On Tuesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced: "We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a new cold war."
Medvedev made this declaration after signing an order recognizing the sovereignty of Georgia's two pro-Russian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Some observers warn that Russian annexation of the two territories is just a matter of time.
While a cold war is less attractive than a competitive alliance, Russia's violent, bullying behavior makes it impossible to imagine its leaders returning to their pre-invasion cooperative posture with the West. As a consequence, like Medvedev, many Western officials have been noting the possibility that a new cold war will take place between Russia and the West.
Yet the nature of Russia's regime, which propelled its decision to launch its war in Georgia, raises doubts about the viability of it reaching an equilibrium of hostility with the West comparable to that which existed during the Cold War. It is true that similarities between Russia's current behavior and that of the Soviet Union before it abound. As was the case with the Soviet Union, it is fairly clear that Russia's current regime has expansionist aspirations far beyond its immediate borders. Moscow's threat to attack Poland with nuclear bombs, its aggressive naval deployment in the Mediterranean Sea, its hosting of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its renewed talk of supplying Syria and Iran with advanced weapons systems all make its Soviet-like expansionist aims clear.
Moreover, as Pavel Felgenhauer noted on the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor Web publication, Russia's government-controlled media is engaged in Soviet-like, frenzied demonization of US leaders. In one prominent example this week, the government-mouthpiece Izvestia launched an obscene broadside against US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The newspaper referred to her as "insane," and then crudely demeaned her as "a skinny old single lady who likes to display her underwear during talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov."
As the West scrambles to build a strategy for contending with Russia, many writers and policy-makers have pointed out that Russia is fundamentally weak. As my former Jerusalem PostThe Wall Street Journal, Russia's demographic forecast, like its oil and gas production forecasts, are dim. The CIA has pointed out through demographic attrition, Russia's population will decline more than 20 percent over the next 40 years. And due to "underinvestment, incompetence, corruption, political interference and crude profiteering," Russia's oil production will decline this year for the first time. Its production rates are expected to drop precipitously next year and in the coming years as well. colleague Bret Stephens noted Tuesday in
Cognizant of these negative trends, US and European leaders are hoping that Russia's bleak prospects will convince its leaders to step back from the precipice of war with the West to which they are now hurtling. On Wednesday, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried warned, "Russia is going to have to come to terms with the reality that it can either integrate with the world or it can be a self-isolated bully. But it can't have both."
WHILE IT remains to be seen if the West will agree to isolate the Russian bully, it is certainly the case that Russia's leaders are not blind to their country's weaknesses. This is so because to a large degree, Russia's dim long-term prognosis has been caused by the domestic policies of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his cronies. And in light of this, it can be safely assumed that far from causing them to avoid confrontation with the West, their cognizance of Russia's problems is what caused them to adopt their belligerent posture.
In December, Russian political insider Stanislav Belkovsky told the German media that during his two terms as Russia's president, Putin amassed a fortune in excess of $40 billion, making him the wealthiest man in Europe. Putin's wealth has been built through his ownership of vast holdings in three Russian oil and gas companies.
Were Putin invested in the long-term prosperity and strength of his country, he would have invested that money in Russia. Instead he has squirreled it away in bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. And of course, Putin is not alone in betting his wealth against his country's future. Like him, his cronies in the Kremlin and the FSB (Federal Security Service) have accrued their wealth through their ownership shares in Russian companies that Putin has nationalized. And like him, they have taken their loot out of the country.
The behavior of Russia's rulers makes clear that they do not concern themselves with the long-term health of their country as they construct their policies. And their concentration on short-term gains makes their decision to confront the US and Europe inevitable. It is now, when Russia's oil wealth is at its peak, that they are most powerful. And with their current power they seek to maximize their personal gains while justifying their actions in the name of Russian glory.
By doing this, they are working to ensure that despite their despoiling of Russia's natural resources and fostering of social pathologies that guarantee Russia will be unable to stem its decline, Putin and his men will go out in a blaze of fire and light. Through his fascist cultivation of a cult of personality and his jingoistic aggression and incitement against the US, Putin, like Peter the Great and Josef Stalin, will enter the pantheon of Russia's great heroes after he abandons his devastated country to be reunited with his money. He cares not for the consequences of his actions for his fellow Russians. His loyalties are to immortality, and his bank accounts.
It is due to Putin's non-domestic considerations that it is virtually impossible to reach a stable equilibrium of hostility with Russia today like that which existed with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This is the case for two reasons. First, because it is impossible to know how long he will stay around. And second, Putin's motivations block any chance of reaching a modus operandi with Russia because his motivations are not shared by his countrymen.
THE FACT of the matter is that in its indifference toward Russia's long-term well-being, Putin's regime is far more similar to Iran and North Korea than it is to the Soviet Union that preceded it. As Iran invests hundreds of billions of dollars in its nuclear program and still more billions in its terror proxies, client states and offensive military systems in the name of its quest for Islamic domination and salvation, its domestic economy is falling apart.
For the first time since 1982, this year Iran was forced to import wheat from the US. Parliament member Sayed Delkhosh announced Tuesday that 30% of Iran's $280b. annual budget has gone toward preventing failed government-owned companies from going bankrupt. Then, too, Iran's oil distribution company just announced that it intends to cut the public's gasoline rations ahead of the winter.
As for North Korea, its principal exports are missiles, weapons of mass destruction, forged currency and narcotics. North Korea is a slave state replete will full regimentation of the entire starving population, abandoned, ruined villages and an archipelago of concentration camps. It is a country dedicated completely to the perpetuation of the pathological regime of absolute dictator Kim Jong-Il and his family.
It is due to the fact that they base their national policies on considerations unrelated to their national well-being that Russia, Iran and North Korea have chosen a posture of war and confrontation with the West. For it is through confrontation and aggression that they coerce the West to pay attention to them. The identificatio
n of the West as the enemy enables them to divert their peoples' attention away from their domestic policy failures. Through their manipulation of public opinion Russia, Iran and North Korea have convinced their people to blame the outside enemy for their impoverishment and their suffering. And in light of the supposed enemies at their gates, the Russians, Iranians and North Koreans feel free, indeed compelled, to repress all opponents of their regimes.
It is true that each of these regimes is motivated by different governing rationales. But whether their governing rationales are apocalyptic messianism, megalomania or greed, the result is the same. Guided by short-term goals, the leaders of Iran, Russia and North Korea seek out confrontation and war with the West.
TO UNDERSTAND the acuteness of the challenges that Russia, Iran and North Korea constitute for the West, it is useful to compare them to the ascendant People's Republic of China. It is absolutely clear that like the Soviet Union before it, the PRC is currently engaged in a long-term strategy of expanding its military and economic power. Like the USSR, the PRC is emerging as a major power in competition and in conflict with the US.
While the emergence of the PRC as a competitor of America's presents the US with major strategic challenges, the US has many options short of overt confrontation for contending with the rise of China. It can expand its naval forces and modernize its nuclear arsenal. It can strengthen its alliances with Japan, South Korea and other Asian democracies. It can expand and develop manufacturing markets in Thailand and India to compete with Chinese factories. At the same time, it can diversify its energy consumption to lower tensions over oil supplies with China.
The fact that Russia, Iran and North Korea are unstable does not simply bar the prospect of reaching accords with them that will enable a stable equilibrium of terror and deterrence to emerge. Their inherent instability, evidenced by their otherworldly and so necessarily short-term policy horizons, makes clear that the lifespan of any deal is unknowable at best and most likely extremely limited. Moreover, even in the absence of a deal, it is impossible to reach a stable balance of terror.
In contrast, during the Cold War, even when explicit agreements were impossible to achieve, there was still a basic framework of deterrence that limited the nature of the threat and the magnitude of possible conflagrations. Both the US and the Soviets based their strategies for contending with one another on a balance of terror predicated on mutually assured destruction. This understanding was founded on the American and Soviet presumption of the stability of the other side. In contrast, when forging policies to contend with the Russian, Iranian and North Korean regimes it is impossible to presume their stability because they are by their very natures unstable.
The lesson of all of this is that while all enemies present dangers, not all enemies are alike. The same strategies cannot be employed against unstable enemies as can be employed against stable ones. Rather than forging policies toward Russia as well as Iran and North Korea based on false analogies with the Cold War, it is vital to recognize that regimes that do not concern themselves with the welfare of their own people are not regimes that will be credible negotiating partners or stable antagonists in cold wars based upon an assumption of mutual assured destruction.
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post.