Russia is still a threat, despite what Washington thinks

Russia is still a threat, despite what Washington thinks
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Having withdrawn from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, due in no small part to Russian violations of that treaty, the Trump administration appears on the verge of withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty. This 2002 agreement, to which 34 countries, but not China, are signatories, has enabled reconnaissance flights over signatories’ territory to monitor and photograph their respective armed forces. 

Analysts and pundits have offered numerous explanations as to why President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE has signaled his intent to withdraw from the treaty. Some argue that, although John BoltonJohn BoltonAre Democrats building a collapsible impeachment? Live coverage: House holds first public impeachment hearing Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE no longer serves in Trump’s administration, the president shares his former national security adviser’s distaste for international agreements that, in the view of both men, restrict American freedom of action. 

Others note that Russia has been denying overhead access to some regions where its military deploys and that, as with the INF Treaty, Washington is simply withdrawing from what it perceives to have become a one-sided, unfavorable arrangement. Yet others see the sinister hand of those in the administration who would prefer to further strengthen Russia’s hand by preventing Ukraine from having a better sense of Moscow’s troop deployments.

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Although withdrawing from the treaty might suit President Trump’s desire to curry favor with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinAmid impeachment hearings, it's worth remembering why Ukraine matters Trump says he'll meet with dictators if it helps the US Biden expresses shock that Trump considers attending Russia May Day event MORE in the short term, over the longer term it promises to be yet another sore point between Washington and Moscow. The treaty really was little more than a confidence-building measure; in that respect, it was rather different from the INF Treaty. 

Confidence between the U.S. and Russia is sorely lacking and is likely to be absent for years to come. For although the administration’s national security strategy points to Russia as but a medium-term threat — whereas China is the longer term and greater threat to American national security — Russia also is likely to be a powerful adversary for decades to come.

For the past 15 years, regardless of the state of the Russian economy or, for that matter, the price of oil, Russia relentlessly has been modernizing its forces. A recent study by the Finnish Central Bank noted that the Russian economy has been stagnant for some time and is likely to remain so for years to come. Nevertheless, although the pace of Russia’s military modernization may have slowed somewhat, it continues apace. Putin may be overstating the number and capabilities of several of his planned systems, but there is little doubt that at least some of those systems — notably some of Russia’s hypersonic weapons — soon will be deployed in the field.

Moreover, Russia’s military operations in Syria, whether in terms of combat operations or in terms of logistic support, have continued to improve. In addition, its armed forces are becoming increasingly professional. In other words, Russia is not now, nor for some time will it be — in President Obama’s casually dismissive words five years ago — merely a “regional power” that seized Crimea out of weakness. 

Russia’s reach now extends considerably beyond its “near abroad.” Russia already is perceived throughout the Middle East as the region’s primary arbiter. America’s foolhardy desire to withdraw from the Middle East, coupled with its betrayal of the Kurds in Syria, contrasts sharply with Moscow’s determined support of Bashar al-Assad. In return, and for the first time ever, Syria has granted Russia a 99-year lease on an air base, enabling Moscow’s forces to operate from much shorter lines of communication. In addition, it is likely that Moscow brokered Assad’s reconciliation with the Syrian Kurds; the Kurds had approached Russia some time ago to reach an understanding with their erstwhile ally. 

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Moscow also has excellent relations with Israel and Iran, with Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf States, including, perhaps especially, Saudi Arabia. In other words, if Russia is a “regional power,” it is a power in more than one region.

Russia’s growing influence and revived military suggest that Washington take Moscow as seriously as it does China. No doubt, China remains a long-term threat to American interests in East Asia and beyond. Nevertheless, President Trump’s decision to retain forces in Syria to protect Kurdish-controlled oil wells is proof positive that Washington’s interests in the Middle East have not disappeared. 

Nor have they become less vital in Europe, whose combined exports and imports to the U.S. exceed $800 billion. In both cases it is Moscow that threatens those interests, and all of the president’s efforts to coddle Mr. Putin will not alter that reality for decades to come.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.