National Security

Nuclear Deference

How Obama can convince Moscow he's not out to ruin Russia.

Barack Obama hopes to engage Russia in his effort to continue reducing nuclear armaments. For the president, this is vital for advancing his goal of a world less reliant on nuclear weapons. For Moscow, however, nuclear arms remain the bedrock of military security and a key component of Russia's international status. This does not necessarily doom Obama's approach, but it makes further reduction of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals contingent on Washington's willingness to consider Moscow's security needs. The United States should examine those requirements in order to understand not only what kind of a deal with Russia is possible, but how Russia's needs relate to its own security interests.    

Since the end of the Cold War nearly a quarter century ago, Russia has existed in a heretofore unprecedented strategic environment. For the first time ever, it faces no likelihood of a major war erupting either in the west or in the east that might involve Russia. In another first, there is no threat of a foreign invasion of Russia itself. And, finally, having reconciled itself with the loss of both its outer empire in Eastern Europe and the inner one in what used to be the USSR, Russia has no need to physically control others and no interest in reabsorbing them within a new imperial construct.

Thus, for nearly 20 years following the breakup of the USSR, Moscow could afford to postpone the modernization of its conventional forces, allowing them to decay, while fully relying on its nuclear umbrella. Psychologically, being one of two nuclear superpowers helped the Kremlin overcome the trauma of imperial collapse and state disintegration. As a result, Moscow's present concept of a great power is the reverse of the classical one. It aims not so much at dominating others as not being dominated by the stronger powers. Given that the Russian military is no match for the Pentagon -- or soon the PLA -- the Kremlin believes nuclear deterrence is the best way of preserving Russia's strategic independence.

This deterrence operates at both strategic and tactical levels, making up for the huge gap in conventional capabilities between Russia and the leading military powers of the 21st century. Like the United States, Russia, of course, has inherited from the Cold War a nuclear arsenal which was absurdly large, thus allowing for massive reductions under the START and New START treaties -- but now the smaller the numbers have become, the smaller the margin is for further reductions. Russian political and military leaders have also identified three factors which weigh on their strategic calculus and impact policy decisions: the steady U.S. progress in the development of a global missile defense system, the vastly increased capabilities of non-nuclear weapons systems that can perform strategic missions, and the growing Chinese capability to dramatically increase its nuclear arsenal, should Beijing want.  

Of course, none of the above, for now, can appreciably devalue Russia's nuclear deterrent, but, looking two decades ahead, each of these factors will become much more important. This means that the United States, if it wants further cuts in nuclear weapons, will need to credibly assure the Russians that U.S. missile defense deployments, while effective against third countries (i.e., Iran), will not diminish Moscow's deterrence power. Washington will also need, when discussing tactical nuclear weapons, to include non-nuclear systems with a capability for precise strikes. Finally, both Washington and Moscow soon need to reach out to Beijing to include it in the process of limiting nuclear arms and enhancing strategic stability. None of these tasks will be easy, but all of them will be necessary if relations among the world's major nuclear powers are to be further stabilized.

Great-power stability is crucial for a number of reasons. One is stopping further nuclear proliferation, mainly in Iran and North Korea, for which Russia and China are key. Moscow's assessment of the pace of Tehran's nuclear program may differ from Washington's, but it has zero interest in a nuclear-armed Iran. Russians might prefer a different way of dealing with Pyongyang than the very uneven U.S. approach to North Korea, but they clearly see the dangers of living next to a country that is constantly testing its nuclear devices and long-range missiles. U.S.-Russian cooperation at the strategic level certainly creates a better prospect for coordinated non-proliferation efforts.

Another issue is regional security. Next year's U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is ushering in a number of uncertainties in Central and South Asia. In post-American Afghanistan, the Taliban are likely to increase their influence, even as Pakistan and India will compete even more intensely there. Russia's defense policy these days focuses more and more on contingencies along its southern borders, primarily in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Moscow has been trying, with mixed results, to revamp and strengthen the very loose post-Soviet Collective Security Treaty Organization, which it leads, to deal with emergencies in that part of the world. A Eurasian economic union might help, but, to be successful, it will need to stay economic and voluntary. Americans should lose no sleep over it: Moscow's desire, and ability, to impose its will on these partners is small. The Russian empire will continue to rest in peace.   

To many U.S. observers, however, Russia's efforts there are virtually indistinguishable from former tsarist and Soviet practices. Yet, the decade-long Chechen war, and the ten-year postwar recovery have resulted in a settlement under which Chechnya exists as a virtual state loosely associated with Russia. It is actually more stable and more prosperous today than other republics in the Russian North Caucasus. As to Georgia, Russia's military response to President Saakashvili's 2008 reckless attack in South Ossetia was strong, but also measured: Despite the popular belief in the West, Tbilisi controls almost as much territory today -- with very minor exceptions -- as it did before the war. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away from Georgia and proclaimed independence in the early 1990s, although now, unlike before the war, they also host regular Russian forces. For the foreseeable future, both places are de facto Russian military protectorates. The United States and virtually every other country support Georgia's territorial sovereignty, so the conflict will only be resolved politically. Until then, it will remain safely frozen.     

Moscow's biggest benefit from Obama's foreign policy reset has been his downplaying of the NATO option for Georgia and Ukraine. Since then, the domestic changes in Kiev and, more recently, in Tbilisi have de-emphasized the NATO accession option even more. Russian policymakers and strategic planners feel relieved: They no longer have to account for the possibility of U.S. power projection too close to their borders. In the South Caucasus, they are happy to leave Georgia to deal with its own problems, and only worry that the long but uneasy truce between the Azeris and the Armenians in Nagorny Karabakh may be broken. As Erevan's formal military ally with forces on the ground, and Baku's economic partner, Moscow has a stake in keeping the situation under control -- an interest shared by Washington.

The NATO enlargement specter out of the picture, Ukraine has remained an economic and geopolitical issue to Russia, but it has ceased to be a military one. The Baltic states may be perennially worried about their big neighbor, and some Swedes may implicitly use Russia as an argument in favor of increasing defense expenditures, but Europe has ceased to be a priority for Moscow's strategists. Their only significant new activity along the western axis has been the announced deployment of missile defenses to counter NATO's system -- in the wake of a failure, so far, to reach an agreement with the United States on the issue. In the best possible scenario, U.S./NATO and Russian defenses can be operationally coordinated -- with the Western system, while effective against third-country missiles, having no capability against the Russian nuclear deterrent. A formal treaty to this effect is not necessary, but a high degree of mutual openness is. If this were achieved during Obama's second term, it would amount to a real game-changer in U.S.-Russian strategic relations, phasing out residual adversity now rooted in mutual mistrust and allowing collaboration to gradually prevail.        

Finally, as Russia's military reform progresses and its force modernization continues, Moscow may become a more equitable partner to the Pentagon in a number of areas, from search and rescue in the Arctic, to fighting pirates off the African coast, to anti-narcotics operations in Afghanistan. The United States may indeed appreciate a solid working relationship with a country that, while being vociferously independent and straight-talking, is no longer expansionist and ideological. Americans should kick the habit of seeing mainly through the prism of its past experience with the Soviet Union, or through the optics of Russia's domestic developments alone. Obama's nuclear bid, to be successful, requires an updated and comprehensive look at Russia.

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/GettyImages

Argument

Handle with Care

Japan is Washington's most important Asian ally. But in some ways it's also the trickiest.

Don't expect any big surprises when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Washington on Friday. The communiqué issued after his White House meeting with President Obama will contain plenty of soothing generalities. Both sides want it that way.

Most Americans, to the extent that they think of their closest Asian ally at all, have come to think of Japan as that most boring of countries, a place that produces good cars, weird toilets, and little in the way of real news. That view is no longer entirely up to date. These days Tokyo lies smack on the geopolitical fault line between a rising China and an apprehensive United States. And Washington can scarcely hope to manage the shifting balance of power in East Asia without the help of Japan, its most powerful friend in the region.

The problem is that Japanese leaders have a tendency to become their own worst enemies. And no one exemplifies this better than Shinzo Abe.

He's a staunch conservative, a fact that resonates with voters at a time of rising skepticism about Chinese intentions. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a landslide victory in last October's general election, returning to power after a rare five years in the wilderness. There's no question that Abe is popular -- and that's due not least to his reputation as a China-basher.

Over the years Abe has established himself as one of the paragons of the right wing of the LDP, a conservative party that has ruled Japan for most of the postwar period. He has long been a supporter of efforts to revise history textbooks to minimize Japanese responsibility for World War II. He has denied that Chinese and Korean women were forced into prostitution by the Imperial Japanese Army during the war (the "comfort women" controversy). And he has questioned the legitimacy of the Allied war crimes tribunal that sentenced several Japanese leaders to death after the war. He has paid many visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the Tokyo site that honors the memory of Japan's war dead (including 14 top-level war criminals). When Abe unveiled his new government in January, The Economist described it a "cabinet of radical nationalists."

Such positions predictably enrage some of the countries that suffered from Japanese policies, which accuse the Japanese of trying to shirk responsibility for their wartime misdeeds. The country that usually reacts the most allergically to efforts to whitewash that past is China, which lost somewhere between 10 to 20 million people during the war. Korea (now divided into South and North) was a Japanese colonial possession for more than four decades. For the Americans, this touchy legacy is complicated by the fact that China is not one of their allies, while South Korea is. Conveniently for China, the history issue frequently pits Seoul and Tokyo against each other, undermining U.S. efforts to forge a common front against Beijing.

And now, of course, an increasingly assertive China is throwing its weight around, threatening the strategic status quo in a number of places around East Asia. One of those spots is the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyutai in Chinese), at the very tip of the Okinawan island chain in the East China Sea. The uninhabited islands have been under Japanese control (with an interlude of U.S. administration after 1945) since the late 19th century, but Beijing insists they're Chinese territory -- a claim that inflames nationalist passions on the mainland (as well as on Taiwan, which also claims the islands). The Chinese government has repeatedly sent planes and ships into the area to probe Japan's defenses, sometimes engaging in high-risk games of chicken with the Japanese Coast Guard.

Last year the Japanese government raised the temperature even further by purchasing the hitherto privately owned islands. (Lost amid the hysteria was the fact that Japanese leaders were actually trying to head off a gambit by ultra-nationalist Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, who had vowed to purchase the islands using municipal funds.) The Japanese move triggered a frenzy of indignation across China.

The terms of the U.S.-Japanese alliance commit the Americans to come to Japan's defense if anyone attacks the Senkakus -- a message reinforced by a U.S. delegation that traveled to both Tokyo and Beijing a few months ago. And it certainly isn't in Washington's interest to allow China to bully other countries into accepting its own territorial claims. (The South China Sea, where Beijing is pushing its ownership of strategically key islands that are also claimed by a range of other countries, is another hot spot.) But nor do the Americans want to see themselves entangled in local feuds that could spark a military conflict -- a prospect recently assessed as a possibility At the same time, they certainly don't want to see Japanese nationalists engage in antics that will not only unnecessarily aggravate Beijing but also keep Japan and South Korea at loggerheads.

So the trick for Obama is to find a way to bolster Abe while restraining him from rash behavior. It's likely to be a tricky balancing act. The Americans are probably fine with Abe's recent plans to boost his defense budget. Washington is perpetually urging the Japanese to modernize their Cold War-era military, deliberately named the Self-Defense Forces, and they certainly don't want to see Tokyo roll over to the Chinese.

On the other hand, the White House is likely to see some of Abe's other ideas as unduly provocative. His aspiration to revise the pacifist constitution could allow the Japanese to assume more of the burden for their own defense, and would presumably stiffen the national spine against Chinese demands. But it will also enrage the South Koreans, who will see it as yet more evidence of a putative return to Japanese "militarism."

Even more damaging would be an attempt to revise the landmark 1995 apology for the war issued by the country's then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. Abe has aired the idea of rolling back that admission of Japanese war guilt (though his administration has since suggested that it will uphold the Murayama statement, perhaps supplementing it with an unspecified new one). Any effort to fudge Japanese responsibility for the war would be red meat for Abe's more conservative supporters, but it would also be sure to undermine Tokyo's relations with its neighbors, effectively strengthening China's hand in the region.

Will it come to this? Probably not anytime soon. Abe faces an election for the upper house of the Japanese parliament in July, and he's unlikely to make any radical moves that might jeopardize his party's chances of scoring a big victory there. And despite the conservative lopsidedness of his cabinet team, the man who runs it, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, is a moderate who is said to exercise decisive influence over the prime minister. He appears to be arguing that Abe has to focus on his main challenge -- repairing the country's stagnant economy -- rather than squandering valuable political capital on ambitious foreign policy shakeups.

History, indeed, suggests that pragmatism may prevail. During Abe's brief previous stint as prime minister, which ended with his ignominious resignation on health grounds in 2007, he displayed a caution in his approach to China that stood at odds with many of his public pronouncements. Obama will undoubtedly urge Abe to pick up where he left off.

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