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The 'Pain Game' Revisited

Russia's glass jaw.

12:00 AM, Aug 19, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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My brief assessment of the military options open to the West in the ongoing Georgian conflict "The Pain Game: A Military response to Russia's aggression?"
provoked many comments both favorable and unfavorable. The most thoughtful criticism accused me of elevating the tactical over the strategic; i.e., of not looking at the "big picture." To that I offer a qualified "Mea culpa." The piece was intended as a focused response to numerous commentators, decision makers, and analysts who said the West had no "military options" in Georgia, when in fact there are such options.

But I have pondered at some length a comprehensive strategic approach to U.S. relations with Russia. These ideas can be found summarized in Chapter 9 of Ideas for America's Future, which I wrote in collaboration with Mr. Jeffrey P. Bialos of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Transatlantic Relations ( The strategy described therein was based on the following premises:

1. Russia is a country in the midst of a probably irreversible decline. It suffers from a serious demographic crisis (a total fertility rate of about 1.4 and a male life expectancy of only 59 years) which will see its population decline to 125 million or less in the next ten years. Its government is increasingly autocratic, suppressing freedom of expression and taking control of crucial sectors of the national economy, squeezing out direct foreign investment and technology transfer needed to maintain economic development. The Russian economy itself is increasingly reliant on high technology arms transfers at one end, and raw materials extraction--principally oil and natural gas--at the other. The Russian military is starved for resources (including quality manpower), operates increasingly antiquated equipment, and faces severe challenges to its modernization and transformation plans.

2. Russia is experiencing a transient moment of prosperity due to the inflated price of oil and natural gas. But Russia's oil and gas production peaked several years back. Russia has huge untapped reserves but requires an infusion of Western technology to get them out of the ground. This technology investment will not be forthcoming, due to President Putin's reappropriation of the "extractive sector" and the expropriation of Western investment in various joint ventures with Russian oil companies. The Russian petrochemical industrial base is antiquated and increasingly difficult to keep in operation. Russian oil and gas exports, therefore, will begin a steep decline in the near future.

3. Putin has used the bubble in the oil and gas market to fund economic development and provide prosperity to the Russian citizenry, though the distribution of wealth is highly uneven. Most of Russia's new wealth is concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and a few oil centers out in Siberia, but the provincial cities, as well as the countryside, are for the most part still mired in poverty. Nonetheless, Putin managed to strike a bargain with the Russian people: in return for prosperity and stability, the people will allow greater centralization of power in Moscow.

4. The other side of Putinism is the use of oil and natural gas as weapons against perceived enemies in the Near Abroad and Western Europe. Because the existing pipelines from Central Asia and Siberia all pass through Russian territory, the Russian government, through its control of state oil and gas companies, can halt, reduce or increase the price of oil and natural gas in Eastern and Central Europe, thereby posing a threat to the economic stability of those countries, which can be used to extract diplomatic and economic concessions on the one hand, and punish behavior contrary to Moscow's agenda on the other. In this way, Russia, despite its anemic economy and toothless military, has managed to assert itself as a player in European grand politics.

5. However, the good times will not last, and in the long term, the trend lines are consistently against the reemergence of Russia as a great power. This poses a potential danger to the United States and its allies, since empires in decline generate instability in their border regions until such time as they either collapse entirely or a new power structure emerges.