In the Arena

Ursa Minor

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Today Jackson Diehl picks up Charles Krauthammer’s theme of last Friday, which is that Barack Obama is getting played by the Russians. This is a theme that goes back to John McCain’s overreaction to the skirmish in Georgia last summer–and further, to Robert Kagan’s theory that the Russkies are roaring again. Which goes back to the neoconservative tic of searching for–at times, creating–enemies rather than opportunities.

In other words, this is cold war nonsense. The Russians were behind Kyrghizstan’s “decision” to close down the American base there, an important Afghan supply link. (The “decision” is more like the opening round in a negotiation, which will probably wind up with the U.S. shelling out more for the rights to use the base.) The Russians want to have a choke-hold on U.S. Afghan supply routes. The Russians want to build a naval base in Abkhazia–nominally part of Georgia, but not really–on the Black Sea. The Russians want to gobble up Georgia.

OK. Russia has a history of aggression in its near-abroad. Let’s assume all of the above is true, even if it probably isn’t. (Why would the Russians want to put a choke-hold on our ability to fight in Afghanistan, where the enemy is the jihadi allies of the central asian Islamic terrorists–Chechens, Uzbeks etc–making life difficult along Russia’s southern border?) Realism dictates that if the Russians actually want to swallow Georgia, there’s nothing we can do to stop them. (Realism also dictates that the Russians learned a lesson when their stock market tanked last summer–foreign investors fleeing–when it seemed they would actually press on to Tblisi.)

On the other hand, let’s say we do what Obama seems interested in doing: make further reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles, and agree to put a hold on the anti-ballistic system in Europe (a system that is a technological fantasy, so far, in any case)…if the Russians successfully help to convince–or help threaten–the Iranians to  halt  their nuclear weapons plans.  Diehl seems to think that because  the  Russians appear to open to this sort of negotiation, we should be suspicious of it. If–a big if, granted–we could stop the Iranian bomb program at the price of the anti-ballistic missile system (and slow-walking Georgia and Ukraine’s entry into NATO), who wouldn’t take that deal?

The fact is, Russia isn’t the Soviet Union. Its military, beyond a few elite units, is decrepit. Its economy is suddenly shaky, given the recession–and the drop in demand for its oil and gas. It may be able to threaten a few former Soviet provinces, but its Eastern European satellites are safely tucked  beneath the NATO and EU umbrella.

We have had eight years of neoconservative huffing and puffing about this putative enemy and that. This Russia fixation is among the weirder outcroppings.  Obama’s “reset” with Russia may not work, but it’s certainly worth a major effort.

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