The Russian bear

Staff Columnist

Conflict with Russia neither began nor ended with the cold war.

I like to read Peggy Noonan; some of you do not.  Fair enough.  “On Russia and Ukraine we are experiencing things incrementally and coming to terms with the fact that we have entered a new era.  Vladimir Putin has ended the post-Cold War settlement and is redrawing borders.  It is childish and obtuse to see his moves and understand them as anything but what they are, the beginning of a time that will sorely try the United States.”  (The Bear That Talks Like a Man, Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, April 19-20, 2014)

Noonan cites two books in connection with that thesis.  The first is John Taliaferro’s biography of John Hay.  Hay rose from private secretary to Abraham Lincoln to secretary of state, 40 years later, in the administration of Theodore Roosevelt.  In that time Hay was a diplomat, poet, newspaper editor, fiery editorial writer, presidential biographer, and  ambassador.  Noonan writes, “He had a generous and realistic sense of the imperatives of nations.  So it’s interesting that the Russians drove him wild.”   In 1901 Russia was moving to dominate Manchuria.  An American consul in the region, where the U.S. had commercial interests, warned Hay that unless Russia was checked, it would annex Manchuria outright.  Hay complained that he was ‘dealing with a government with whom mendacity is a science.’  He wrote to Roosevelt: “I take it for granted that Russia knows as well as we do that we will not fight over Manchuria, for the simple reason that we cannot.”

In the end, in 1904, the Japanese moved against Russia in a sneak attack on Port Arthur, almost taking out the Russian fleet. Russia was defeated.

Peace  was negotiated by Teddy Roosevelt.  Roosevelt became the first American president to win a Nobel Peace Prize.  By that time Hay had written to him with uncharacteristic anger: “Four years of conflict with [the Russians] have shown me that you cannot let up on them without danger to your midriff.  The bear that talks like a man is more to be watched than Adam Zad.” – a reference to Rudyard Kipling’s Adam-zad, “the Bear that walks like a man!”

Noonan’s second referenced book is “The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century” by George Friedman, founder of the private intelligence and forecasting firm Stratfor.   Published in 2010, in one chapter Friedman predicts Russia’s future.

“In geopolitics, major conflicts repeat themselves,” he writes.  “Russia is the eastern portion of Europe and has clashed with the rest of Europe on multiple occasions.”  Friedman:  “The Cold War didn’t settle the Russian question, which is: Where will its frontiers be and what will be the relationship between Russia and its neighbors?”

To Russia, “The farther west into Europe its borders extend, the further conquerors have to travel to reach Moscow.  Therefore Russia is always pressing westward,” just as Europe presses eastward.

Noonan notes that St. Petersburg was about a thousand miles from NATO troops in 1989.  Now it is less than one hundred miles away.  In 1989, Moscow was twelve hundred miles from the limits of Russian power.  Now it is about two hundred miles.  Russia does not feel it has to “conquer the world, but that it must regain and hold its buffers – essentially the boundaries of the old Soviet Union.”

Noonan, “Sweeping demographic changes – a slowly growing or declining population, especially among ethnic Russians – would suggest the mid 2010s were the right time to move.  Later might be too late.”

“Europe now, too, is hungry for energy and Russia supplies it with natural gas.  International energy markets may shift in the future, but for now Europe is dependent on Russia, so Moscow can use its resources to bend neighbors to its will.

Russia, Mr. Friedman predicted, “will take actions that appear to be aggressive but in fact are defensive.  It will focus on recovering influence and control in the former Soviet Union, recreating a system of buffers it once had.  It will then attempt to create a series of buffers beyond the boundaries of the old Soviet Union.  It will also try to prevent anti-Russian coalitions from forming.”

“It is only a matter of time before Russian influence will overwhelm Kiev,” Mr. Friedman wrote.  The Russians “must dominate Belarus and Ukraine for their basic national security…Ukraine and Belarus are everything to the Russians.  If they are to fall into the enemy’s hands – for example, join NATO – Russia would be in mortal danger.”  Reabsorbing Belarus and Ukraine “into the Russian sphere of influence is a given in the next five years.”

The flash point after that will be the Baltics – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – all former parts of the old Soviet Union, all members of NATO.  Russia will attempt to neutralize them.

“At first, Mr. Friedman wrote the U.S. will underestimate Russia.  Then it will be obsessed with Russia.”

“It will end,” he says, “with the collapse of Russia.

Noonan concludes,” The extended confrontation will severely strain Russian military and economic power.  Internal pressures, poor infrastructure, demographic shifts, and a government consumed by military considerations and distracted from potential domestic advances will have an impact.”

She quotes Friedman again, the new era will end as the old Soviet Union did.  “Russia broke in 1917, and again in 1991.  And the country’s military will collapse once more shortly after 2010.”

That’s some prediction.

So we’ve moved from John Hay to John Kerry representing the United States in this contest with Russia.




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