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Moscow Keeps a Wary Eye on Obama's New Defense Strategy

Russia welcomes some aspects of the new US defense strategy, such as departing from the doctrine of being able to fight two major wars simultaneously and spending less on nuclear weapons. However, Moscow still has concerns about the new strategy when it comes to such diverse areas as the Arctic region, Iran, missile defense, and cyberwarfare.

By : Valery Konyshev and Alexander Sergunin are Professors of International Relations, School of International Relations, St. Petersburg State University, Russia.

The new American defense strategy that was presented by President Barack Obama on January 5 got a rather cold reception in Moscow. Russia's attitude to the new US doctrine has been contradictory. On the one hand, the Kremlin was jealous of the fact that Russia now is of diminishing significance for the US: the document has ritually mentioned it once as a country which 'remains important' and which should be encouraged 'to be a contributor across a broad range of issues'.

On the other hand, Moscow was satisfied with the new doctrinal approach that no longer views Russia as a primary source of security threats to the US (in contrast with Iran, China, North Korea and international terrorism which are still on the 'black list'). The Russian strategists preferred to believe that Obama remained loyal to his 'reset' strategy towards Moscow and aimed at building with Russia - even after the anticipated 'second advent' of Vladimir Putin - a closer relationship in areas of mutual interest'.

Such ambivalence increases when Russian analysts go in to the details of the newly-born US defense doctrine.

Looking at the bright side of the new US defense strategy, Moscow is content that the document departs from standing doctrine calling for forces sufficient to fight two almost simultaneous major wars, calling instead for the capacity to fight one major war while deterring a second military danger. The old US doctrine of waging two or even two and half major wars (Reagan era) was always perceived by Russia as a sign of Washington's 'aggressiveness' and 'imperialist ambitions'. The new doctrine is viewed as less aggressive, more realistic and adequate to the post-Cold war international environment.

The US plans to reduce military personnel in Europe and Asia from 150,000 to 100,000 and eventually withdraw from Afghanistan were positively received in Moscow as well. The Kremlin believes that the US conventional ground forces stationed in Western Europe and some Asian countries were originally part of a Cold War strategy. The reduction of American military presence in areas which are vital for Russia's national interests again raises the Kremlin's hopes for creation of a 'zone of peace and stability' from the Atlantic Ocean to the Urals that has been proposed by President Dmitry Medvedev in his European Security Treaty initiative (2009).

Moscow is also happy that President Obama wants to spend less on nuclear weapons - the most problematic part of the US arsenal - although how much less is unclear.

Particularly, there are some rumors that the Obama administration plans to eliminate nuclear weapons from bomber aircraft, the "third leg" of the nuclear triad, while retaining nuclear weapons based on land and on submarines. If true, this news could be especially good for Moscow because the current strategic forces' structure is asymmetric in the two countries. Russia traditionally has more land-based missiles while the US emphasizes strategic bombers and submarines, which are seen by the Russian military as strategically destabilizing weaponry. If the above-mentioned plans were to be implemented (also on the Russian side) a new US and Russian strategic forces' posture could be more symmetric and, hence, more predictable and less dangerous.

The Kremlin tacitly approves Obama's plans to eliminate some of the most expensive experimental programs on missile defense that have been launched under the previous administrations and would not reach fruition for decades.

Moscow looks with sympathy (and even compassion) at Obama's plans to restructure the Pentagon because the Russian armed forces are in a process of radical reforms as well. Interestingly, the aims and scope of the military reforms in both countries are nearly the same: to downsize the armed forces, make them less expensive, more compact and mobile, better equipped and prepared for future security threats and wars. In general, the two countries share the common interest in making their military more adequate to the challenges of today's world.

At the same time, Moscow is concerned about some of the new US defense doctrine's postulates.

For example, the document says that the US will continue to lead global efforts with capable allies and partners to assure access to and use of the global commons, both by diplomatic/legal and military methods. Today this basically applies to some irresponsible state and non-state actors that can hinder the free flow of goods shipped by air or sea. But the Russian strategy planners can interpret this doctrinal provision as a 'warning sign' to Moscow which tries to establish its control over the vast natural resources in the Arctic region which is seen by Washington as 'the global commons' and where the US wants to have a free hand for the future.

Moreover, to operate effectively in anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) environments, the new US defense policy (or put it more precisely - military strategy) aims at implementing the so-called Joint Operational Access Concept, which is based on sustaining American undersea capabilities, developing a new stealth bomber, improving missile defenses, and 'continuing efforts to enhance the resiliency and effectiveness of critical space-based capabilities'. This again puzzles Moscow with the question: which country (if not Russia) possesses such military capabilities to challenge US access and freedom to operate in areas where the global commons' are located?

For example, there is a growing debate on the future use of the so-called Northern Sea Route (NSR) which goes along Russia's Arctic coastline and which is seen as a promising way for shipping raw materials and other goods from the Asia-Pacific region to Europe. This route is shorter than the one via the Suez Canal in distance (by 34%) and time (two weeks). Moreover, it is safer than the southern route because there is no piracy in the cold waters.

Until recently, the entire NSR was covered by ice and vessels that took this way had to be escorted by Russian ice-breakers. The route itself was cleft in (or close to) the Russian territorial waters and for this reason was completely controlled by the Russian authorities. However, with global warming and the Arctic ice meltdown, the NSR is becoming more accessible and may gradually shift to the international waters. In contrast with the Russian ambitions to keep its monopoly on the NSR, the US, China, Japan, South Korea and European countries believe that this passage - as a part of the Arctic region is 'humankind's asset' (or 'global commons') where the freedom of navigation must be guaranteed. Hence, the NSR can easily become another 'apple of discord' between Moscow and other regional and global players.

The new strategy does not clarify US policy on the European anti-ballistic missile defense system. This is a bad sign for the Kremlin because it means that the Obama administration intends to proceed with the previously approved US/NATO concept of the European ABM defense system, which basically ignores Russia's security concerns and proposals on creation of a joint ABM system in the region. Moscow insists that any Europe-based ABM defense system (without Moscow's participation) will inevitably affect Russian security in a negative way. Amidst the Russian parliamentary election campaign last fall, President Medvedev even threatened retaliatory measures such as activation of the Russian radar systems in the country's Western regions, deployment of additional missiles and aircraft in the Kaliningrad region (to target potential ABMs and their infrastructure) and equipping Russian strategic rockets with MIRVed (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle) warheads.

The new doctrine pays great attention to the need to develop the US capabilities to resist cyber espionage and attacks on the country. However, the sources of these threats are not specified. Given the recent allegations made by the US intelligence community and FBI Director Robert Mueller that China and Russia mainly stand behind cyber espionage and attacks on America, the Kremlin can assume that Washington plans to be prepared for future cyber warfare with Moscow.

The new doctrine calls for a tougher policy on the Iranian nuclear program. This can become another bone of contention between the US and Russia because Moscow prefers negotiations with Tehran rather than sanctions and military pressure on this country - the approach that is increasingly being taken by the Obama administration.

Moscow is pleased with Obama saying that the US military will be leaner, but it cannot ignore the fact that the US will maintain a budget that is roughly larger than the next 10 countries' military budgets combined. Moreover, Obama pointed out that the US defense budget would still be larger than it was at the end of the Bush administration.

Finally, the Kremlin has to take into account that the implementation of the new American defense doctrine will start only in 2013 while the question whether the Obama administration will survive the next presidential elections remains open.

In sum, Moscow still has some grounds to keep a wary eye on the recent US military doctrine. This may undermine the mutual trust that emerged in the US-Russia bilateral relations with the launch of the Obama 'reset' strategy and hinder further rapprochement between the two countries.