What does Russia docking in the Panama Canal this weekend mean? What should the Obama administration be thinking about it? National Review Online asked a group of Russian experts.
The visits of Russian ships to Venezuela and the Panama Canal are part of a campaign of escalating Russian pressure — a campaign designed to prevent Ukraine and Georgia from being admitted into NATO. The inclusion of these two former Soviet republics in NATO does not threaten Russia militarily, but in the eyes of Russian leaders, the Westernization of Georgia and Ukraine is an extremely bad example for the Russian population.
Russia seeks a world in which it can impose its will in the territory of the former Soviet Union. Russian spokesmen (and “realists” who echo their positions) argue that Russia will then become a reliable partner of the West. In reality, having gotten a “privileged position” in the former Soviet space, Russia will next seek a privileged position in the former Warsaw Pact.
In pursuit of its objectives, Russia has become threatening. Russian president Dmitri Medvedev greeted President-elect Obama with a threat to station nuclear-capable short-range missiles in the Kaliningrad oblast next to NATO. In September, Russia conducted a military exercise in the Southern Urals designed to simulate a war with the U.S. Now, Russian warships are patrolling the Caribbean Sea and the Panama Canal. Putin said that Russia has received many requests from countries that would like Russian ships to visit their ports.
Under these circumstances, the bedrock of sound policy is fidelity to principles. The Russians seek a corrupt deal; the right of sovereign nations to form their own alliances cannot be discussed.
— David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His most recent book is Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale).
Russia has been provoking the United States and its allies recently for a variety of reasons, and this will likely escalate during an Obama administration. The question is, Will Obama react like a Carter or a Reagan?
As Jeane Kirkpatrick used to say, “People are policy.” Of the names mentioned so far as potential Obama advisers on Russia, most are promising, but some are worrying. Close to Obama are Zbigniew and Mark Brzezinski, who are no friends of Putin, and the academic Michael McFaul, who specialized in exposing the failures of Putinism.
However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will likely bring Strobe Talbott — her husband’s “Russia Hand” in the 1990s — back to life. This is worrying. At a time when Russia looked to Washington for guidance after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Talbott helped (morally and materially) not the America-friendly democrats but the remnants of Soviet power. When Talbott was a journalist, he had career-boosting relations with a KGB agent called Viktor Louis, and this could have trapped him in a Faustian bargain that affected his judgment later. Clinton herself is close to America’s allies in that region, but could sub-contract Russia to Talbott.
For his part, Putin owes a lot to Talbott, but is known to be ungrateful to past supporters.
— Fredo Arias-King is founder of the Washington-based academic quarterly Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
The threat is mild. It is posturing, a tool of statecraft. After over a decade of absence, the post-Soviets are back on the world scene.
They are letting the U.S. know that they are ready to support various nefarious leftist regimes in the area, including those in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. However, their post-Communism-cum-Great-Russian-chauvinism lacks the ideological rabidity of unadulterated Communism of yore. Also, the economic crisis, the slump in energy prices in particular, should limit Russia’s ambitions overseas.
There’s also the idea of reciprocity. From the Kremlin’s point of view, it goes something like this: “The U.S. supports Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltics. It meddles in Iran. Well, we’ll bring the game over to Latin America and we’ll see how Washington likes that! We’ll back away if they withdraw from our sphere of influence.”
On the other hand, the Russian Federation is the only nation on earth capable of destroying the United States today: It has inherited the USSR’s nuclear arsenal.
–Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is academic dean of and professor of history at the Institute of World Politics.
These latest maneuvers on Russia’s part look more like a naval middle finger to Washington than like a long-term threat. Moscow is creating a stash of bargaining chips to trade for serious concessions from the incoming Obama administration — an administration anxious to demonstrate its skill in applying soft power.
Russia’s other recent behaviors are far more worrisome: You have a prescription for an “almost-Cold War.” Russia will be building a nuclear reactor for Hugo Chavez, and if Venezuela moves toward a military nuclear program, it may trigger an arms race in Latin America. Not to mention Russia’s support of Iran and Syria, or its cozy contacts with Hamas and Hezbollah. Or Russia’s war with Georgia, Moscow’s hysterical opposition to NATO enlargement, and its overblown fears of the U.S. missile-defense deployment in Central Europe.
Yes, these new actions — Russia’s naval maneuvers with Venezuela, port call to the Panamanian naval base of Balboa, and planned joint maneuvers with India in January — should be the subject of a careful examination by the intelligence and analytical communities. But if crisis-ridden Moscow and Washington hope for a thaw, and if no follow-up activities (like opening up a permanent Russian base in Venezuela or Cuba) take place, gestures like the two Russian ships in the Caribbean will remain little more than geopolitical chess moves.
–Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy security at the Katherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev
Monitor, but don’t overreact. That’s my advice to both the outgoing and incoming administrations.
These Russian naval actions are symbolic. Russia’s ability to project power in any sustained fashion is still minimal, even given the recovery of the last several years (a recovery the current economic crisis jeopardizes). There is no strategic threat to the U.S. comparable to that seen in the Cold War days. Sending the Admiral Chabanenko through the Panama Canal is a move designed to rattle our chain.
The real danger lies in overreaction. Recall earlier this year when the U.S. Navy reactivated the Fourth Fleet, active in the waters of the Caribbean and Central and South America: Latin America, not just the usual suspects like Hugo Chavez but also leaders in Brazil and Argentina, reacted negatively. Now’s not the best time to be banding around phrases like “America’s sphere of influence.” This is a time when a number of U.S. interests — including promoting the energy security of the entire Western Hemisphere — require forging more intimate ties with a region where anti-American sentiment can still be whipped up at a moment’s notice.