The Russian populace has traditionally embraced xenophobia. For centuries they have generally viewed their nation as one being besieged by aggressive, opportunistic outsiders, eager to corrupt, pillage and destroy their land. History has supported this position. Russia, in spite of its colossal size and ability to absorb immense amounts of damage, has been invaded many times throughout the centuries. Mongols, Napoleon, Hitler, even the Swedes have all invaded Russia throughout the centuries. Napoleon and Hitler came dangerously close to succeeding. The Mongol hordes did succeed, ushering in an age of Tartar rule and the eventual division of Eastern Slavs into three separate nations.
With these examples in mind, it should come as no surprise that today the majority of Russians believe that the United States is deliberately attempting to encircle, weaken and possibly even destroy Russia. They view the expansion of NATO and the West’s commitment to democracy as a cloak, hiding US ambitions to increase its own power and leverage in an area that is Russia’s own sphere of influence. This view is shared by many in the Kremlin, especially Vladimir Putin. Russia’s actions in Georgia, and the Ukraine, have at least partly stemmed from the concern about NATO’s continuing encroachment on Russia’s western frontier. These actions have produced consequences of their own. The US military is re-pivoting to Europe and NATO is steadily positioning more military assets close to Russia’s borders. To put it another way, Russia is in the midst experiencing the security dilemma; the actions it is taking to increase its own security have led to its neighbors responding with similar measures. The primary danger arising from this type of situation is that it can bring about unintended consequences such as increased tension and conflict.
Now, Russia has to contend with a US/NATO a missile defense system in close proximity to its borders The appearance of Aegis Ashore in Romania did not come as a surprise, at least. The United States first began exploring the idea of basing a missile defense system in Eastern Europe back in the early 00s. Russia’s concerns had been made clear early on: a US missile defense shield in Eastern Europe represented a threat to Russia’s nuclear forces. The US assured Moscow that the purpose of a defensive system was to defend against ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East. Moscow remained skeptical and unsatisfied with this reasoning. US efforts to build and field the system moved forward with Russia’s concerns and views being summarily ignored and dismissed by two successive administrations in Washington.
Considering Moscow’s perception of US and NATO strategic intentions in the region, the Kremlin cannot simply ignore the existence of the system. This situation is somewhat different from NATO’s reinforcement in the east; a more direct, and permanent threat after a fashion. Aegis Ashore undermines Russia’s own strategic objectives in Eurasia, as well as its desire to achieve hegemony in its historic sphere of influence. Vladimir Putin’s dilemma will be in determining an appropriate response. The avenues available are paved with uncertainty, variables and potentially peril.
In Part 2 of this article, some of the options available to Putin will be laid out and examined. It will be posted Tuesday (Sorry, scheduling conflict, I need a bit more time) morning. Until then, enjoy the weekend.