International Affairs Forum:
It was reported that on Saturday a Russian bomber flew over the USS Nimitz in the western Pacific, the first such incident since 2004. This follows allegations that a Russian fighter violated Japanese airs pace last week. What's behind these moves?
Dr. Stephen Blank:
What's behind this is a desire by the Russian government and military to show that they're still a great military power. I think this has been done largely for public relations purposes, because they really aren't.
Secondly, I think it was to show America and its allies that they can threaten it. They regard the allies of the United States in both Europe and Asia as trying to encircle Russia and bring military pressure ever closer to Russia's borders. They are now criticizing the U.S. alliance system in Asia in the last several months as well on isolating Russia and bringing military power closer to its borders. So they want to show that they cannot be pushed around and that they will push back if the U.S. tries to move forward.
But as Russian columnists have pointed out, the fact is that the military is not in a position to challenge the United States, and a lot of this is PR and just a desire to show that it is a great power and to keep boasting about Russia's superior superpower status, which is slightly different from the reality.
Is there any danger such moves could end up escalating things?
Statistically there is always the possibility that something bad is going to happen and get out of control. For example, the incident with China where the intelligence plane was shot down, the EP-3 in 2001 - that almost became a major international crisis. So the possibility is always there that somebody might lose control of themselves and show some really bad judgement. But I think that certainly the American forces pretty much understand the rules of engagement and the game, so I think it poisons the atmosphere, but doesn't lead to crisis.
Were you surprised by Russia's decision in August to restart regular long-range bomber flights after a 15-year hiatus?
I wasn't surprised. I wasn't expecting it, but it's not a big surprise. Enemy number one for Russia is NATO and the United States, and that has only gotten worse under a regime that is run by the Siloviki. If that is the case, the threat to Russia is long-range air strikes, so they have to show that they can either do that, or counter them. So again, it's this kind of 'we're going to show you that we're not going to take any nonsense from the United States and we're a great power, etc.'
But the fact is if you look at the Russian military, it's heading for a dead end. It can't compete with the United States. So again, what this could lead to for Russia is an ever closer alliance with China,
but one in which Russia would be subordinate to China's interests, and there could be a crisis coming out of that.
You say the Russian military is in no position to challenge the United States. What has it done to try and remedy this?
What is happening is that the Russian defense ministry is failing to meet its targets for the production of high tech and conventional weapons. And although the Russian government can talk big in public, the reality is that the Russian defense industry, despite everything Putin has done, and believe me he has tried everything he can think of to get this to move, is not able to produce quality weapons in sufficient numbers to meet demand.
What is more, inflation is cutting into the cost of procurement because it's raising the costs of metals and so on. The answer that they've tried, which is essentially to renationalize the defense ministry in a covert way, hasn't worked either.
So the answer is, if you can't compete with the United States on a conventional level, and if you see the United States as enemy number one, the only answer is asymmetric, that is nuclear weapons that could 'spook' any missile defense that we build. Asymmetric could also mean informational warfare such as what they tried against Estonia in April last year.
Do you think it's a good idea for NATO to keep expanding to include countries such as Georgia?
Well, the Russians regard NATO as provocative, and they would certainly regard Ukraine and Georgia joining as provocative. But assuming that Ukraine and Georgia meet the criteria that NATO sets out for it, I don't necessarily think it is a a bad idea. I know this puts me at odds with a lot of people, but it forecloses Russia's efforts to regain some kind of imperial posture.
But the key here is that Ukraine and Georgia have to merit inclusion and there has to be a vigorous examination of their abilities and qualifications for doing so. But if they pass the test, and it's the same test that everybody else has had to pass and it's not weakened for them, then I don't see the point in keeping them out. I think
quite frankly it would force Russia to behave better, and would also strengthen their capacity for democratic self-rule. I realize that it's a controversial view, but I don't have a problem with it.
Is there anything NATO and Russia can do to get along or is tension inevitable?
As long as you have a government that is by its nature not only undemocratic but antidemocratic, that wants to undermine the status quo that came into being in Europe as a result of what happened in 1989-91, the relationship will always be tense. There will be opportunities for cooperation, but they will be limited and purely tactical.
Ultimately, to the extent that the imperial option is foreclosed for Russia, they will have no choice but to evolve into a democracy in the long term. Which is why, as I say, I don't think it is such a bad idea for Georgia and Ukraine to become NATO members as long as they meet the criteria.
The Russian government now defines itself as an independent sovereign state, which means that it can do as it pleases in world affairs and doesn't have to answer to anybody, and what it really wants is a free hand in Eurasia. But by definition NATO and the United States cannot allow that to happen.
Dr. Stephen Blank is research professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Army War College and specializes in the Soviet bloc and the post-Soviet world since 1989. He is the editor of "Imperial Decline: Russia's Changing Position in Asia," coeditor of "Soviet Military and the Future," and author of "The Sorcerer as Apprentice: Stalin's Commissariat of Nationalities, 1917-1924."
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