There are several low-budget ways for Russia to put the US off-balance on its own turf.
Russia is attempting to reforge its Cold War-era influence in its
near abroad. This is not simply an issue of nostalgia, but a perfectly
logical and predictable reaction to the Russian environment. Russia
lacks easily definable, easily defendable borders. There is no redoubt
to which the Russians can withdraw, and the only security they know
comes from establishing buffers — buffers which tend to be lost in
times of crisis. The alternative is for Russia to simply trust other
states to leave it alone. Considering Russia’s history of occupations,
from the Mongol horde to Napoleonic France to Hitler’s Germany, it is
not difficult to surmise why the Russians tend to choose a more
activist set of policies.
As such, the country tends to expand and contract like a beating
heart — gobbling up nearby territories in times of strength, and then
contracting and losing those territories in times of weakness. Rather
than what Westerners think of as a traditional nation-state, Russia has
always been a multiethnic empire, heavily stocked with non-Russian (and
even non-Orthodox) minorities. Keeping those minorities from damaging
central control requires a strong internal security and intelligence
arm, and hence we get the Cheka, the KGB, and now the FSB.
Nature of the budding conflict
Combine a security policy thoroughly wedded to expansion with an
internal stabilization policy that institutionalizes terror, and it is
understandable why most of Russia’s neighbors do not like Moscow very
much. A fair portion of Western history revolves around the formation
and shifting of coalitions to manage Russian insecurities.
In the American case specifically, the issue is one of continental
control. The United States is the only country in the world that
effectively controls an entire continent. Mexico and Canada have been
sufficiently intimidated so that they can operate independently only in
a very limited sense. (Technically, Australia controls a continent, but
with the some 85 percent of its territory unusable, it is more accurate
in geopolitical terms to think of it as a small archipelago with some
very long bridges.) This grants the United States not only a
potentially massive internal market, but also the ability to project
power without the fear of facing rearguard security threats. U.S.
forces can be focused almost entirely on offensive operations, whereas
potential competitors in Eurasia must constantly be on their guard
about the neighbors.
The only thing that could threaten U.S. security would be the rise
of a Eurasian continental hegemon. For the past 60 years, Russia (or
the Soviet Union) has been the only entity that has had a chance of
achieving that, largely due to its geographic reach. U.S. strategy for
coping with this is simple: containment, or the creation of a network
of allies to hedge in Russian political, economic and military
expansion. NATO is the most obvious manifestation of this policy
imperative, while the Sino-Soviet split is the most dramatic one.
Containment requires that United States counter Russian expansionism
at every turn, crafting a new coalition wherever Russia attempts to
break out of the strategic ring, and if necessary committing direct
U.S. forces to the effort. The Korean and Vietnam
wars — both traumatic periods in American history — were manifestations
of this effort, as were the Berlin airlift and the backing of Islamist
militants in Afghanistan (who incidentally went on to form al Qaeda).
The Georgian war in August was simply the first effort by a
resurging Russia to pulse out, expand its security buffer and, ideally,
in the Kremlin’s plans, break out of the post-Cold War noose that other
powers have tied. The Americans (and others) will react as they did
during the Cold War: by building coalitions to constrain Russian
expansion. In Europe, the challenges will be to keep the Germans on board
and to keep NATO cohesive. In the Caucasus, the United States will need
to deftly manage its Turkish alliance and find a means of engaging
Iran. In China and Japan, economic conflicts will undoubtedly take a
backseat to security cooperation.
Russia and the United States will struggle in all of these areas,
consisting as they do the Russian borderlands. Most of the locations
will feel familiar, as Russia’s near abroad has been Russia’s near
abroad for nearly 300 years. Those locations — the Baltics, Austria,
Ukraine, Serbia, Turkey, Central Asia and Mongolia — that defined
Russia’s conflicts in times gone by will surface again. Such is the
tapestry of history: the major powers seeking advantage in the same
places over and over again.
The new old-front
But not all of those fronts are in Eurasia. So long as U.S. power
projection puts the Russians on the defensive, it is only a matter of
time before something along the cordon cracks and the Russians are
either fighting a land war or facing a local insurrection. Russia must
keep U.S. efforts dispersed and captured by events as far away from the
Russian periphery as possible — preferably where Russian strengths can
exploit American weakness.
So where is that?
Geography dictates that U.S. strength involves coalition building
based on mutual interest and long-range force projection, and internal
U.S. harmony is such that America’s intelligence and security agencies
have no need to shine. Unlike Russia, the United States does not have
large, unruly, resentful, conquered populations to keep in line. In
contrast, recall that the multiethnic nature of the Russian state
requires a powerful security and intelligence apparatus. No place
better reflects Russia’s intelligence strengths and America’s
intelligence weakness than Latin America.
The United States faces no traditional security threats in its
backyard. South America is in essence a hollow continent, populated
only on the edges and thus lacking a deep enough hinterland to ever
coalesce into a single hegemonic power. Central America and southern
Mexico are similarly fractured, primarily due to rugged terrain.
Northern Mexico (like Canada) is too economically dependent upon the
United States to seriously consider anything more vibrant than
ideological hostility toward Washington. Faced with this kind of local
competition, the United States simply does not worry too much about the
rest of the Western Hemisphere — except when someone comes to visit.
Stretching back to the time of the Monroe Doctrine, Washington’s
Latin American policy has been very simple. The United States does not
feel threatened by any local power, but it feels inordinately
threatened by any Eastern Hemispheric power that could ally with a
local entity. Latin American entities cannot greatly harm American
interests themselves, but they can be used as fulcrums by hostile
states further abroad to strike at the core of the United States’
power: its undisputed command of North America.
It is a fairly straightforward exercise to predict where Russian
activity will reach its deepest. One only needs to revisit Cold War
history. Future Russian efforts can be broken down into three broad
categories: naval interdiction, drug facilitation and direct
Naval interdiction represents the longest sustained fear of American
policymakers. Among the earliest U.S. foreign efforts after securing
the mainland was asserting control over the various waterways used for
approaching North America. Key in this American geopolitical imperative
is the neutralization of Cuba. All the naval power-projection
capabilities in the world mean very little if Cuba is both hostile and
serving as a basing ground for an extra-hemispheric power.
The U.S. Gulf Coast is not only the heart of the country’s energy
industry, but the body of water that allows the United States to
function as a unified polity and economy. The Ohio, Missouri, and
Mississippi river basins all drain to New Orleans
and the Gulf of Mexico. The economic strength of these basins depends
upon access to oceanic shipping. A hostile power in Cuba could fairly
easily seal both the Straits of Florida and the Yucatan Channel,
reducing the Gulf of Mexico to little more than a lake.
Building on the idea of naval interdiction, there is another key
asset the Soviets targeted at which the Russians are sure to attempt a
reprise: the Panama Canal. For both economic and military reasons, it
is enormously convenient to not have to sail around the Americas,
especially because U.S. economic and military power is based on
maritime power and access. In the Cold War, the Soviets established
friendly relations with Nicaragua and arranged for a favorable
political evolution on the Caribbean island of Grenada. Like Cuba,
these two locations are of dubious importance by themselves. But take
them together — and add in a Soviet air base at each location as well
as in Cuba — and there is a triangle of Soviet airpower that can
threaten access to the Panama Canal.
The next stage — drug facilitation — is somewhat trickier. South
America is a wide and varying land with very little to offer Russian
interests. Most of the states are commodity providers, much like the
Soviet Union was and Russia is today, so they are seen as economic
competitors. Politically, they are useful as anti-American bastions, so
the Kremlin encourages such behavior whenever possible. But even if
every country in South America were run by anti-American governments,
it would not overly concern Washington; these states, alone or en
masse, lack the ability to threaten American interests … in all ways
The drug trade undermines American society from within, generating
massive costs for social stability, law enforcement, the health system
and trade. During the Cold War, the Soviets dabbled with narcotics
producers and smugglers, from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC) to the highland coca farmers of Bolivia. It is not so
much that the Soviets encouraged the drug trade directly, but that they
encouraged any group they saw as ideologically useful.
Stratfor expects future Russian involvement in such activities to
eclipse those of the past. After the Soviet fall, many FSB agents were
forced to find new means to financially support themselves. (Remember
it was not until 1999 that Vladimir Putin took over the Russian
government and began treating Russian intelligence like a bona fide
state asset again.) The Soviet fall led many FSB agents, who already
possessed more than a passing familiarity with things such as smuggling
and organized crime, directly into the heart of such activities. Most
of those agents are — formally or not — back in the service of the Russian government,
now with a decade of gritty experience on the less savory side of
intelligence under their belts. And they now have a deeply personal
financial interest in the outcome of future operations.
Drug groups do not need cash from the Russians, but they do need
weaponry and a touch of training — needs which dovetail perfectly with
the Russians’ strengths. Obviously, Russian state involvement in such
areas will be far from overt; it just does not do to ship weapons to
the FARC or to one side of the brewing Bolivian civil war with CNN
watching. But this is a challenge the Russians are good at meeting. One
of Russia’s current deputy prime ministers, Igor Sechin, was the USSR’s
point man for weapons smuggling to much of Latin America and the Middle
East. This really is old hat for them.
Finally, there is the issue of direct threats to U.S. stability, and
this point rests solely on Mexico. With more than 100 million people, a
growing economy and Atlantic and Pacific ports, Mexico is the only
country in the Western Hemisphere that could theoretically (which is
hardly to say inevitably) threaten U.S. dominance in North America.
During the Cold War, Russian intelligence gave Mexico more than its
share of jolts in efforts to cause chronic problems for the United
States. In fact, the Mexico City KGB station was, and remains today,
the biggest in the world. The Mexico City riots of 1968 were in part
Soviet-inspired, and while ultimately unsuccessful at overthrowing the
Mexican government, they remain a testament to the reach of Soviet
intelligence. The security problems that would be created by the
presence of a hostile state the size of Mexico on the southern U.S.
border are as obvious as they would be dangerous.
As with involvement in drug activities, which incidentally are
likely to overlap in Mexico, Stratfor expects Russia to be particularly
active in destabilizing Mexico in the years ahead. But while an
anti-American state is still a Russian goal, it is not their only
option. The Mexican drug cartels have reached such strength that the
Mexican government’s control over large portions of the country is an
open question. Failure of the Mexican state
is something that must be considered even before the Russians get
involved. And simply doing with the Mexican cartels what the Soviets
once did with anti-American militant groups the world over could
suffice to tip the balance.
In many regards, Mexico as a failed state would be a worse result
for Washington than a hostile united Mexico. A hostile Mexico could be
intimidated, sanctioned or even invaded, effectively browbeaten into
submission. But a failed Mexico would not restrict the drug trade at
all. The border would be chaos, and the implications of that go well
beyond drugs. One of the United States’ largest trading partners could
well devolve into a seething anarchy that could not help but leak into
the U.S. proper.
Whether Mexico becomes staunchly anti-American or devolves into the
violent chaos of a failed state does not matter much to the Russians.
Either one would threaten the United States with a staggering problem
that no amount of resources could quickly or easily fix. And the
Russians right now are shopping around for staggering problems with
which to threaten the United States.
In terms of cost-benefit analysis, all of these options are
no-brainers. Threatening naval interdiction simply requires a few jets.
Encouraging the drug trade can be done with a few weapons shipments.
Destabilizing a country just requires some creativity. However, countering
such activities requires a massive outlay of intelligence and military
assets — often into areas that are politically and militarily hostile,
if not outright inaccessible. In many ways, this is containment in
Old opportunities, new twists
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega has proven so enthusiastic in
his nostalgia for Cold War alignments that Nicaragua has already
recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two territories in the
former Soviet state (and U.S. ally) of Georgia that Russia went to war
to protect. That makes Nicaragua the only country in the world other
than Russia to recognize the breakaway regions. Moscow is quite
obviously pleased — and was undoubtedly working the system behind the
In Bolivia, President Evo Morales is attempting to rewrite the laws
that govern his country’s wealth distribution in favor of his poor
supporters in the indigenous highlands. Now, a belt of conflict
separates those highlands, which are roughly centered at the
pro-Morales city of Cochabamba, from the wealthier, more Europeanized
lowlands. A civil war is brewing — a conflict that is just screaming
for outside interference, as similar fights did during the Cold War. It
is likely only a matter of time before the headlines become splattered
with pictures of Kalashnikov-wielding Cochabambinos decrying American
Yet while the winds of history are blowing in the same old channels,
there certainly are variations on the theme. The Mexican cartels, for
one, were radically weaker beasts the last time around, and their
current strength and disruptive capabilities present the Russians with
So does Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a man so anti-American he
seems to be even a few steps ahead of Kremlin propagandists. In recent
days, Chavez has already hosted long-range Russian strategic bombers
and evicted the U.S. ambassador. A glance at a map indicates that
Venezuela is a far superior basing point than Grenada for threatening
the Panama Canal. Additionally, Chavez’s Venezuela has already
indicated both its willingness to get militarily involved in the
Bolivian conflict and its willingness to act as a weapons smuggler via
links to the FARC — and that without any heretofore detected Russian
involvement. The opportunities for smuggling networks — both old and
new — using Venezuela as a base are robust.
Not all changes since the Cold War are good for Russia, however.
Cuba is not as blindly pro-Russian as it once was. While Russian
hurricane aid to Cuba is a bid to reopen old doors, the Cubans are
noticeably hesitant. Between the ailing of Fidel Castro and the
presence of the world’s largest market within spitting distance, the
emerging Cuban regime is not going to reflexively side with the
Russians for peanuts. In Soviet times, Cuba traded massive Soviet
subsidies in exchange for its allegiance. A few planeloads of hurricane
aid simply won’t pay the bills in Havana, and it is still unclear how
much money the Russians are willing to come up with.
There is also the question of Brazil. Long gone is the dysfunctional
state; Brazil is now an emerging industrial powerhouse with an energy
company, Petroleo Brasileiro, of skill levels that outshine anything
the Russians have yet conquered in that sphere. While Brazilian
rhetoric has always claimed that Brazil was just about to come of age,
it now happens to be true. A rising Brazil is feeling its strength and
tentatively pushing its influence into the border states of Uruguay,
Paraguay and Bolivia, as well as into regional rivals Venezuela and
Argentina. Russian intervention tends to appeal to those who do not
feel they have meaningful control over their own neighborhoods. Brazil
no longer fits into that category, and it will not appreciate Russia’s
mucking around in its neighborhood.
A few weeks ago, Stratfor published a piece
detailing how U.S. involvement in the Iraq war was winding to a close.
We received many comments from readers applauding our optimism. We are
afraid that we were misinterpreted. “New” does not mean “bright” or
“better,” but simply different. And the dawning struggle in Latin
America is an example of the sort of “different” that the United States
can look forward to in the years ahead. Buckle up.
Peter Zeihan is a senior analyst at Stratfor, the world’s
leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence. This article was
first published on the Stratfor website.