High over the Bering Sea where the black Arctic sky bends toward Alaska, Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers moved in for the kill last week. In rapid succession, cruise missiles dropped from beneath them like deadly spawn, fanning out toward their targets. Eleven thousand kilometers away in the warm waters south of Florida, a Russian naval squadron approached, carrying more megatons of nuclear weapons than the Cubans ever dreamed of during the missile crisis that brought the world to the edge of annihilation in October 1962. The Russians' goal: to link up with the military forces of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who has cast himself as the successor to Fidel Castro in leading hemispheric hostility to the United States of America.
Geopolitical thriller writer Tom Clancy could set this scene. Flashbacks would provide the context: Moscow's punitive invasion of little Georgia last summer; its tanks and missiles parading in Red Square last May; its coffers filled with hundreds of billions of dollars paid by Western Europeans addicted to Russian gas and oil; and the vows of former KGB operative, former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to use this war chest for an ever more powerful military machine. Clancy could make it all sound like, well, the eve of World War III. But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack last month made the latest Russian operations above the Arctic and in the Caribbean, dubbed "Stability 2008," sound more like a joke. Sneering at the weakness of Russia's fleet en route to Venezuela, McCormack said, "We'll see if they actually make it there. Somebody told me they had a tugboat accompanying them in case they break down along the way."
All is not what it seems in the new cold war, if such a thing exists—and most leaders in NATO insist emphatically that it does not. The world is too interdependent, they say, to allow that sort of global standoff. Russia is not the Soviet Union. And the Western powers don't want to be drawn into a game of bluff that will only inflate Putin's prestige. "One cold war is enough," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Putin to his face at a conference in Germany last year. In Washington, where policy fell prey to political fictions for much of the Bush administration, the mantra of the moment is "realism." For too many years the White House looked at the world through a crude, dialectic lens—"with us or against us," "war or appeasement." Since Gates took over at Defense in late 2006, he has demanded from the waning administration "a pragmatic blend of resolve and restraint." U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for her part, talks about a "uniquely American realism." It has an idealistic tinge favoring friends and allies who share Western democratic values. But, that said, Rice's brand of realism readily allows an autocratic Russia, or for that matter China, to be accepted as competitive on some issues and embraced when cooperative on others.
The approach harks back to the days 60 years ago when University of Chicago professor Hans J. Morgenthau led what came to be known as the realist school of international relations. "Foreign policy must be conducted in such a way as to make the preservation of peace possible and not make the outbreak of war inevitable," he wrote. Moderate, reasonable, focused on clearly perceived national interests, he warned against "the crusading spirit," insisted on looking at the political scene from the viewpoint of other nations, and advocated compromise on any issue not absolutely vital to a country's well-being.
Such views have always been a hard sell with the U.S. public. Especially after an incident like the invasion of Georgia, Americans tend to hanker for definitive confrontations and conclusions that smell like victory. To talk about responding with what Gates calls "nonmilitary tools of national power"—what others call "soft power"—sounds soft, period. (You won't hear the phrase cross the lips of any presidential candidate.) But when you have the preponderance of power, you can husband your resources and still contain your adversary.
That was the point Sean McCormack was making about Russia's rickety fleet. Moscow is not the threat that it wants to appear. With more than 5,000 nuclear warheads and its status as the world's largest energy exporter, it cannot really be called a paper tiger. Not militarily and not economically. But in both respects it is a pretty dysfunctional bear. "The Russian military is still a lot more bark than bite," says Alexander Kliment, an analyst at the consultancy Eurasia Group. During the cold war the West used nuclear weapons as an equalizer, backing up an inferior conventional force. Now that's what the Russians are doing. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country has invested most of its defense money in maintaining its nuclear weapons, while conventional forces were left to decay. "Now it's 20 years later," says Kliment, "and the better part of the Russian Navy is rusting in dry docks." The country has a single aircraft carrier, compared with a dozen in the American fleet. Russian troop strength at 1.2 million is about a quarter of what it was in 1986 and morale is low. "A Russian soldier has fewer rights than a Russian prisoner," says Valentina Melnikova, the head of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers. One Army lieutenant, who despaired after repeated attempts to point out the disastrous condition of his barracks, recently made a rap video (to an Eminem tune) showing the decrepit plumbing and filthy corridors, then posted it on YouTube. The lieutenant was ordered to transfer to Siberia.
Putin has been promising huge new infusions of cash to solve some of the military's problems, and on the financial front his government wisely built up an enormous reserve of some $600 billion in foreign currency over the past nine years. But those monies may be needed now to stave off economic disaster, not re-create the old war machine. Russia's fortunes are tied directly to the volatile price of oil and gas, which is headed down sharply as the world economy slows. Russian markets started hemorrhaging capital even before the confrontation in Georgia, then took massive hits when the shock waves from the global credit crisis started rolling over the country in September. The Moscow bourses had to stop trading several times in September. Last week they dropped 21 percent in a single day. Even before the current crisis, the scale of Russia's $1.3 trillion economy was roughly on a par with Mexico's and Brazil's, well behind China's (at $3.3 trillion) and the United States' (at $13.8 trillion).
The second salient point appreciated by today's realists is the role NATO and the European Union played transforming the old Eastern bloc into a collection of increasingly prosperous democratic states and, yes, steadfast allies who share U.S. values. In the 1990s NATO was at a loss to justify its original hard-power reason for being. If the Western Europeans' rationale for the alliance after World War II was "to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down," the fall of the Berlin Wall put an end to that game. There weren't going to be any European wars of the kind NATO was created to fight so it would have to adapt to small conflicts elsewhere. The catchphrase in the halls of Brussels became "Out of area or out of business." And soon enough, those little wars were found: first Kosovo, which was a quick, relatively clean victory in 1999, then Afghanistan, a fight that has gone on for seven years and is getting uglier by the day.
The story of NATO's soft power was different. The collapse of the Soviet Union had left a vacuum in Central Europe, and NATO rushed to fill it, not with troops, but with ideas about good governance and democratic societies. To vulnerable new regimes, the alliance held out the tantalizing prospect of membership with guarantees of defense under Article 5 of the treaty. But that came at a price. According to Ronald Asmus, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe, in the 1990s "the administration consciously used potential membership in NATO as a 'golden carrot' to encourage the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to consolidate political and economic reforms, resolve minority issues and border disputes and establish civilian controls of the military." The expansion of NATO was "values driven," not militarily driven, Asmus said. As the EU expanded its membership, too, the borders of "the West" were pushed east from the Elbe by 1,600km. Not a shot had been fired, not a brigade deployed. Soft power had triumphed.
But success brought its own complications. Analysts as distinguished—and as tough—as former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz now regret the lack of attention paid to the Russians' pride in the 1990s when the country was poor and its people often felt humiliated. "What they have sought, sometimes clumsily, is acceptance as equals in a new international system rather than as losers in cold war to which terms could be dictated," the elder statesmen wrote jointly in an op-ed piece earlier this month.
NATO tried to discourage its new partners from embarking on campaigns to build up conventional war-fighting capabilities that might look provocative to Moscow. War with Russia, no matter how weak the Kremlin had become, was not what Brussels wanted. In fact, the American administration was looking for NATO's new members to fill useful niches for its far-flung "war on terror," whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the aspirants inevitably saw their training in a different light. Ultimately, their grudges were against Russia.
Georgia became a case in point of this simmering animosity—and of Morgenthau's dictum to "Never allow a weak ally to make decisions for you." Though the little country in the Caucasus was not a NATO member, U.S. military trainers were teaching local troops basic tactics for counterinsurgency operations. In a stunning miscalculation, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, paying too much attention to talk of "common values" with the West, made the decision to attack South Ossetian rebel positions, which caused the Russians to move in to relieve their allies. NATO stepped back, not forward, which was the unpalatable but prudent thing to do. Moscow's military, whatever its shortcomings, then rolled over the Georgian troops like a lawn mower over an anthill.
Since then, the realists have stayed their restrained course, and events have strengthened their hand. Immediately after the fighting began, the United States, NATO and the EU demonstrated openness to compromise with a sensible Russian government—a role President Dmitry Medvedev quickly adopted—but they showed contempt for the flailing bear. Gates told a conference at Blenheim Palace, where that bulldog of a realist, Winston Churchill, was born, that Georgia would be rebuilt with $1 billion of U.S. money to help it get along. Its ties to the West would be strengthened. But "Russia faces a decision: to be a fully integrated and responsible partner in the international community, which we would welcome, or … to be an isolated and antagonistic nation viewed by much of the world as little more than a gas station for Europe."
For now, the Medvedev faction, at any rate, seems to have made its choice: reintegration, not isolation. Last week Russian troops withdrew from the checkpoints they'd established deep inside Georgia and pulled back to the contested enclaves where they were before last summer's war. But the tensions are likely to continue at least as long as NATO's expansion goes on, and the encirclement of Russia, politically if not militarily, progresses. In every direction Moscow looks, its neighbors (and former provinces and satellites) have signed Individual Partnership Action Plans that are the first step toward joining the military club in Brussels. Since Georgia signed up in 2004, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova and Kazakhstan have, too. They are a long way from the North Atlantic, but right in the middle of the Near Abroad.
Since the fighting in Georgia, NATO is also finding it harder to fudge its commitments to new members. Paris, London and Washington may claim they do not see the Russians as their adversaries, but the Baltic states sure do, and they are pushing for concrete ground defense plans that they've never had from NATO before. All the while, despite Medvedev's moderation, hawks on Russian state television continued to trumpet the military might demonstrated by the Stability 2008 exercises. The machos in the Kremlin seemed determined to show that if the United States and NATO could play around in Russia's backyard, Russia could play around in America's. So the fleet led by the Kirov-class guided missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky (Peter the Great) continued toward Caracas. And so, by last report, did the tugboat.