National Security & Defense

Russia’s Rising Empire

Russian president Vladimir Putin (Reuters/Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin)
While Obama plays ‘peacemaker’ with Iran, Putin is pursuing imperial aims.

Last Tuesday, President Obama admitted the difficult state of U.S.–Russian relations.

“But, it’s not going to stop us from still trying to pursue solutions so that we can, for example, implement the Minsk Agreement and get Russia and those separatists to lay down arms and stop bullying Ukraine,” the president added. That difficulty, he said, is “not going to stop us from trying to make sure that we can bring a political transition inside of Syria that can end the hardship there.”

He was obviously deluded in his optimism. One week later, the world proves why. In Ukraine, Russian forces and their proxies are preparing a new offensive, probably focused against the coastal city of Mariupol. In Syria, Russia’s slaughter of civilians rumbles on. Its intent remains the same: blackmailing Obama into accepting Russia’s pro-Assad “peace” plan. And in another Balkan adventure, Russia is planning new military exercises with Serbia. It is doing so under an explicit ethno-nationalist narrative.

Witnessing all this, we would be wrong to assume — as the White House does — that President Putin pursues disruption for its own sake. Instead, the Russian leader is taking deliberate steps in his longstanding imperial grand strategy to reshape international order. He’s succeeding.

Related: On Syria, Turkey Bows to Putin’s Will

For a start, contemplate Putin’s growing success in bringing U.S. allies under his dominion. President Erdogan of Turkey offers the best example here. Erdogan recently accepted Russian hegemony in Syria after losing faith in American efforts to remove Assad. But now, as Erdogan’s authoritarianism grows, he wants partners who will accept his excesses. Enter Vladimir Putin, making a show in Saint Petersburg this week of his hospitality to Erdogan. Putin offers the Turkish leader a new beginning, all while bringing his leash over a key NATO member — a NATO member, by the way, that controls whether ISIS cells can enter Europe. That’s relevant because Putin is betting that ISIS attacks in Europe will force the West to accept Assad in return for Russian support in destroying ISIS.

Next, consider Saudi Arabia’s new embrace of Russia. Saudi Arabia sees the Iran nuclear deal as a profound betrayal and also looks askance at the Obama administration’s weakness in Syria. The Saudis have lost faith in U.S. leadership. To former KGB operative Putin, this is blood in the water. Obama imagines that the Iran deal will earn him a laudatory “peacemaker” exhibit in his presidential library, but Putin has far greater ambitions: He will use Saudi fear over the nuclear deal to turn the House of Saud into a submissive client regime. Recent pro-Moscow statements by the traditionally pro-U.S. Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, illustrate Putin’s success. The Saudis know that Putin cannot be trusted, but they believe the U.S. can be trusted even less.

Related: Restore America’s Alliance with Saudi Arabia

These developments are a strategic calamity for the United States. Instead of sidelining Wahhabi extremists and diversifying its economy, the House of Saud will now double down on fear of modernity. That means more social stagnation and more Islamic extremism. Putin wants it that way. As Iran grows more powerful and as oil prices decline — thus reducing the subsidies available to placate its young population — the kingdom will retreat into sectarian terrorism.

Both the bear and the dragon are working to overturn U.S.-led international order. And be under no illusions, they are succeeding.

Even then, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Russia’s cooperation with China is growing on all fronts. Motivated by imperial objectives, both the bear and the dragon are working to overturn the U.S.-led international order. And be under no illusions, they are succeeding: Just look at the influence China has won over the U.K. government by offering Britain multi-billion-dollar investments via trade agreements and the Asia Investment and Infrastructure Bank.

It’s imperative that the United States reassert leadership — and soon. America’s next president must strengthen NATO while requiring our allies to get serious about defense spending. He or she must ignore Chinese and Pakistani complaints and prioritize stronger U.S.–India relations to counterbalance China and Russia. Most of all, the 45th president must reestablish American credibility. The world must understand that when an American president says we will do something, or that we believe in something, we mean it and it will be so. Absent that principle, as the last eight years prove, the world becomes less safe, less just, and less free.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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