Category Archives: Russian fleet

The Obama Legacy


Historians will debate the importance of the Obama Administration and its role in American history for decades to come, of course. The legacy which presidents leave behind them is always a concern of our chief executives, and it has been of even more importance to Barack Obama. As he marked a milestone in his tour of duty. leaving on a foreign tour, with a successor he opposed now chosen, he publicly drew his own optimistic record. He carefully picked, of course, in a press conference, what he considered the best interpretation of events over the last eight years. But at least for the time being, when his policies and their repercussions are still relatively fresh, it is hard to draw a balance sheet which is less than disastrous.
Obama, of course, perhaps more than any other recent president, is an ideologue – and he insisted in his political campaigns that he aimed at a “transformation” of American society. His framework for events is a combination of his studies of history but overlaid by the socialist and pro-Communist views of the little social-political group around the University of Chicago who launched his career.
There is no doubt that he has effected changes, whether they are indeed transformations, and whether any have been beneficiary, only time will tell.
But any honest examination of the effects of his strategies is a record of miscalculation and failures. Perhaps the most dramatic ones have been in foreign policy. His campaign to withdraw American power and decision-making from the international scene has demonstrated what had always been apparent to serious students of foreign affairs: the enormous power of the U.S., economic, political and military, has a role in any international confrontation even when Washington chooses to remain neutral or withdraw its influence. A world order without U.S. participation is not only unimaginable to our allies but something our adversaries always question as a possibility.
The Middle East is the most dramatic example of the failure of Obama’s effort to remove American leadership and power in the interelated conflicts there. First, his effort to weaken the U.S.-Israel alliance encouraged the Moslem terrorists in the area. Then, Sec. Hillary Clinton’s courted the brief Moslem Brotherhood regime in Egypt – overthrown by the military through popular demand. Obama and Hillary attempted to boycott the new military rulers thus providing an opportunity for Russian arms sales and influence where it had been expelled a half century ago by pro-Western Egtptians. In Syria, Obama’s initial declaration of opposition to the Basher al Assad regime was followed by withdrawal. Washington’s retreat assured the descent into a bloody, irresolute civil war sending a flood of millions of refugees into neighboring countries and Europe. The threat of force followed by its withdrawal has returned Moscow to a base in the eastern Mediterranean and helped extend Tehran mullahs’ state terrorisn excesses across the Fertile Crescent, even into Latin America. A treaty to curb Tehran’s nuclear weapons, never submitted to the Senate as the Constitution fdemands, is rapidly disintegrating
In East and South Asia, Obama’s ambivalent policies toward Chinese aggression have encouraged Beijing to aggressive territorial claims against its neighbors, discouraged unity among the Southeast Asians against Chinese Communist threats. Again Hillary’s much publicized pivot to the Western Pacific has failed to materialize. Slowly, the rape of the American economy by the Chinese through export subsides and currency manipulation – begun in the Bush Administrations — has become so clear that the Trump Administration qill have no option but a dangerous crackdown.
Obama’s role as the first American Afro-American president was, whether admitted in public discussion, seen as an important opportunity to continue to heal the historic American race problem. But whether in part because his own exotic background linked him neither to the rising black middle class nor the poor of the ghetto, he either took nondefensible positions on individual race incidents or neglected completely the mayhem of his own Chicago hometown. One has to assume that the American black leadership can only see these past eight years as a failure by a president, whatever his color, to contribute to solution of the race problem which appears to most observers to be in an even worse condition than at his entry into office.
Obama’s claim for his Affordable Care solution to long-term U.S. medical care is nearing collapse with skyrocketing costs and failure of the insurance framework which was to support it. His steady stream of executive directives for additional regulation and environmental restraints has contributed toward the slowest and most erratic economic recovery since World War II.
Despite his rhetorical skills and personal popularity as the first black president, Obama’s legacy will be a negative one. As the anti-Obama vote for Donald Trump has demonstrated, it will also cast a shadow on many of the techniques and political forms his very talented political team gave the nation.
sws-11-14-16

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Dancing with Putin


There is a wild Russian folkdance, like so many Russian cultural artifacts linked to the Tartar Occupation, called the kasatka [ka-zatch-ka]. In one of its many forms, it tests the dancer’s calisthenics by having him crouch but fling out each leg and foot alternately, testing his balance and the nerves of those aroumd him.

Vladimir Putin, old secret service operator that he is with some inherited talents of the Soviet regime but steeped in Russian folkways, has been dancing a katsatka around Pres. Barack Obama. And the effect is as usual unnerving to the encircled and annihilates whatever more formal and customary dance routine the imprisoned spectator might have pursued.

When Obama first suggested an aggressive American role in Syria, but then quickly reneged, Putin saw his chance. After his aggression in George, Crimea and Ukraine, and continuing threats elsewhere, he had unnerved the European Union and the U.S. It was to the point that they, however reluctantly, threatened formal resistance. And they did go as far as sanctions against the Russian leading lights around Putin.

But Putin has enough sense of history to know that bluff can often be successful, especially if like lies – as Hitler’s propagandist Josef Goebbels said – they are ambitious enough. So Putin plunged into Syria, set up the beginning of bases on the coast, and backed his would-be host, the collapsing regime of Basher Al Assad. The effort had great psychological and propaganda value, for Syria had once been the Soviet Union’s Mediterranean anchor, and a return there hinted at a return of Moscow to world leadership.

So the kasatka began. Putin’s oncoming disaster at home with the West’s sanctions and the collapsing oil price for Russia’s only export certainly left Putin in a precarious crouching position. But he flung his military, however much its technological stars and nuclear armory, still the decrepit carcass of the once grand Soviet war machine, far overcommitted into the Syrian row. His aircraft indiscriminately committing atrocities against a highly vulnerable civilian population, and his highly trained special forces encadred al Assad’s old professional French-styled Syrian army, were able to turn the tide against the multi-head opposition. That was especially true since neither Washington nor its allies could pull together demoralized Syrian democrats, and all were trying to keep their distance from al Assad’s main jidhadist opposition.

But then with a new kasatka thrust, Putin grabbed Obama’s gallivanting Secretary of State’s effort to set up an armistice and peace conference. The armistice gave Putin some respite from his overtaxed kasatka thrusts. His dance had so wearied Kerry & Co. that the conferees agreed to gather in Vienna, even though they clearly had totally opposite positions: Washington was demanding that al Assad go, the Kremlin had staked its successful dance on his remaining in office. With the long and ugly history of such conferences throughout the post-World War II history, between the West and the Communists, it was clear Putin’s kasatka meant he would whittle down the American/EU position. With successful negotiations always Washington’s primary target, negotiating with an opponent who does not give ground, ultimately always means the U.S. makes the concessions.

So Putin’s kasatka continues. The latest fling of the limbs is to “order” the Russian military out of Syria. Crouched as he is, he dearly needs to end his commitment before it collapses. But his kasatka presents this as great concession of a noble and enlightened opponent, and, of course, he has made no firm commitment on date nor which and what he will withdraw. In fact, as so often happened with Soviet promises of cooperation, the withdrawal might not take place at all, were he not in an overextended position that he needs to withdraw.

The kasatka never quite ends with any final tour de force. Usually the dancer is so exhausted he just leaves off. That may well be the case with Putin’s dance around the bemused Obama, trying desperately to make something of historical moment of the few months of his last tenure in the presidency. After all, the kasatka has achieved its purpose – it’s rescued Putin from economic collapse, at least for the moment, and has bolstered his flagging domestic support by a feint at the old Soviet international glory.

sws-03-14-16

 

The New Cold War


 

There is now no doubt that Vladimir Putin has launched a successful strategic offensive against the U.S. and its allies, attempting to reassert Moscow’s position as a world leader.

Putin’s challenge to the security of American allies in the Middle East and Central Europe despite his fragile domestic economy is not an historical anomaly. The combination of a skidding gas and oil price, Russia’s only major export, and limited sanctions by the U.S. and its allies, are sending the Russian economy into shortages and inflation.

But just as the fascist dictators of the 1930s, led by Adolph Hitler’s Germany, initially began their aggressive program with bluff, Putin has taken a leaf from their book. We know now that Hitler was ready in one encounter after another with France and other members of the Western alliance to backtrack if he had met opposition. That opposition was not forthcoming, however, in the long road of appeasement, hoping Hitler would end his depredations.

But, as the old saying goes, nothing succeeds like success, and Hitler road these victories to increasing power and his eventual catastrophe when he misjudged the Polish crisis in 1939. Putin is not Hitler, nor is Russia Germany, of course, nor is the world of the digital revolution the 1930s.. But the fact that Putin is immensely popular at home – in no small part because of his effrontery –works on that same old principle.

Like Hitler, he has exploited the presence of Russian minorities or pro-Moscow forces in his former Soviet neighbors. This has brought him success first in a weak Georgia, then in a Ukraine seeking to establish its independence after centuries under Russian domination, and the Baltic States with their history of Russian imperial rule and Soviet aggression.

But his most striking strategic victory has been in the Mediterranean where he once against has established a Moscow base in Syria. Putin has openly challenged the post-Soviet U.S. domination of Europe’s most important waterway by “establishing a permanent presence in the Mediterranean, and breaking out from their perceived military encirclement by NATO, economic sanctions and political isolation”, according to Adm. Mark Ferguson, the head of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa.

Moscow’s ruthless air support of the beleaguered Bashar Al Assad regime in Damascus with enormous civilian casualties has been only a cover for the reestablishment of Moscow bases. In fact, Putin has deployed weapons that have nothing to do with the war against Syrian terrorism. Deployment in Syria of Russian long-range aircraft can now operate all along NATO’s southern flank. The addition of advanced surveillance aircraft creates the beginning of long-range air-defense and precision-strike force. There are reports he has sold a highly capable anti-ship cruise missile to give Assad an advanced air defense systems. In strategic terms, these have to be seen as a challenge to Turkey’s own airspace and therefore to NATO as a member of the alliance.

All this has given Putin the opportunity to put additional pressure on a diminished and overworked American military. The U.S. is going to be forced to redeploy resources now needed in the Persian Gulf to meet the growing challenge of Iran and in the Sea of Japan and the South China Sea where Beijing is rapidly expanding its military clout.

By refusing to go after the terrorists allied to Daesh, [the self-proclaimed Islamic sultanate in Syria and Iraq], Putin has produced a split in NATO. His success has reached such proportions that Donald Trump, a leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president, talks of extending a negotiating hand to the Kremlin.

The Obama counter-strategy has been a continued reliance on a policy of open-handedness to enemies in order to bring them to the negotiating table and compromise. There is no evidence, either with the Islamic terrorists, nor with Putin, that this strategy has been successful. Most experts on the area do not see Obama’s “deal” with Tehran on nuclear weapons as effective. And releasing Iranian assets as part of the bargain have probably freed them for additional operations as the world’s greatest state terrorist.

The Obama persistence in following his initial strategy will inevitably speed up the Russian expansion in the Mediterranean which will increasingly be seen by our allies in the region as the threat of a new cold war.

sws-01-23-16

 

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Russian navy: another look


Just when we thought we could stow away our concerns about Soviet military power as a nightmare of the disappeared Cold War, we are finding out differently. A 68-page U..S. Navy studied has just been issued which in effect warns the American public and particularly policymakers that Russian naval strength is awesome enough to be of concern.
There is little doubt that Pres. Vladimir Putin is playing, if you will pardon the expression, Russian roulette with his aggression in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria. He does not have the power to sustain his current dramatic thrusts into these areas. That’s particularly true given the response, however faint-hearted in some quarters [not the leadst the Obama Administration] to a new threat to European and world peace and stability.
But the sanctions placed on his cronies and more importantly, the collapsing price of oil on which the Russian economy has been almost wholly dependent in recent years, is creating an economic crisis. It’s a terrible comment on Russian history and its civilization that his bombastic maneuvers, even including some adolescent bare-chested sex appeals, have earned him at least temporarily vast support at home even in the face of a deteriorating economy.
It’s important to remember that past aggressions that ultimately led to major wars were often the antics of diabolical leadership gambling that their bullying would be met by peaceloving acquiescence from the democracies. We know now, for example, that at every move by Hitler – whether the initial reoccupation of the Rhineland contrary to the Versailles Treaty ending World War I – was a feint. Had the French countered, he was ready to pull back. And, one might argue, the world tripped into World War II in Poland because even then Hitler thought he could get away with one more blackmail.
The new study tells us, that in effect, Putin’s Moscow is still reeping the benefits of the enormous overinvestment in science, particularly military science, of the Soviet era. We say “overinvestment” for we greybears remember the terrible suffering of the Russian peoples and their empire as the Soviets poured savings into military hardware. While Americans puzzled over their several dozen breakfast cereals in their overflowing supermarkets, Soviet groceries were literally bare.
Laying out the details, the report says that Russia’s navy, only smaller than those of the U.S. and China in size, soon could deny the US Navy access to the Black and Baltic seas. Moscow’s occupation of Crimea, again producing new economic strains on the economy, and its enclave in Kaliningrad, could keep U.S. forces out of the Black or Baltic Seas,. That might at some point deny assistance to other countries which border them under Russian threat.
The Russians have announced plans to revive and increase the size and scope of the country’s Black Sea conventionally powered submarine fleet, new specially designed craft to operate in shallow waters. And through a leak by Japanese sources a couple of decades ago, Moscow’s research has improved on their engines to make them the quietest underwater craft in the world.
The report details Russia’s Kalibr new missiles, put on display in October when Russian boats in the Caspian Sea fired at ground targets in Syria [even if some did fall short in Iran] The report speculates that Russia’s fifth-generation aircraft, the PAK FA aka T-50, could be deployed as soon as 2016. That aircraft’s increased stealth capabilities, as well as its potential role aboard a new Russian aircraft carrier, could spell big problems for the U.S.
Granted that there is always a tendency among our military intelligence bodies to take the most pessimistic view of the enemy’s capabilities, that is that he may be considered stronger than he actually is. But the tenor of the report is such that it cannot but be seen as another warning, if it were needed, against the Obama Administration’s determined efforts to reduce the size of our naval forces, and indeed, of all our military. This report shows just how dangerous that is in a time of worldwide instability and unpredictable events.
sws-12-31.15

Who’s on first?


Does the United States have two foreign policies, one out of the White House, and the other out of The Pentagon – or, thinking about it, maybe another third one out of the State Department?

That’s about the only conclusion you can draw from a recent exchange over an episode in the South China Sea.

It’s no secret that the Chinese are building military bases a thousand miles south of their Mainland territory, right straight athwart one of the most important sea highways of the world. It is the one that carries $5 trillion worth of manufacturing and raw materials on a supply line for not only China but Japan and South Korea, including oil from the Middle East. They are doing it even when they have to dredge up more coral for shoals that barely are above the water line, especially in these days of reportedly rising sea level.

On the other hand, freedom of navigation, freedom of the seas, freedom of international waters, has been an American institution even before our country won its independence from Britain. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams literally spent years trying unsuccessfully to get the European powers together to halt piracy in the Mediterranean. And it was as our second president, Jefferson, much against his previous prejudices against a standing military force and foreign interventions, who after all sent our first troops abroad. They went to North Africa, then the Barbary Coast, to halt the boarding, kidnapping and ransoming of American ships and their sailors. Remember: “xxx from halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli xxx” was not some idle ditty.

When we heard that our ageing [50 years now] B52 bombers were sent lumbering over the new Chinese bases, we assumed they were taking the advice of many of us and challenging Beijing’s effort to throw up a block to world shipping. But now comes Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright with a statement that the Dec. 10 mission was not a “freedom of navigation” operation and that there was “no intention of flying within 12 nautical miles of any feature,” nhinting that the mission may have strayed off course.

“The United States routinely conducts B-52 training missions throughout the region, including over the South China Sea,” Wright said in an email to The Associated Press. “These missions are designed to maintain readiness and demonstrate our commitment to fly, sail and operate anywhere allowed under international law.”

Wright said the U.S. was “looking into the matter.”

The announcement leaves everyone including us in a complete quandary.

First of all, do B52s – sometimes armed with nuclear weapons – stray off course in this day and age of super-GPS [Global Position System]? If so, not only their pilots and navigators need to be brought up on charges but so do the commanding officers, whether they be in Pearl or in Arlington.

Secondly, we had assumed that the “straying” B-52s were another effort to tell the Chinese in no uncertain terms that we would not permit the challenging of the right of freedom of the seas in international waters which they have declared unilaterally. They are, incidentally, stepping on the toes of the Filipinos and others who have claims to those shoals because they are in their territorial waters or zones of economic exploitation.

If this assumption is correct, why in the name of all that is holy in nautical strategy would you not maintain openly and loudly that you are challenging the Chinese! Beijing, sensing some ambiguity in Washington, was already ready, of course, with a protest over the overlights and making new threats The answer to that protest is a public statement reiterating our right to fly through the area because it is in international waters, and not Chinese territory as Beijing claims.

Who’s running this show, anyway? Or is our Helmsman missing altogether?

sws-12-21-15

 

Dangerous Mideast Reality


The volatility of Middle East events notwithstanding, a new picture is emerging of alliances very different from those preceding the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the now five-year-old Syrian civil war.
That new reality is obscured by the Obama Administration, suspended in contradictory strategies of removing the American military option from the table while incrementally increasing U.S. special forces and bombing, adamantly calling for the ouster of Basher al Asaad in Damascus but negotiating for his participation in a “settlement”, and most of all, insisting on talking up an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation which has died.
There are growing signs that the relatively artificial national-states created by Britain and France in the Ottoman Empire breakup after World War II may be crashing.
Central to the new picture emerging is Saudi Arabia’s position. Western pressure and internal reformists are moving against the most egregious aspects of the regime, e.g., its long time allegiance to Wahhabism – an Islamic fundamentalism at the root of much of the current terrorism. Although the Saudis are flooding the world oil markets in an attempt to criiple their competitors, the Shale Revolution in the U.S. has deflated its once pivotal energy role. Saudi movement is occasioned by some internal reform elements, but more importantly the Obama Administration’s flirtation with Riyadh’s chief rival Iran. [Thet have just announced women will be permitted to vote, a revolution in a country which does not permit them to drive.] The Saudis themselves have been forced into direct talks with Tehran in an effort to short circuit Washington-Tehran deals. But at the same time, the Saudis are rallying Sunni allies in Syria against the growing influence – including direct military participation – of Iran. The nomination of a pro-Syrian president in Lebanon and the growing domination of the Iranian ally, the Shia Hezbollah, is a defeat for the Saudis.
Whether traditional family domination and loyalties can withstand this turmoil remains to be seen.
The Israeli-Arab conflict which has dominated Mideast politics may be dissolving in the face of the greater fear of an aggrandizing Iran. The recent announcement that Israel is opening a diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi, although enmeshed in a number of subterfuges, is the most dramatic recent evidence of the growing new tacit alliances. Jerusalem and Cairo are in a tight security and military alliance against Hamas in Gaza, supported by Iran, and the remnants of the Moslem Brotherhood fighting a guerrilla movement against the al Ssisi regime. But virtual disintegration of the Palestinian Liberation Organization under aging Pres. Mohammed Abbas – under bitter attack from Hamas– means there is no negotiating party on the Palestinian side. The current wave of Palestinian violence –“lone wolf” episodes unorchestrated by any Palestinian organization if encouraged by Hamas – is being met stoically by an Israeli public. It has not slowed a growing French Jewish in-immigration occasioned by violent anti-Semitic episodes in France, Despite American and EU opposition [the latter in a trade offensive], Israel is consolidating its enclaves [”settlements”] in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.
The Obama Administration’s response to these dramatic reversals in the region is an attempt to find a negotiated settlement to the Syrian Civil War. While Russia’s Pres. Vladimir Putin has nominally joined the effort, he has bid up his hand in the Syrian conflict in support of the al Basher regime which Washington still insists must go. How long Putin, with a collapsing economy facing Western sanctions over the Ukraine issue and a tumbling international oil price for its only export, can maintain the Syrian thrust remains to be seen. But the use of sea-born missiles this week was a dangerous escalation, not the least because some Russian missiles fired earlier from the Caspian earlier had fallen short in Iran
While references to World War III [by none other than Pope Francis himself] are exaggerated, the volatility of events suggests the possibility of miscalculations at any moment with even more escalating violence.
sws-12-11-15

Obama’s NATO lapse


Pres. Barack Obama’s veto message of the Military Authorization Bill mentioned the controversial closure of Guantanomo’s terrorist facilities and the failure to achieve reform of systems acquisition and other issues. But critics charge it was largely an attempt to blackmail the Republicans in Congress into supporting his non-military expenditures which have come under fire from budget cutters.

Whatever the final outcome of this particularly bureaucratic hassle, nowhere in the swamp of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy snafu is the contradictions of policy so apparent as in Washington’s relation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization What has been the world’s most successful alliance is now in jeopardy, in part, of course, from new and difficult strategic and tactical circumstances of a rapidly fluctuating Europe and world geopolitical imbalance.

But an important part of the present disarray lies in the fundamental contradictions in Pres. Barak Obama’s basic approach to the whole international scene. Obama’s worldview consisted of a grossly oversimplified concept of American foreign overextension, particularly through its military, and a remedy existed in drastic and dramatic cutbacks in U.S. commitments – such as in Iraq – would be met with a similar response from antagonistic elements abroad. That simply has not proved out, neither with the forces of Islamic chaos and terrorism in the Middle East nor with Vladimir Putin’s drive to restore former Soviet glory as a superpower.

Rushing to meet Putin’s thrust in Ukraine, NATO alliance headquarters senior military now see it may have neglected its Mediterranean flank, a vulnerability they say and others see as laid bare by Russia’s muscular intervention in Syria.

Obama’s reluctant turnaround on meeting what he publicly underestimated as the threat of Daesh [ISIS, ISIL] in Syria and Iraq has been slow and ineffective. In fact, Daesh is rapidly attempting to lead terrorists throughout the Arab and Islamic world, however discordant the various Islamic terrorists evade unity..

After more than a year, the U.S. response has been only reluctantly meeting any of the challenges which the Obama worldview earlier refused to accept. As he said in his quintessential 2009 Cairo speech, Obama believed he could reverse antagonisms between Islam and the West. But it is now clear that the traditional radical strains of the Moslem faith are in the ascendancy throughout the Islamic world. A modest if totally inadequate bombing campaign against Daesh not only has failed to destroy it but even to halt its tactical victories in the region and, more frightening, curb its growing appeal to like-minded elements around the world. The flow of volunteers to it from the West as well as from other Moslem countries is a bitter testimony to this trend.

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has publicly recognized its own strategic failings. He has announced Treaty delegates at a Dec. 1 meeting will take up the new strategic implications for the Alliance’s southern flank brought on by the Russian plunge into Syria. Increased surveillance and reconnaissance activities, deployments of NATO troops in advisory roles to crisis-hit countries across North Africa and the Middle East, and reinforced permanent NATO military deployments in the Mediterranean region are all on the agenda. Stoltenberg said, not surprisingly, that there were now “many threats to the South of the alliance” that had to be urgently met. Stoltenberg’s statement came as Trident Juncture, NATO’s largest war games in a decade was taking place in Spain.

 Admiral John Richardson, the new U.S. chief of naval operations, had already acknowledged the new strategic situation by announcing he was considering sending more ships including submarines to deter what is generally considered in NATO circles, Moscow’s adventurism. Given the growing demands on the U.S. fleet, however much its gains in technology and firepower, make such deployments increasingly difficult.

But “[F]reedom of navigation [in the Mediterranean] is fundamentally important to NATO,” as General Adrian Bradshaw, NATO’s deputy supreme allied commander has said. “As we observe the deployment of more sophisticated [Russian] capabilities with considerable reach it becomes more and more important that we refresh our deterrence.” NATO advisers are already in Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia to bolster the alliance’s regional influence were ready to be sent to Libya as soon as a unity government was formed there.

The question now hanging over all these strategic and tactical concepts is whether the U.S. has the will, and will undertake a reversal of its drastic reduction in military force, to meet these challenges. They find their most dramatic exposition in the new demands made on NATO, but they have competitive demands in the growing aggressive actions of the Chinese in the Asian theaters. And the obvious questions are whether our European allies are prepared to meet the new challenge and whether the Obama Administration moves even more dramatically to reexamine its priorities.

sws-11-05-15

 

 

 

 

 

 

The growing Russian menace


It is not a return of the Cold War – but, in a sense, it may be even more dangerous.

For more than four decades, the U.S. and its allies wrestled with a formidable enemy, one armed to the teeth, from nuclear weapons and delivery systems to the best propaganda-subversion network the world had ever seen. But Washington and the West tended to obscure the enormous vulnerabilities of the autarkical Soviet economy – even when periodically it came obsequiously soliciting a blood transfer from the capitalists. Perhaps that was why only a few Russians had anticipated its extreme vulnerability and why its sudden implosion came as such a surprise in the West.

But during those decades, there was never much doubt about what the issue was, what each side’s military capabilities were, nor what both planned in the event of a breakout. It was labeled with that cliché, the balance of terror.
Today’s scene is much more unclear.

True, Russia’s weaknesses are much more apparent while Vladimir Putin increasingly challenges the West and its norms for worldwide peace and stability. There is one good reason: unlike the earlier era, this Moscow has sought and to some extent found economic integration with the world economy. So much so, in fact, that it has caught ‘the Dutch disease” – an overwhelming dependence on its vast oil and gas reserves for its relative prosperity compared to Soviet times. But the huge cash reserves for its gas exports to Western Europe only disguise its weaknesses and may be on the verge of rapid dissipation.

For in reality the Russian state today suffers all the ills of a descending power. A catastrophic decline in the birth rate has driven Russia toward a smaller and smaller population, as much as a third by 2050. Perhaps the dip in population slackening just now but continuing over the long run with a particularly high death rate for males from accidents and alcoholism. [Recent small blips of population increase are Russian ethnics returning to the “homeland” from former Central Asian non-Slav Soviet “republics”] Urbanization and the creation of a pampered elite disguise the abandonment of village economies and agriculture. Even its massive fossil fuels exports are based on antiquated and inefficient exploitation, with crumbling pipelines and depleting oilfields, increasingly dependent on foreign technology as it hopes for new oil finds in the Arctic.
Vladimir Putin, like his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, has promised reforms on all fronts. These include pumping up the once proud heritage of the Soviet military. But while he has initiated an ambitious rearmament program, it has not solved its traditional defects [disciplinary abuses, for example] of the Russian military nor moved successfully as promised repeatedly to an all volunteer force. Whether in the brief war against Georgia or in its covert aid to the pro-Moscow rebels in Crime and the eastern Ukraine, these deficiencies have been manifest.

All this explains why relatively minor sanctions of the U.S. and the EU against Russian aggression in Ukraine have impacted so heavily on Moscow. The massive outflows of capital, always a problem because of the unstable political scene which saw favorite oligarchs suddenly become enemies of the state, have soared. The stock market has soured, now short of foreign capital and domestic investors scurrying abroad. And the rubble has tumbled against the dollar.
But none of this has slowed Putin’s bombastic claims to regain for Russia the superpower status of the failed Soviet Union. [After all he has said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.] He has ignored advice of former trusted economic advisers warning of the growing impact of Western economic warfare. In part, this has been because his “victories” in Georgia, Crimea, and continued abetting of the civil strife in Ukraine itself, have generally been supported by the new Russian elite, as chagrined as he at the second class power status Russia had fallen into after 1990. A jingoistic – and largely government controlled media – have also spurred him on.

But in a sense, Putin is being sucked into a vacuum created by the Obama Administration and the European Union’s only lackluster effort to halt the first new European aggression by a major power since World War II. Rather than send all possible military support to the besieged Kyiv regime whose forces, unexpectedly, performed reasonably well against the Ukrainian rebels and their Russian encadrement, Washington, Berlin and Brussels have negotiated toward a loose federal Ukrainian state Moscow could manipulate and pull back into its orbit.

That has embolden Putin – playing to his domestic claque – to make increasingly aggressive gestures, whether bomber patrols off North America or Russian warships in the North Sea. The old Soviet [Putin’s own political ancestry in the NKVD/KGB] espionage intrigues have surfaced on the Lithuanian border, one of the three Baltic States looking to many observers as his next target in his attempt to reconstitute the Soviet empire.

The issue at the moment is not just the question of what either side will do next. That is, will Putin push for further concessions from Poland, the Baltic States, and Finland? Or will he be content to huff and puff until the weight of the falling world energy price finally sinks the Russian economy. That could come quicker than many anticipate in the always unpredictable world oil markets.

The Saudis with their huge reserves publicly claim the current falling worldwide energy prices are only temporary. [That was after rudely and uncharacteriscally refusing all media coverage of the recent OPEC conference which failed to curb production in order to bolster prices.] Their interest may be in a world oil price that would undercut the higher sxpenses of American shale production.

Their prophecy, if sincere, seems unlikely. Not only has the shale revolution in the U.S. [and now spreading abroad] given the American economy a fillip and virtually halted net energy imports, it threatens to turn into a weapon to finally establish a uniform world gas market at cheaper prices. Despite all the problems of the Mideast, new or reinvigorated Iraqi, Libyan and Syrian oil is reaching world markets. Even Iran, living with its own faltering sanctioned regime now somewhat diluted by the Obama Administration and Europe. is pushing sales. But their hottest new market, China, is slowing imports with what looks to be as a concomitant of their longterm slackening of spectacular growth of the past three decades. With much of the world in economic doldrums, consumption promises to remain relatively slowly increasing for some time at least. All this means lower real fossil fuel prices for the foreseeable future.

Russia’s high cost production will increasingly be the victim of this more liquid worldwide energy market. At that point, does Putin pull in his horns – or will he be tempted to believe his own propaganda and make other dramatic aggressive feints? And if so, what will the West – now led from behind by a recalcitrant Obama Administration – do?

And most of all, will both sides read the other’s actions correctly, avoiding an escalating clash?

sws-11-30-14