Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Russian Realpolitik

The results of the December elections and public opinion polls show that adherents of Western liberal values were defeated. The public mood swung sharply to the other side in economic, political and strategic matters. Nothing like this has occurred in any of the countries of Eastern Europe. But the question of the threat of great power nuclear potential remains. Russia has severely and in many ways unfairly been backed into a corner.

Today, it is clear that economic and political methods will hardly return Russia to its former greatness. There still remains, however, a tried and true third way: militarization. This is especially significant given the strategic policies of the new military doctrine of the government. There are calls to seize the Baltic countries, to put nuclear weapons in Spitsbergen and in East Prussia, to conclude a military alliance with China and to send Russian military forces to the Indian Ocean. In view of so many chaotic measures, Russia has three options.

The first is a strongly anti-Western opposition to NATO. In general, this would mean a Russian-Belarussian military alliance with offensive nuclear arms placed along the former borders of the U.S.S.R. as they were in 1983, tactical nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad, the modernization of the Baltic fleet, equipping it with nuclear weapons, possibly taking back the Crimea from Ukraine along with strengthening the nuclear capacity of the Black Sea fleet and the prospect of occupying the Baltic countries and the islands of Spitsbergen, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.

What would be the outcome of such measures? Russia would need enormous strength and means to carry them out. It would not be able at the same time to hold back a Turkish expansion into Transcaucasian and Chinese regions, in Central Asia and the Far East. This is not even taking into account Japan, which will never forget about the ill-fated "northern territories." But then, Russia could be easily left without access to the Caspian oil shelf. All the countries of Eastern Europe as well as Finland and Moldova would immediately become members of NATO. Moreover, NATO would do everything it could to draw Ukraine into its orbit, which could result in nuclear missiles being put in Kharkov, within a two- to three-minute range of Moscow. A new arms race would begin, completely exhausting Russia's economy and in no way increasing its security. In the case of a military conflict, most fighting would inevitably occur on Russian territory and East European countries.

The second option is nuclear blackmail and threatening to cut off oil supplies. No longer able to provide brotherly international help to leaders from the Caucasus such as Heidar Aliyev, the dusty tanks of the Russian army could now turn to the old friendly southern borders. This might entail a military and political alliance with Iran and at the same time establishing warmer relations with Saddam Hussein, closer ties with Syria, the recognition of a Palestinian state and the sale of arms to Jordan.

It would be enough for Russia to put several nuclear missile bases on the shores of the Ormuz straits or the Persian Gulf, however, for the successors to Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf to contemplate the possibility of a new Desert Storm. In the case of a new attempt to seize Kuwait, for example, Iraq could threaten to use Topol missiles against those countries that opposed such actions. Of course, the pragmatic West would not want to risk a war whose outcome would be unpredictable. It would be forced to make concessions. Thus, the main supplies of oil and gas would be under the control of Moscow, which could then dictate its terms to the civilized world, using others to pull its chestnuts out of the fire.

The East, however, is a complicated region. No one can guarantee that Iraq would not suddenly start a war with Syria as it did with Iran or that Iran would not want to annex part of Afghanistan. Then Russia would be obliged to separate them with its own forces, get further bogged down in Arab affairs and play the role of leader of the Moslem world. Such a reputation would bring it much more harm than good. Moreover, the West would make every effort possible to find alternative sources of energy and then Russia's efforts would have been wasted.

There is, of course, a more reasonable third option. The United States and Western Europe themselves are facing the question of a change in military policies of Japan and Germany. Japan has already publicly announced a new military doctrine with greater reliance on its own armed forces. Germany can be expected to make a similar announcement. The Allied occupation of these countries will never be forgotten. Sooner or later the Americans will be asked to leave their territories. China has already for some time been carrying out policies that are strengthening its economic and military power.

Russia's interests intersect with those of all these countries. If Russia were to take a leading role in initiating the introduction of Japan and Germany into the Security Council of the United Nations, thus precluding the United States from dominating entirely the negotiations for such a course of action, to conclude a military and political union with China as well as Iran and to normalize relations with Japan, even if this means giving up the Kuril Islands, then the country would be able to exert its influence as a great power among others. But for this to occur, the leadership of the country must look to its long-term interests and not only be concerned with maintaining its personal friendships with U.S. President Bill Clinton or German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. As long as Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev remains Russia's only political trump card, however, such policies are unlikely.

Alexander Kakotkin is a freelance journalist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.