Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What is Russia Thinking?

Russia has been acting oddly lately.

A number of Russia's more important cities and industrial centers are within range of Iranian missiles. But, Russia is helping Iran develop a nuclear program which the oil-rich country doesn't need: a program which could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Elsewhere, Russia seems to be reverting to the Soviet Union-era habit of flexing military muscle.

Last Saturday, four Tupolev-95 Bear bombers took off from Russia's Ukrainka Air Base, which doubles as a nuclear weapons arsenal. It looks like one of them violated Japanese airspace, while another flew over the USS Nimitz, which was operating in the western Pacific. The news said that the bomber, which could have been carrying a nuclear device, "buzzed" the carrier.

The TU-95 was flying at 2,000 feet, but I won't quibble about the word "buzzed." That's a big aircraft.

Then, the bomber flew over the Nimitz again.

The Russian air force has been busy lately. There have been eight incidents off Alaska since July, 2007, and flights over the North Atlantic that encouraged the British and Norwegian military to scramble fighters.

Why Would Russia be Doing This?

Ever since Peter I pushed Russian holdings to the Baltic, Russia has had coastline on several bodies of salt water.

Although the country isn't landlocked, Russia's access to ocean trade is limited.
  • Arctic Ocean: navigation here is limited, at best, with little commercial use
  • Baltic Sea: ships may sail to the Atlantic, as long as Scandinavian countries, Poland and Germany don't make trouble
  • Black Sea: sailing to the Mediterranean involves passing through Turkey, by way of Istanbul
  • Pacific Ocean: Russia's only direct access to a commercially navigable ocean is here - with the entire width of Siberia between the ports and Russia's heartland.
Russia's Pacific coast is the only place where Russian trade has access to the world's ocean that isn't dependent on the good will of other nations. But it's not easy-access. Shipping goods and people across Siberia is no picnic, even today.

The Arctic may be open to commercial submarine traffic someday, but not any time soon.

Russia's other two lanes to maritime trade require that ships go past, or through, other countries.

It must be very frustrating.

I think it's possible, if unlikely, that Russian leaders believe that they are securing the goodwill of the new rulers of their western passages to the sea. They may think that Europe will soon be part of the Islamic world, and that Turkey will ally itself with the Ayatollahs of Iran.

Given those beliefs, it might make sense to placate the rising power, in hopes of being given maritime access as a reward.

I do not think that a policy like that would work, any more than the Soviet Union's deal with Germany did in WWII. But I can, with a little effort, imagine a combination of desperation, frustration, and arrogance leading to an effort to buy the good will of a hypothetical western Caliphate.

1 comment:

American Interests.blog said...

Good post Brian, wondering whether you have an email address. Let us know through mine: ai at realgrid dot biz

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