President Obama dismissed Russia as no more than a “regional power” in remarks he made to the press in The Hague on March 25th, where he was attending a summit meeting on nuclear security. “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors not out of strength, but out of weakness,” he said.
True, the Russian Federation is a shadow of the Soviet empire in its heyday. And Russia is not driven by a global Communist ideology that it seeks to spread to every part of the world in opposition to the capitalist democratic model, as the Soviet Union tried to do. But that does not make Russia a weak neighborhood bully posing little threat beyond its “immediate neighbors,” as President Obama seems to think. Mitt Romney was right when he said during the 2012 presidential campaign that Russia is “our number one geopolitical foe.”
First, consider Russia’s nuclear arsenal. According to a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists study published in May 2013, it was estimated that, as of March 2013, Russia had “a military stockpile of approximately 4,500 nuclear warheads, of which roughly 1,800 strategic warheads are deployed on missiles and at bomber bases.” Russia is also “modernizing its nuclear forces, replacing Soviet-era ballistic missiles with fewer improved missiles. In a decade, almost all Soviet-era weapons will be gone, leaving a smaller but still effective force that will be more mobile than what it replaced.”
While these are only estimates, since Russia is not transparent about how many nuclear weapons it has, the size of Russia’s arsenal and its ambitious modernization program do not connote the image of weakness that Obama wants to paint of Russia as a mere “regional” power. By way of comparison, the United States “has an estimated 4,650 nuclear warheads available for delivery by more than 800 ballistic missiles and aircraft,” according to a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists study published in January 2014.
These numbers and Russia’s modernization strategy should be placed in the context of a very disturbing statement made last December by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Dmitry Rogozin: “We have never diminished the importance of nuclear weapons—the weapon of requital—as the great balancer of chances.” Rogozin has said that Russia was prepared to use nuclear weapons if attacked first even by only conventional weapons.
Russia is also on the march far from its immediate neighborhood and much closer to the United States. According to Gen. James Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, who discussed his concerns regarding the increased presence of Russia in Latin America at a Senate hearing earlier this month, there has been a “noticeable uptick in Russian power projection and security force personnel. It has been over three decades since we last saw this type of high-profile Russian military presence.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced last month plans to build military bases in such countries as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, as well as outside of Latin America including Vietnam, the Seychelles, and Singapore. “The talks are under way, and we are close to signing the relevant documents,” Shoigu said. Russia is also on the lookout for refueling sites for Russian strategic bombers on patrol.
Russia is already a major arms supplier to Venezuela, whose navy has conducted joint maneuvers with Russian ships. At least four Russian Navy ships visited Venezuela last August, the Venezuelan daily El Universal reported.
“Two Russian Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers flew last October from an airbase in southwestern Russia and landed in Venezuela in routine exercise,” Russia's Defense Ministry announced, according to the Voice of Russia. “The nuclear-capable bombers, which took off from the Engels airbase in the Volga region, ‘flew over the Caribbean, the eastern Pacific and along the southwestern coast of the North American continent, and landed at Maiquetia airfield in Venezuela,’ the ministry said in a statement.”
Nicolas Maduro, the President of Venezuela, is so enamored of Putin that he expressed support last year for the Russian president to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. During a visit to Moscow by Maduro last summer, Maduro and Putin reaffirmed, in Putin’s words, "their wish for continuing their course towards strategic cooperation in all sectors."
Putin was the first Russian president to visit Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pravda quoted Putin as declaring in 2012 that Russia gained the consent of the Cuban leadership to place “the latest mobile strategic nuclear missiles ‘Oak’ on the island,” supposedly as a brush back against U.S. actions to create a buffer zone near Russia. Last month, according to a report by Fox News Latino, “the intelligence-gathering ship Viktor Leonov docked in Havana’s harbor without warning.” It was reportedly armed with 30mm guns and anti-aircraft missiles.
Left-wing Argentinian President Cristina Fernández is intent on forging closer relations with Russia, inviting Russia to invest in fuel projects. In return for Russia’s support of Argentina’s quest to annex the Falkland Islands, Fernández supported Putin’s grab of Crimea. Crimea "has always belonged to Russia," she said, just as the Falkland Islands have "always belonged to Argentina." She added that the Crimean referendum was "one of the famous referendums of self-determination."
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa praised Russia as a “great nation” during a visit to Moscow last October after Putin pledged to invest up to $1.5 billion into new domestic energy projects in Ecuador. Correa said Ecuador was also interested in buying Russian military equipment.
Brazil is planning to purchase short-to-medium-range surface-to-air Pantsir S1 missile batteries and Igla-S shoulder-held missiles from Russia. It has already bought 12 Mi-35 attack helicopters. This is all part of what Brazil views as a growing strategic relationship with Russia, as Brazil leads efforts to counter U.S. electronic surveillance that included alleged spying on Brazilian citizens. "More than buying military equipment, what we are seeking with Russia is a strategic partnership based on the joint development of technology," said Brazilian Defense Minister Celso Amorim after meeting with his Russian counterpart.
After Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Sandinista revolution, returned to power in Nicaragua in 2007, Russia and Nicaragua have moved in the direction of a strategic economic and military relationship. In October 2013, for example, Nicaragua and Russia signed a memorandum of international security cooperation. Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev noted during his visit to Nicaragua that “Nicaragua is an important partner and friend of Russia in Latin America,” pointing to the coincidence of views of the two countries’ authorities “on many issues.” For his part, Ortega said: “We are very grateful and very much appreciate the Russian people’s support of our country.” Ortega welcomed the arrival of two Russian strategic bombers Tupolev Tu-160. Ortega added that Putin had sent him a letter, in which the Russian leader reaffirmed his “readiness to continue to work together with our country.”
According to a March 2014 report by the Strategic Culture Foundation, a progressive, pro-Russian think tank, Nicaragua’s
parliament has ratified a cabinet resolution allowing Russian military divisions, ships and aircraft to visit the republic during the first half of 2014 for experience sharing and training of military personnel of the Central American republic. Furthermore, the parliament has approved the participation of Russian military personnel in joint patrols of the republic's territorial waters in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean from January 1 through June 30, 2015.
Russia is also forging a closer relationship with El Salvador, which has been led by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (“FMLN”) that arose out of a left-wing guerrilla movement from the country's 1979-1992 civil war. Leftist ex-guerrilla Sanchez Ceren has just won the presidential election. He can be expected to build on the “Federal Law On Ratification of the Agreement on the Foundations of Relations” between the Russian Federation and the Republic of El Salvador, signed by Vladimir Putin in November 2012. It was the first interstate agreement between the two countries since they established diplomatic relations in 1992.
In fact, given Ceren’s background - one of five top guerrilla commanders during the civil war that left 76,000 dead and over 12,000 missing - we can expect a more avowedly anti-U.S. government that will welcome Russia’s outstretched arms. After all, the FMLN leadership during the civil war described its own ideology as “Marxism-Leninism.”
On a regional level, the Strategic Culture Foundation has reported that the Central American Common Market, which includes Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, “advocates the creation of a free trade zone with the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.”
Foreign ministers from members of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and Russia declared their intention, after meeting in Moscow last May, that they were working to establish a means of continuous dialogue “to discuss and synchronize positions on international issues.” CELAC includes thirty-three countries in the Americas, but the United States and Canada are excluded.
"Imperial Russia never left, to be blunt," Stephen Blank, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council said as quoted in Deutsche Welle. “What they're looking for in Latin America is great-power influence, they have never forsaken that quest. There's no doubt that Moscow is dead serious about seeking naval bases and port access in Latin America."
In the Middle East, also out of range of Russia’s “immediate neighbors,” Russia continues to prop up the Assad regime in Syria with increased shipment of arms. Reuters reported in January 2014 that “[I]n recent weeks Russia has stepped up supplies of military gear to Syria, including armored vehicles, drones and guided bombs.” Putin also managed to out-maneuver Obama regarding the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program, buying more time for Assad and enhancing his legitimacy.
Moreover, Russia is running interference for Assad at the United Nations Security Council, where Russia, along with China, vetoed a series of resolutions aimed at condemning and sanctioning the Assad regime. Its veto power in the Security Council puts Russia in parity with the other four permanent members of the Security Council – the U.S., the United Kingdom, France and China. As Russia demonstrated with regard to Syria as well as the veto it recently exercised to block a Security Council resolution on Crimea, Russia is exploiting this lever of “soft power” to exert its influence on the global stage.
Russia is also continuing to cultivate stronger ties with Iran, while also participating in the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program that include the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany. Russia is one of Iran’s leading trading partners, selling Iran nuclear technology and arms. When Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Moscow last January he extended an invitation to Vladimir Putin to visit Tehran. Putin replied: “I hope to visit you in Tehran very soon. We have a large bilateral agenda. This relates firstly to our trade and economic ties, of course.” Putin also went out of his way to praise the Iranian regime, declaring that the nuclear negotiations were advancing because of “the efforts of the Iranian authorities and the stance of the Iranian authorities.” More recently, because of the mounting tensions over the Ukraine crisis, Russia has threatened to stop cooperating with respect to the nuclear negotiations with Iran. That may not mean very much, considering Russia’s existing back door dealings with Iran that reduce Iran’s economic incentives to negotiate in good faith. However, just by making this threat and having it paid attention to in Washington and other world capitals, Russia has made a point regarding its influence beyond its “immediate neighbors.”
Finally, there is the whole battleground of cyber warfare which has no geographical boundaries. An article in the winter 2014 publication of inFocus Quarterly, titled “Russian Cyber Capabilities, Policy and Practice” by David J. Smith, Senior Fellow and Cyber Center Director at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and Director of the Georgian Security Analysis Center in Tbilisi, paints a grim picture.
“Russia—its government and a motley crew of sometimes government-sponsored but always government-connected cyber-criminals and youth group members—has integrated cyber operations into its military doctrine,” according to Mr. Smith. Russia “has used cyber tools against enemies foreign and domestic, and is conducting strategic espionage against the United States.”
After describing the multifaceted Russian approach to information warfare and the government’s close links with the “thriving cyber-criminal industry” and extensive well-trained youth groups all too happy to sell their services to the government, Mr. Smith concluded: “In sum, Russia—in its capabilities and its intent—presents a major cyber challenge to the United States.”
Russia is not a superpower on the order of the former Soviet Union. But Putin’s animosity towards the United States, coupled with Russia’s expanding role internationally through alliances with countries in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, Russia’s exploitation of its permanent member status on the UN Security Council and its nuclear arms and cyber warfare capabilities, all add up to a very dangerous geopolitical foe. President Obama needs to wake up to the fact that Vladimir Putin will not be content to play only in his own neighborhood, and that he has a variety of tools at hand to cause serious mischief far from Russia’s own borders.
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