National Security

What's the Deal With Russia?

Is Putin's country a frenemy or foe?

Harold Hutchison · Jul. 29, 2016

Russia has been in the news lately as Democrats are blaming hackers from that country for the theft of tens of thousands of DNC emails that WikiLeaks recently published. In fact, if anything, the Democrats have become very hawkish vis-à-vis Russia in recent months. So what gives? Is Russia a real threat, something to keep a wary eye on, or could things be worked out? These days, the best way to describe our relationship is the old Facebook status, “It’s complicated.” Let’s consider the history.

Russia and the United States have worked together at times — particularly when one or the other were in great peril. During the War Between the States, the Russian Navy spent the winter in Union ports in the winter of 1863 when Russia was facing heightened tensions with France and the United Kingdom, and needed a way to keep the Northern and Pacific Fleets as a viable threat instead of bottled up in port. The United States, of course, had its own worries vis-à-vis France and the UK entering the war on the side of the Confederate States, and needed a way to deter such a move. Ultimately, Russia avoided war, largely because England and France didn’t want to face commerce raiding, and the States fought their war without foreign interference. Then, of course, there was World War II.

That said, the U.S. and Russia have also been at odds. During the Cold War, the two nations aimed thousands of nukes at each other. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union (both of which Ronald Reagan brought about by maintaining a policy of peace through strength), relations improved.

Beginning in the 1990s, our biggest concern was the former Soviet Union’s giant yard sale — when a lot of military technology was sold on the open market. Iran obtained MiG-29 Fulcrums and T-72 tanks, and also ordered the S-300 surface-to-air missile system (the SA-10). China also bought a lot of Russian hardware, notable the Su-27 Flanker and the Sovremennyy-class destroyers. Russian weapons were sold on the black market, too. At one point, an American collector was able to buy an operable SS-1 Scud missile on its transporter, and only got caught when the transporter rolled onto the pier.

So, we come to the latest phase of Russo-American relations, which started going south after President George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, our toppling of Saddam’s rogue regime in Iraq, and Vladimir Putin’s naked aggression in the former Soviet state of Georgia. Inexplicably (ok, we tease), relations declined despite Hillary Clinton’s “Russian Reset” in 2009 — a reset that included an ill-considered arms control treaty. There was also Barack Obama’s notorious “hot mike” comment to then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about having more flexibility to address Russian concerns about our planned missile defense installations in Eastern Europe after the 2012 presidential election. Things have only gotten frostier since Putin’s seizure of the Crimea in 2014 and ensuing hostilities in Ukraine.

Still, Russia is one of the more rational actors among America’s non-friends, and it remains a potent threat despite its strength having declined considerably since the Cold War. Russia’s economy has also been hobbled by low oil prices, one of the consequences of the explosion of hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. And that hobbled economy is to an extent holding back its program of re-arming.

The real threat from Russia today may be more in who it chooses to do business with. We could see them move more quickly on sales to less-responsible actors like Iran, North Korea and Syria. Russia could also work more closely with China, selling advanced Flankers and new warships as China looks to resolve the South China Sea conflict in its favor.

Summing up, Russia can perhaps best be described as a “frenemy” of the U.S. at this point in time. While the possibility for improved relations is there, it’s just as possible that things could go south. In the meantime, Russia can be better contained by strengthening our presence in Europe (including a recent deployment to the Baltics as a trip-wire against aggression), and through a substantial buildup of our forces. Russia is a threat, but one that is both manageable, and not as immediate as that posed by Iran, radical Islamist groups like the Islamic State or the People’s Republic of China.

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