Dispatch September 2009

The Bear Still Has Teeth

As the Obama administration's recent scrapping of plans for an Eastern European missile defense system makes clear, while Poland and the Czech Republic may be our allies, it is mighty Russia to whom we are wise to defer

From a strategic perspective, the Obama Administration’s decision, earlier this month, to scrap America’s Poland- and Czech Republic -based missile defense plans in favor of a sea-based approach makes eminent sense. The new system will better protect America's allies against Iranian missiles. Moreover, we need Russia’s cooperation on matters of geopolitical importance right now, and can’t afford to antagonize the country with new military bases in the midst of its perceived sphere of influence. But announcing our decision on the 70th anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Poland was a strategic communications failure—suggesting to Eastern Europe that it is once again being deserted by its allies and left to the mercies of the Russian bear.

Understandably, some Poles and Czechs reacted to Obama’s announcement with outrage. They’ve backed the United States in most of the wars and deployments of the past decade. Now their reward turns out to be continued exposure to the designs of Russia. Such a rebuke to trusted allies is bound to make not just the Baltic states, but other allies – like Israel—feel more lonely and isolated, thus increasing the chances of precipitate action, like an Israeli strike on Iran (which could be disastrous).

The Poles and Czechs were eager to host the missile defense system not so much because of concerns about a potential missile threat from Iran, but because U.S. military bases on their soil would give them diplomatic and psychological protection from Russia. For while it may be NATO’s mandate to provide such protection, the Poles and Czechs have little faith in NATO—composed as it is of pacifist-trending European nations. And in any case, Europe is compromised vis-à-vis Russia by its dependence on Russian natural gas.

From the U.S. perspective, we need Russia’s help—to put pressure on Iran, to help us with supply routes into Afghanistan, and, perhaps, to balance against China. Russia remains the great Eurasian land power, with considerable ability to effect outcomes in Eastern Europe, the Greater Middle East, Central Asia, and the Far East. The fact that former satellite countries continue to fear for their survival, despite membership in NATO and the European Union, is testimony to this ongoing reality. What’s more, if seas in the Arctic continue to warm, enabling new trade routes, then Russia could emerge as a great maritime power as well, for the great rivers of Siberia flow north to the Laptev and Kara seas in the polar region.

As for Iran, which is currently of such strategic importance to the U.S., Russia is enmeshed with it, owing to fact that Iran borders several former Soviet republics. Russia may not want Iran to militarize its budding nuclear know-how, but neither does the Kremlin want Iran to support Islamic movements at its doorstep. Therefore, because of its geography, Russia must maintain at least cordial relations with Iran and cannot afford to antagonize it through sanctions. In the coming months, the U.S. will, nevertheless, try to influence Russia to take a stronger stance toward Iran in the face of growing concerns over its nuclear activities.

When it comes down to it, then, Russia simply matters more to the U.S. than do Poland and the Czech Republic, despite Poland and the Czech Republic being friends and Russia not.

From Russia’s perspective, countries like Poland and the Czech Republic still play an important role as buffers against the vibrant democracies of Western Europe. The fact that Poland and the Czech Republic are themselves becoming vibrant democracies, even as Russia evolves into a neo-czarist oligarchy of sorts, worries Russia to no end. Remember, land powers are historically more insecure than sea powers, because the former’s borders provide less protection than do oceans.

This sense of insecurity on Russia’s part, despite its military and energy dominance in Eastern Europe, makes the former satellite countries particularly vulnerable—for it drives Russia to want to keep these countries weak, and allied with its own interests. And while there’s little threat these days of conventional Russian invasions, there are other means by which Russia can undermine these smaller countries: through organized crime networks, intelligence operations, and constant intimidation. Such measures could conceivably put a country like Poland in a position where it has to appease Russia in crucial ways. And it should be remembered that regardless of any Westernization or democratization that may be taking place in Poland or the Czech Republic, Russians will always be able to operate there more easily than most Westerners, because of their related Slavic languages.

Thus, in significant ways, the Old World remains intact. The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, for example, still sends shivers down the spines of Poles, because it raises the prospect of an economically powerful Germany joining forces with a militarily powerful Russia, both of which border Poland on opposite sides, with no geographical barriers.

All of this suggests that in some sense, the collapse of the Berlin Wall didn’t completely liberate the former communist states of Eastern Europe. Indeed, if the furor over our scrapping of the missile plan is any indication, the geopolitics that reigned while the Cold War was in effect still remain very much in play.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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