By Charlie Johnston
(This piece is almost verbatim a copy of a reply I made to a commenter earlier today. I thought it important enough to use as a stand-alone column. This plays into what I have been saying about how things come into focus for the ultimate confrontation in this series of events. I really am baffled at how blind so many are to what seems obvious just from normal long-range strategic analysis. Putin is not playing chess while his opponents are playing checkers – his opponents haven’t even gotten out of the “Go Fish” stage of strategic thinking. And yet, the sophisticated gambit Russia is mounting now will steady the Christian world for the battle to come.-CJ)
I have been stunned at how puerile western commentary (including the normally solid National Review) – and even professional analysis of Russia and its strategy has been for almost a decade. A day before Russia invaded Crimea and the administration said it absolutely would not happen, several old colleagues out east called to get my take. I told them of course Russia would invade. Regardless of whether it had caused the problem or not, it had to secure its warm water port, so it would invade. Shortly after that, some of the same people called about western Ukraine and new reports that that was next. I told them not to worry – Putin would threaten, but it would only be a bargaining chip. Western Ukraine offered many problems and few benefits – so Putin would use western cluelessness to threaten, but was unlikely to actually invade Ukraine, for it was not in his perceived national interest to do so. Putin, while bold, is quite predictable – he always acts in his perceived national interest from his framework of making Russia a truly great power and defending against the inevitable confrontation with China. I was right on both counts, the media-governmental complex was wrong on both. I think the incoherence of American foreign policy has blinded American commentators from actually seeing coherent national-interest politics for what it is.
The estimable Charles Krauthammer starts to get a clue on this in this article today, but even he has not gotten the gist of it yet. This is the opening gambit in a bid for Russian diplomatic dominance in the Middle East – and it is specifically an appeal by Russia to Israel. Do not try to interpret this as a one-move act. This is a brilliantly played maneuver that will require several subsequent moves to succeed, but the payoff for Russia is enormous. Let me explain:
Bashar Assad is a monster, rightly seen as a pariah in all the world. Few nations in the Middle East trust Russia. Russia has to get its foothold somewhere – and Syria’s Assad is almost perfect on all counts. First, he is desperate enough to welcome Russia with open arms. If Russia comes in, firmly secures Assad in power, fighting whoever threatens that, Russia accomplishes three things:
1)It gets a major new warm water port from which to project power beyond its borders. A nice notice to China, which has deep maritime ambitions these days.
2) It gets a client state in the heart of the Middle East.
3) Most importantly, it demonstrates that an alliance with Russia is a solid bet, even if you are an international pariah. As America has proven it is neither serious foe nor steadfast ally to anyone, this is vitally important in a region which has been going up in flames. Watch as both Saudi Arabia and Egypt make strategic security alliances with Russia. The lesson will not be lost on Israel, a force for freedom and good in the region which is treated like an international pariah. If Assad is secured in Syria, Israel will forge serious ties with Russia – as it can’t even count on lip service from America any more. It will do so in a way that leaves the door open for a new American leader eventually, but it needs serious dependable allies NOW.
Once Israel has forged strong strategic ties with Russia, the latter is completely diplomatically dominant in the Middle East.
Putin has been brilliant on this. He has to first secure Assad’s rule in Syria to demonstrate he is an indispensably steadfast ally to the others he courts. To do this, the enemies of Assad must be his first target, not ISIS, which constitutes the greater threat. At the same time, he makes Jihadi John, the public face of ISIS, his number one target – even though Jihadi John is not a serious threat to Assad. That signals to the rest of the region that ISIS is Putin’s ultimate target, which adds more urgent motivation to the involved nations to ally with Russia.
This is brilliantly subtle great power statesmanship worthy of a Metternich or Kissinger. When American policy makers and commentators get beyond kindergarten level in geopolitical diplomacy, they may begin to understand it. Some of the folks at National Review have gotten to junior high level, but Putin is running some of the shrewdest power diplomacy the world has seen in a while.
As for those neophytes who ask about Russia’s alliance with China, of course it had to make that alliance – but only after it saw America had become completely feckless and unreliable. Russia knows China seeks hegemony in the region – and Russia is its ultimate target. Russia bought time because it saw it could not depend on the west. But note that every move Putin makes solidifies Russian defenses against any Chinese aggression. I will guarantee that China has noticed.