Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Putin Will be in Tehran October 16

...Mottaki also confirmed -- and this is significant -- that Russian President Vladimir Putin would visit Tehran on Oct. 16. The occasion is a meeting of the Caspian Sea littoral nations, a group that comprises Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. According to the Iranians, Putin agreed not only to attend the conference, but also to use the visit to confer with top Iranian leaders.

This is about the last thing the United States wanted the Russians to do -- and therefore the first thing the Russians did. The Russians are quite pleased with the current situation in Iraq and Iran and do not want anything to upset it. From the Russian point of view, the Americans are tied down in an extended conflict that sucks up resources and strategic bandwidth in Washington. There is a similarity here with Vietnam. The more tied down U.S. forces were in Vietnam, the more opportunities the Soviets had. Nowadays, Russia's resources are much diminished compared with those of the Soviets -- while Russia has a much smaller range of interest. Moscow's primary goal is to regain a sphere of influence within the former Soviet Union. Whatever ambitions it may dream of, this is the starting point. The Russians see the Americans as trying to thwart their ambitions throughout their periphery, through support for anti-Russian elements via U.S. intelligence.

If the United States plans to stay in Iraq until the end of the Bush presidency, then the United States badly needs something from the Russians -- that they not provide arms, particularly air-defense systems, to the Syrians and especially the Iranians. The Americans need the Russians not to provide fighter aircraft, modern command-and-control systems or any of the other war-making systems that the Russians have been developing. Above all else, they want the Russians not to provide the Iranians any nuclear-linked technology.

Therefore, it is no accident that the Iranians claimed over the weekend that the Russians told them they would do precisely that. Obviously, the discussion was of a purely civilian nature, but the United States is aware that the Russians have advanced military nuclear technology and that the distinction between civilian and military is subtle. In short, Russia has signaled the Americans that it could very easily trigger their worst nightmare.

The Iranians, fairly isolated in the world, are being warned even by the French that war is a real possibility. Obviously, then, they view the meetings with the Russians as being of enormous value. The Russians have no interest in seeing Iran devastated by the United States. They want Iran to do just what it is doing -- tying down U.S. forces in Iraq and providing a strategic quagmire for the Americans. And they are aware that they have technologies that would make an extended air campaign against Iran much more costly than it would be otherwise. Indeed, without a U.S. ground force capable of exploiting an air attack anyway, the Russians might be able to create a situation in which suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD, the first stage of a U.S. air campaign) would be costly, and in which the second phase -- battle against infrastructure -- could become a war of attrition. The United States might win, in the sense of ultimately having command of the air, but it could not force a regime change -- and it would pay a high price.

It also should not be forgotten that the Russians have the second-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. The Russians very ostentatiously announced a few weeks ago that their Bear bombers were returning to constant patrol. This amused some in the U.S. military, who correctly regard the Bear as obsolete. They forget that the Russians never really had a bomber force designed for massive intercontinental delivery of nuclear devices. The announcement was a gesture -- and reminder that Russian ICBMs could easily be pointed at the United States.

Russia obviously doesn't plan a nuclear exchange with the United States, although it likes forcing the Americans to consider the possibility. Nor do the Russians want the Iranians to gain nuclear weapons. What they do want is an extended conflict in Iraq, extended tension between Iran and the United States, and they wouldn't much mind if the United States went to war with Iran as well. The Russians would happily supply the Iranians with whatever weapons systems they could use in order to bleed the United States a bit more, as long as they are reasonably confident that those systems would not be pointed north any time soon.

The Russians are just as prepared to let the United States have a free hand against Iran and not pose any challenges while U.S. forces are tied down in Iraq. But there is a price and it will be high. The Russians are aware that the window of opportunity is now and that they could create nightmarish problems for the United States. Therefore, the Russians will want the following:

In the Caucasus, they want the United States to withdraw support for Georgia and force the Georgian government to reach an accommodation with Moscow. Given Armenian hostility to Turkey and closeness to Russia, this would allow the Russians to reclaim a sphere of influence in the Caucasus, leaving Azerbaijan as a buffer with Iran.

In Ukraine and Belarus, the Russians will expect an end to all U.S. support to nongovernmental organizations agitating for a pro-Western course.

In the Baltics, the Russians will expect the United States to curb anti-Russian sentiment and to explicitly limit the Baltics' role in NATO, excluding the presence of foreign troops, particularly Polish.

Regarding Serbia, they want an end to any discussion of an independent Kosovo.

The Russians also will want plans abandoned for an anti-ballistic-missile system that deploys missiles in Poland.

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