid and support for such breakaway groups would be a good place to start.
Providing funds and support for these groups is one low-cost, high-impact way to completely destabilize Russia and keep them from going too far in their aggressive actions to their south and west. Putin seems to be committed to doing his best to shore up his hold of the Russian Far East.
On top of his conciliatory tone with the Chinese and Japanese, Putin has also begun serious investments into developing the economy of the Wild East and has begun encouraging Russian citizens to move away from the western portions of Russia into the Far East, to beef up the numbers of Russians in that area. Indeed, he has even reenacted Soviet-era prohibitions against allowing citizens to relocate from the Far East to the more prosperous western component of Russia (i.e. where Moscow is located). This is a very telling example of how serious Putin and his cadre are about reaffirming Russian control over this region. Such an endeavor should be all-encompassing, but Mr. Putin is distracted trying to influence events to the south and west. America must do something to get him reinterested in his east. Dividing the Russian Far East is one way of better conquering Russia.
Backdoor to Russia
Russia’s history has been defined by invasion. As the great British geostrategist, Sir Halford Mackinder, correctly identified each successful invasion of Russia has generally been conducted by peoples moving rapidly from the east to the west. This was true of the Mongol Horde who moved from the mountainous east through the flat, forested west, on their way to conquering much of Eurasia. In Russia’s history, only two invasions have occurred which saw hostile forces moving from the west to the east: the first was Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1815 and the next was Hitler’s haphazard attempt to annex the USSR in 1942. Any kind of “hot war” between the Russian Federation and the United States of America would need to be fought in an unorthodox manner, if the U.S. is to win. Simply holding the line in Europe–while important–will not deliver the kind of victory that America will need. However, a force moving across Russia from its east would have a devastating effect on Russia’s leadership.
Going back to the Cold War days, the U.S. routinely trained its B-52 bomber crews to take flight from Alaska and target Russia’s highly sensitive military installations in the Russian Wild East with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. The B-52’s would reach the Russian border over the Bering Strait and then launch their nuclear weapons along a trajectory moving along the east-west axis.
American planners should begin reopening its books on these old tactics. If there is to be a shooting war of any kind with the Russians, the American military should learn from history and take a page from the Mongol Horde’s book: the U.S. military must threaten Russia’s Far East and concern itself only with holding the line in Europe as long as possible.
Whether it is threatening Russia with nuclear attacks from its modestly defended east or threatening with some form of invasion, Russia is not some impregnable fortress in the northern wastes of the world. Indeed, there are several factors that would limit the ability of the Russians to defend themselves from an East-West attack. The Russians are keenly aware of this.
This is why they have been beefing up their forward positions in the Arctic and have even been trying to intimidate American forces operating out of Alaska. However, the Russians neither have the infrastructure nor population density to maintain a viable defense of this region. This is their Achilles’ Heel. The Russian Far East rests along the Pacific coast which, if America invested heavily in its Asian Pivot, would give the U.S. an extreme advantage in threatening Russia. It is literally the backdoor to Russia.
As for their nuclear arms: the Russians have most of their tactical nuclear warhead stockpiles ready for a sudden war in Europe. They are not prepared for a threat from their Far East. While they certainly have ICBMs capable of hitting the United States, the U.S. also has this capability, meaning that such an exchange would be a proverbial wash. Plus, with most of Russia’s mobile nuclear forces being housed in the east, the American military would have a better time targeting and preemptively destroying these forces (or capturing them) in the event that armed conflict broke out.
All in all, the Russian Wild East is by no means an easy target, however, it is America’s only real chance of beating Russia in the unfortunate event of a shooting war between the U.S. and Russia. Plus, by seriously threatening Russia’s Far East, America just might force Putin to refocus his energies in defending that realm, thereby detracting from his ability to conduct long-range operations in Syria and to threaten Europe.
We should not desire a war with Russia, but we should plan to utilize covert means to destabilize the Russian Far East in peacetime, since Russia is so intent on destabilizing the West. In the ungodly event of a full-blown war between the two powers, the U.S. should not allow the Russians to set the time and location of the opening salvo of the war. Indeed, the U.S. should beef up its ability to threaten Russia’s Far East so as to stretch their limited forces to the breaking point.
Conflict mitigation in Europe and the cessation of Russian operation in Syria should be the goal. Who knows what the future portends, but one thing is certain, the U.S. and Russia seem locked in an eternal struggle the likes of which have not been experienced since the darkest days of the Cold War. America needs an ace up its sleeve: threatening Russia’s Far East offers such a possibility.