As part of our special investigation “Mission Creep: US Military Presence Worldwide” we asked a host of military thinkers to contribute their two cents on topics relating to global Pentagon strategy. (You can access the archive here.)
Regarding Bear DNA: Russia and Sarah Palin’s Geopolitics
By now we’ve probably all seen the interview, or at least the spoofs: “As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go?” Sarah Palin asks Katie Couric. “It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border….They are right there; they are right next to our state.”
She has a point you know. Sometimes it is hard to figure out what it is, given her somewhat mangled syntax. But Ike was kinda hard to follow on more than a few occasions, and the historians have been increasingly kind to him.
Alaska is close to Russia. Heck, Alaska used to be Russia. In 1867, then Secretary of State William Seward paid the Russians $7.2 million for what would eventually become Alaska, a move ridiculed at the time as “Seward’s folly.” That land was Russian far longer than it has been American.
In any case, it would seem Governor Palin hadn’t spent a great deal of time thinking about Russia until a few weeks ago. Nor did she have to. But future governors might.
The bear is back. Or so the Kremlin would have us believe. Following Russia’s recent military action in Georgia, there has been a lot of talk about a new Cold War. This time, however, it will be Cold War Lite. At the end of the Cold War, after all, the Soviet Union had a slightly larger population than the United States, but an estimated gross national product of around $2.5 trillion, less than half that of America at the time. It was the Soviet effort to keep up with its wealthy rival that ultimately led to the USSR’s dissolution.
In the decades since, that gap has grown substantially. Today, America has more than double Russia’s population and a GNP that’s 10 times as big—$13 trillion to Russia’s $1.3 trillion. Presently, given its more-modest resources, the Russian Federation is beyond its capacity to mount any sustained global challenge to the United States.
But a bellicose Russia could be extremely annoying to its neighbors, and miscalculation could lead to calamity. Unchecked, Russia might conclude that NATO’s guarantees to members that have no American military bases are mere scraps of paper; Russia might be willing to call NATO’s bluff, gambling that the whole house of cards would collapse if a Russian invasion of, say, Estonia, wasn’t repulsed by force of arms. Whether Europe and America would rally to intervene in a quarrel in a far-away country between people whom we know nothing about might prove a vexing question.
If Russia wants its military not to become a laughingstock, the country must begin to rearm, to end the procurement holiday that started when the Soviet Union collapsed. This requires money, and justifying these increased military expenditures to the Russian people will require an external threat. The Pentagon doesn’t have a monopoly on threat-mongering at budget time.
On August 31, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev outlined the five principles guiding his foreign policy. The fifth was that “as is the case of other countries, there are regions in which Russia has privileged interests. These regions are home to countries with which we share special historical relations.” Hence Georgia.
The Medvedev Doctrine justifying military action in Georgia is curiously reminiscent of the Brezhnev Doctrine that justified Soviet interventions from East Germany to Afghanistan. But at least with the Brezhnev Doctrine, we knew where the Soviets drew the line, because Soviet and American troops were lined up eyeball to eyeball at the inter-German border. The US bases in Germany today are where they are because that’s where Soviet Forces in Germany used to be. Military bases are policies and doctrines written in steel and concrete. And the Soviet Union knew any movement of its tanks into West Germany would bring about immediate war with the United States.
By contrast, we do not know where Medvedev draws the line concerning Russia’s privileged interests. Perhaps those interests include former Soviet satellites with substantial ethnic Russian populations—such as Georgia’s South Ossetia, Ukraine, and Estonia. Or could he be including the entirety of the former Soviet Union? Or the Warsaw Pact? Or even the former Russian empire, including Finland, and…Alaska?
US military bases in Alaska are one reason Governor Palin had the luxury of not learning much about foreign affairs. The next governor of Alaska should at least become familiar with the Russian term “privileged interests”—if not overly concerned by its application. But Estonia, Ukraine, Poland, Finland, and other of the Czar’s former territories have no such luxury. Some are NATO members, but lack the trip-wire presence of American troops and bases that would preclude Russian military intervention. Others lack even the political guarantee of NATO membership. And for all of them, Russia is “just right over the border…. right there.”