Ag­gres­sive Putin puts U.S. on the de­fense

Crit­ics: Obama’s stance em­bold­ens Rus­sian in­cur­sions

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR AND MAG­GIE YBARRA

Rus­sian mil­i­tary provo­ca­tions have in­creased so much over the seven months since Moscow an­nexed Crimea from Ukraine that Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies are scram­bling de­fense as­sets on a nearly daily ba­sis in re­sponse to air, sea and land in­cur­sions by Vladimir Putin’s forces.

Not only is Moscow con­tin­u­ing to fo­ment un­rest in East­ern Ukraine, U.S. of­fi­cials and re­gional se­cu­rity ex­perts say Rus­sian fighter jets are test­ing U.S. re­ac­tion times over Alaska and Ja­pan’s abil­ity to scram­ble planes over its north­ern is­lands — all while haunt­ing Swe­den’s navy and an­tag­o­niz­ing Es­to­nia’s tiny na­tional se­cu­rity force.

The White House months ago lev­eled eco­nomic sanc­tions on sev­eral Rus­sian busi­nesses and po­lit­i­cal play­ers, and re­cent weeks have seen Pres­i­dent Obama in­ten­sify his rhetoric to­ward Moscow. But many in Wash­ing­ton’s na­tional se­cu­rity com­mu­nity say the re­sponse is sim­ply not firm enough and that, as a re­sult, Mr. Putin ac­tu­ally feels em­bold­ened to push the en­ve­lope — Cold War-style.

“What’s go­ing on is a rad­i­cal es­ca­la­tion of ag­gres­sive Rus­sian mus­cle flex­ing and pos­tur­ing de­signed to demon­strate that Rus­sia is no longer a de­feated power of the Cold War era,” says Ariel Co­hen, who heads the Cen­ter for En­ergy, Na­tional Re­sources and Geopol­i­tics at the In­sti­tute for the Anal­y­sis of Global Se­cu­rity in Wash­ing­ton.

“The more we re­treat, the more we are en­cour­ag­ing Rus­sia to be­have in a more ag­gres­sive way,” Mr. Co­hen said. “We need to be en­gag­ing more deeply with our Cen­tral Asian al­lies, but in­stead we are in the process of abandoning turf to Rus­sia, and it’s wrong — it’s against our in­ter­ests geopo­lit­i­cally to let Rus­sia feel that they all of a sud­den have won all the turf with­out fir­ing a shot.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­sists such char­ac­ter­i­za­tions, as­sert­ing that the White House is do­ing any­thing but “re­treat­ing.”

To the con­trary, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials say they’re bol­ster­ing U.S. support to NATO and sev­eral non-NATO Baltic states specif­i­cally to con­front Mr. Putin. They also as­sert that the cur­rent eco­nomic down­turn inside Rus­sia — where in­fla­tion is re­ported to have crested to 8 per­cent in re­cent weeks — is driven as much by a dip in global oil prices as by the slate of sanc­tions lev­eled by the White House in re­sponse to Rus­sian med­dling in Ukraine.

For his own part, Mr. Obama stopped short of di­rectly ad­dress­ing the uptick in Rus­sian mil­i­tary ma­neu­ver­ing dur­ing a ma­jor U.N. speech last month. The pres­i­dent did, how­ever, as­sert that “Rus­sian ag­gres­sion in Europe re­calls the days when large na­tions tram­pled small ones.”

He also threat­ened to “im­pose a cost on Rus­sia for ag­gres­sion.”

Mr. Obama’s com­ments were fol­lowed this month by the de­ploy­ment of some 20 M1A1 Abrams bat­tle tanks and roughly 700 U.S. troops across Poland and three Baltic States — Lithua­nia, Latvia and Es­to­nia — a move mil­i­tary of­fi­cials said was de­signed to send a mes­sage that se­ri­ous Rus­sian ag­gres­sion in the area could mean war with NATO.

But Mr. Putin has ap­peared un­de­terred. NATO of­fi­cials con­firmed this week that the Rus­sian air force flew an Ilyushin-20 spy plane into Es­to­nian airspace Tues­day, trig­ger­ing a swift re­ac­tion from NATO fighter jets pa­trolling the area.

The in­cur­sion came just days after Swe­den made in­ter­na­tional head­lines by scram­bling a fleet of naval ves­sels to search for a sus­pected sub­ma­rine sighted about 30 miles off the coast of Stock­holm in the Baltic Sea.

Swedish au­thor­i­ties avoided pin­ning the in­ci­dent di­rectly on Rus­sia, and Moscow de­nied in­volve­ment. But re­gional an­a­lysts like Mr. Co­hen say they’d be sur­prised if the sub was not Rus­sian.

The de­vel­op­ment, the an­a­lysts say, fits within a grow­ing list of sim­i­lar Rus­sian ac­tions, in­clud­ing some di­rectly chal­leng­ing U.S. ter­ri­tory.

The North Amer­i­can Aero­space De­fense Com­mand scram­bled jets to scare off two Rus­sian strate­gic bombers that sud­denly ap­peared to con­duct prac­tice runs in airspace just 65 miles off Alaska in June.

A sim­i­lar in­ci­dent oc­curred in Septem­ber, with U.S. and Cana­dian fight­ers scram­bling to de­ter six Rus­sian air­craft, in­clud­ing two nu­clear bombers, two fighter jets and two re­fu­el­ing tankers, ac­cord­ing to news re­ports.

Around the same time, Rus­sian ground forces were mak­ing the un­prece­dented move of ar­rest­ing an Es­to­nian se­cu­rity of­fi­cial at gun­point near the Baltic na­tion’s bor­der with Rus­sia. The of­fi­cial is re­port­edly now in Moscow fac­ing es­pi­onage charges.

More wor­ri­some are re­ports that Ja­pan has had to scram­ble fighter jets to ward off Rus­sian bombers and spy planes twice as of­ten as usual over the past six months. Ja­panese gov­ern­ment fig­ures re­leased this week show flights dis­patched to meet Rus­sian air­craft in the lat­est six months soared to 324 from 136 over the pre­ced­ing six months, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by Reuters.

Steve Gan­yard, the pres­i­dent of Avas­cent In­ter­na­tional, a global se­cu­rity con­sult­ing firm in Wash­ing­ton, says Rus­sia’s moves re­flect Mr. Putin’s de­sire to bring about a new era of cat and mous­es­tyle games that were “preva­lent in the Cold War.”

Tues­day’s Es­to­nia in­cur­sion, for in­stance, was “quite de­lib­er­ate,” said Mr. Gan­yard, a for­mer Marine Corps fighter pi­lot who has also held past posts at the Pen­tagon and State Depart­ment.

Mr. Putin is en­gaged in a ploy to gar­ner in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion as a way to re­as­sure Rus­sian cit­i­zens that their na­tion re­mains a for­mi­da­ble mil­i­tary power, he said.

“Mil­i­tary has its own ap­peal to na­tion­al­ism, and that is what helps him keep [his] power and keep his ap­proval rat­ings so high,” he said.

“Putin knows how to play do­mes­tic pol­i­tics,” Mr. Gan­yard added. “Right now, one of his plat­forms is to re­turn Rus­sia to its glory, and part of that means its mil­i­tary glory” by bol­ster­ing the “myth of the Red Army sav­ing the moth­er­land.”

In Fe­bru­ary, Mr. Putin’s de­fense min­is­ter, Sergei Shoigu, made head­lines by claim­ing the Rus­sian mil­i­tary was en­gaged in talks with Al­ge­ria, Cyprus, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Sey­chelles, Viet­nam and Sin­ga­pore — and that the Rus­sian navy was seek­ing per­mis­sion to use ports in Latin Amer­ica and Asia.

Such claims are in keep­ing with “a Rus­sian nar­ra­tive of a more as­sertive and pow­er­ful coun­try,” said Wil­liam Pomer­anz, a na­tional se­cu­rity an­a­lyst at the Wilson In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Schol­ars and Rus­sian law pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity.

Mr. Pomer­anz said that while the past decade saw Mr. Putin build a rep­u­ta­tion as a “rel­a­tively con­ser­va­tive in­ter­na­tional player,” the Ukraine cri­sis has pushed the Rus­sian pres­i­dent into a kind of “cor­ner,” cre­at­ing in­ter­nal pres­sure on him to make a show of force to the world.

The cri­sis be­gan in early 2014 when, in the af­ter­math of a revo­lu­tion that forced for­mer Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych to flee the coun­try, pro-Rus­sian forces took con­trol of the Crimean Penin­sula. The takeover caused an up­roar in Ukraine, and Mr. Putin re­sponded by send­ing thou­sands of mil­i­tary troops to the Rus­sian bor­der with the na­tion.

Mr. Pomer­anz said the mass­ing of troops and the “rub­bing up” against U.S. and NATO airspace by Moscow are de­signed to show the Rus­sian mil­i­tary has ad­vanced since its last ma­jor in­ter­na­tional feud — with nearby Ge­or­gia in 2008.

“I don’t know whether Putin wanted to re­veal that now or if he wanted to, in fact, in­crease his ca­pa­bil­ity be­fore he showed what Rus­sia was up to,” he said. “But now Europe sees and un­der­stands Rus­sia’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties and in­ten­tions and, as a re­sult, is re­con­sid­er­ing its com­mit­ments and the re­sources of NATO as well.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Two Swedish Navy fast-at­tack craft pa­trol in the Stock­holm Ar­chi­pel­ago, Swe­den. A mil­i­tary search for ev­i­dence of sus­pected un­der­sea ac­tiv­ity in its wa­ters has en­tered its third day amid re­ports of a sus­pected Rus­sian in­tru­sion.

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