THE BLOG

US Needs to Think Twice About Antagonizing Russia

06/24/2015 10:09 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

Whether it's a bluff or not, one cannot fathom why the West and specifically NATO would condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin following his decision to place more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) into service this year. After all, his decision is a direct response to the United States' own announcement that it intends to place heavy weapons in Eastern Europe, basically at Russia's very doorstep.

"If someone threatens our territories, it means that we will have to aim our armed forces accordingly at the territories from where the threat is coming," Putin said during a visit with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö last week. "How else could it be? It is NATO that is approaching our borders, it's not like we are moving anywhere."

To which President Niinistö noted (and with great accuracy): "Europe is not in a state of peace."

So just what was the United States thinking? Did it and its NATO allies think Russia would welcome such a move?

The thinking of moving heavy weapons near Russia's border betrays poor judgment and frankly a certain level of idiocy associated with our foreign policymakers, to say the least. Granted, tensions between the West, headed by the United States, and Russia, increasingly aggressive, stem from the latter's annexation of Crimea. However, if the situation escalates, it could bring NATO and Russia closer to war, a conflagration that would end only with complete destruction on both sides.

When addressing reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov argued that Putin's decision to place more than 40 new ICBMs was justified. Russia's argument is that NATO's military infrastructure near Russia's border represents a national security threat. And one can understand why Putin would want to display his country's nuclear might. Frankly, the United States would act similarly if Russia placed nuclear missiles near our borders.

But the broader point is this: Military tit-for-tat is a dangerous, unconstructive and confrontational endeavor that, without constant, almost hourly oversight and shrewd and nuanced diplomacy, can have grave consequences. One only has to recall how both countries, Russia and the United States, came close to all-out nuclear war during the tense, 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

I believe NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has serious and legitimate concerns regarding Putin's statement, including the Russian president's "admission that he considered putting Russia's nuclear forces on alert while Russia was annexing Crimea." However, the issue goes beyond military movement in Eastern Europe or the activation of missiles. It takes in the complexities of geopolitics, which means it confounds most people with its mix of economics and power.

Whether Saudi leadership or the United States is to blame is irrelevant at this point. The drastic drop in oil prices caused by record levels of oil production here and abroad has one objective among any others: seriously damaging Russia's economy, thus rendering its military capabilities weak. As long as tensions continue between the West and Russia, the possibility exists that the price of oil could go as low as $20 a barrel. That would make it difficult for Russia to invest in its military.

If history is any guide, a similar scenario happened in 1941 when the United States imposed a devastating oil embargo on Japan, which resulted in the latter losing 92 percent of its oil imports and sparked the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet, this strategy of cutting oil prices is currently pitting Iran, Russia, and China against the United States in three geographical areas: the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia, respectively.

China is the clear beneficiary of all this chaos. With upheaval elsewhere, the United States' declared focus on Asia drifts elsewhere. China can further cement its "Silk Road" toward the Middle East, both overland and maritime. With its economic preeminence and military upgrades, it obviously intends to stand its ground against any effort by the United States to influence the Pacific region.

Ongoing turmoil in the Middle East -- mainly civil war in Syria and Iran's negotiations with the West -- neatly serves Russia's regional interests. For instance, Washington -- despite its shortsightedness -- is well aware that it will be impossible to reach a deal with Iran over its nuclear program without Russia's assistance. And not reaching a deal over Iran's nuclear program gives war hawks in Washington much-needed ammunition to use for their absurd narrative of bombing Iran, which of course would plunge us into war. In the process, our focus would leave Eastern Europe with the Russians suddenly assuming greater dominance there.

Washington must be very careful not to antagonize Russia to the point of humiliation. NATO and the United States simply do not need an unpredictable, impulsive Russia in a world already marked by political chaos, religious tensions, security instability and shifting priorities. After all, no other country besides Russia has a military stockpile of approximately 4,500 nuclear warheads, including 1,800 strategic warheads deployed on missiles and at bomber bases in addition to 700 strategic warheads that are in storage along with roughly 2,700 non-strategic ones.

Think twice about knocking the chip off this particular bear's shoulder.

One other thing: The United States, a major contributor to NATO's budget, is dealing with way too many conflicts at present. It spends 3.6 percent or $585 billion of its gross domestic product on NATO defense. Why should the United States provide the bulk of NATO's spending -- some 75 percent -- when the latter's very relevancy is in question?

I fear U.S. foreign policy has become dependent on politicians who prefer short-term gains over long-term strategies. They prefer confrontation instead of diplomacy. And they're easy to recognize: They care more about their political careers, status and power than doing the right thing -- and dragging our country into unnecessary military confrontations would not be the right thing.

Thomas Jefferson was right: "I abhor war and view it as the greatest scourge of mankind." Yet, how impatient some of us seem to be for yet more of it.