Russia's our No. 1 enemy -- and Snowden's just the tip of the iceberg.
Back in the late 18th century, when Adam Smith wrote that "there is much ruin in a nation," he was referring generally to the resiliency of countries under conditions of great adversity. Today, his words seem especially well tailored to Russia. Its 20th century history was bookended by problematic social revolutions (the first destroyed the Russian Empire, the second dissolved the Soviet Union) and was replete with military defeats (to Japan in 1905, in World War I a decade later, and then again in Afghanistan in the 1980s). Forced collectivization of farms caused the starvation of millions in the 1930s, and even victory over the Nazis cost tens of millions more lives. It is a wonder that Russia has survived and even more astonishing that it thrives, both economically and as a key player in the high politics of world affairs.
Mitt Romney suffered much unfair criticism last fall when he called Russia "our number one geopolitical foe." Russia remains a country of vast natural resources, much military capability -- including parity with the United States in nuclear arms -- and human capital of the very highest quality. These classic geopolitical indicators of inherent strength aside, Romney noted, the leaders of Russia have also made it clear that their interests often do not coincide with American policy preferences. Though the current furore over Moscow's willingness to shelter the fugitive Edward Snowden is eye-catching, the resurgent rivalry is more evident, and more important, in the case of Syria, where Russia can derail any effort to obtain the blessing of the United Nations for military intervention and at the same time shore up the Assad regime with a wide range of weaponry.
A determined effort to understand Russian strategic thinking about the Syrian situation could pay real dividends in terms of pointing out Moscow's true geopolitical strength on the world stage. In my view, Russian reasoning and aims regarding Syria are nested -- in a manner somewhat like their many-in-one matryoshka dolls. The first layer of motivation must certainly be defined by a determination to avoid being snookered into giving even tacit permission -- as happened in the case of Libya -- for international military action against the Assad regime. Yet another concern must be about maintaining a naval toehold in the Mediterranean, as is provided for the Russians by the Syrian port of Tartous.
But in a larger strategic sense, Moscow may be looking at Syria as the western anchor of an anti-Sunni arc of friendly countries in what is -- the American pivot to the Pacific notwithstanding -- the most important region in the world. This point may do the most to explain both the importance to Moscow of avoiding an outright insurgent victory in Syria and steadfast Russian support for Iran in the current proliferation crisis. Of course, Tehran's influence with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad ensures that the eastern and western ends of this geostrategic arc of friendly states are connected, with Iraq serving as bridge between the two. And, as the Russians have keen insight into the ethnic fissures in the Muslim world, it is not at all surprising that Moscow is also sensitive to the needs and concerns of the sizeable Christian population of Syria -- some two million in number, most of them Orthodox.
Syria is thus something of a lens through which Russian strength, influence, and strategy can be gauged. From political pull in the United Nations to alliance-creation and clientelism among friendly states, and on to nuclear parity and a robust conventional military capability, Russia remains formidable. Moscow has engineered a strong position for itself in the Middle East just as the United States is talking openly about de-emphasizing the region in favor of focusing on the Far East. And the dismissive way in which President Obama's call for deep reductions in nuclear arms was treated by Russian leaders is yet another sure indication of Moscow's confidence in its standing in the world.
It is tempting to ask what Mitt Romney would do -- and I invite him to weigh in on this matter -- given that the concerns he expressed about Russian opposition to American interests during last fall's presidential campaign have been largely borne out. For my part, geostrategic thinking leads me to three pretty straightforward conclusions. First, there is the need to keep Russia from "winning" in Syria. This can be achieved either by escalating support for the anti-Assad insurgency or ratcheting up a peace process -- the aims of which are to put Syria on a path to a post-Assad, democratic future. Perhaps both approaches can be simultaneously pursued. Either way, Russian influence will wane, and the western linchpin of its anti-Sunni arc would become unhinged.
The second country of geostrategic importance in the region is Iraq, and any fruitful initiative here may require some truly perverse thinking. Basically, the implication is to support the Sunnis who are currently resisting Shiite, Tehran-friendly rule in Baghdad -- perverse given that this is an al Qaeda aim as well. But the end of Assad in Syria, something that the Obama administration has repeatedly demanded, also aligns us with al Qaeda's aims. Yes, refraining from toppling Saddam Hussein in the first place would have avoided this mess -- but that was then; this is now. And a consistent strategy, one that would thwart larger Russian geostrategic aims, means siding with the Sunnis in Iraq.
As for Iran, the third link in the Middle Eastern anti-Sunni arc, the solution is far simpler: Offer the mullahs a guarantee that the United States will not plump for regime change in return for Tehran's absolutely verifiable abandonment of its nuclear weapons development program. This solution is quite like the deal that President John F. Kennedy cut with Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev to end the Cuban Missile Crisis some 50 years ago.
Back then in the 1960s, and at least until the late 1980s, it was clear that most regional problems were nested in a global rivalry between Washington and Moscow. Today, however, there is a determined effort to view regional events as divorced from global power politics -- an odd formulation, given that almost all social and economic phenomena tend to be seen as linked to globalization-driven trends. Last fall, Mitt Romney performed a signal service in reminding us that, even decades after the Cold War, great geopolitical powers still matter. An awareness of this can inform and should guide grand strategy today. Ignorance of this simple truth is the path to costly ruin.
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