Superpower Price of $2Bln

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Do you think that the economic crisis is the greatest threat facing Russia today? It would seem that this should be the nation's top priority. But if you judge by the Kremlin's activity on the military and foreign policy fronts, it seems that Russia's biggest concern -- once again -- is fighting its sworn enemy.

Take, for example, Russia's decision to loan $2 billion to its loyal ally Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko so that he would sign an agreement for the creation of a unified air defense system. (When Russia "loans" money to Belarus, it is really giving it away since Minsk rarely pays off the debts). Moscow and Minsk have been tossing that idea around for a decade now. They have signed countless joint declarations, three times trying to sign the agreement. Each time, the nimble Lukashenko has flirted with the Kremlin while pocketing a couple hundred million dollars in Russian loans in the process. But who is counting money when we are talking about our close Slavic brothers?

The only details of the agreement came from Kremlin foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko. Based on his explanation, the joint air defense system would be equipped with 100 anti-aircraft missile launchers and about 70 aircraft. This is clearly not enough to come even close to countering NATO's air force. In one localized military campaign alone -- in Yugoslavia -- NATO used more than 500 fighter aircraft.

Moscow's defense strategy is by no means limited to coordinating air defense systems with Belarus. The economic crisis is also an ideal time to kick the Americans out of their strategic foothold in Central Asia. It cost the Kremlin about $2 billion -- again in "loans" -- to convince Kyrgystan to not renew its rental agreement with the Pentagon. But this task wasn't that difficult. After all, who would not be upset with the way the Americans carried on in Kyrgyzstan? (Did they forget that they were only guests in the country?) Moreover, what an insult to the Kyrgyz, paying only $63 million annually to rent the base. What is that compared to the $2 billion Moscow is offering?

Moscow persisted for three years in trying to close that U.S. base. But in doing so, what did it accomplish in real terms? Candidly speaking, U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan are securing Russia's southern borders. What happens if the Manas base is closed and the supply line to Western forces in Afghanistan is cut? The United States might halt its operations and pull out. If this happens, the victorious Taliban would advance into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and this would cause tremendous problems for Russia, which doesn't have secure borders in Central Asia.

Meanwhile, the member states of the Collective Treaty Security Organization agreed last week with President Dmitry Medvedev to form a joint "operative-reaction force." Medvedev is convinced that once these elite "shock troops" are assembled, they will be just as good as NATO's rapid-response forces. The only problem is that the CTSO forces will be half the size of NATO's and will not be able to fight effectively in the conflict zone. But that is a minor point. The most important thing for Russia is to boast to its allies that it has -- at least on paper -- an elite force to match NATO's.

It might seem surprising that, in the midst of such a severe crisis, Moscow is throwing billions of dollars away on air defense systems and coaxing Bishkek to expel U.S. forces.

But it all makes sense if you consider how primitive Moscow's foreign policy really is. The Kremlin's guiding principle is that a superpower isn't a superpower unless it has subservient satellite states to be used as bargaining chips in a big geopolitical game against other superpowers. Sometimes, however, superpowers have to buy the allegiance of satellite states for a billion or two dollars, but the investment is well worth it. Take Central Asia, for example. If the West has any desire to get a foot in the door there among the former Soviet republics, it must first get Moscow's approval.

Thus, the territory of the former Soviet Union has been transformed into a big chessboard. The only problem in this game is that Russia is not only playing against the United States, it is battling itself as well.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.