You’ve got to give Vladimir Putin his due: The man knows how to play a weak hand well.
With relatively little investment, the Russian leader is expanding his toehold in the Western Hemisphere and potentially getting access to giant oil and uranium supplies by backing a dictator in Venezuela.
With relatively little investment, he has expanded his base of operations in the Middle East by propping up a dictator in Syria and by trying to send some sophisticated Russian military equipment into Turkey. (For the latter effort, he’d actually turn a profit.)
And with relatively little investment, and little notice from a distracted international community, he has kept up a low-level war against those fighting a Russian takeover in eastern Ukraine, holding on to a bargaining chip he might find useful someday.
He does all this while overseeing an economy roughly the size of South Korea’s, which produces little or nothing the world wants to buy, outside of oil and military gear.
It’s an audacious strategy—and it is working. Never was that more clear than last week, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Boltoncited Russian support as the only reason Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro remained in his country in the face of an organized uprising by his opponents and elements of his own military.
.. In short, Mr. Putin appears to recognize the moment he is in, and what to do about it. After almost two decades of a focus on combating terrorism and Islamic extremism, the world is evolving into a new era of big-power competition. The U.S. and China are the two big competitors now, of course, but Mr. Putin is making sure Russia is the third.
His problem is that Russia doesn’t have the economic might of the U.S. and China. So he brings to the table what he can, which is basically the ability to make trouble and thereby insert himself into the global mix.
Thus, Russia became an early world leader in the 21st-century tool of unconventional combat—cyber warfare. The Kremlin combined that skill with its traditional willingness to engage in the dark arts of covert action to interfere with the 2016 election in the U.S., as well as other elections in the West.
As the U.S. tries to maintain economic pressure on North Korea, Russia provides just enough economic relief to Pyongyang to ensure that Moscow has to be a player in how the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program plays out.
Meanwhile, Mr. Putin is wedging himself into the space between East and West by offering to sell Russia’s S-400 air-defense system to Turkey, which happens to be a member of the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization. After members of Congress declared that Turkey couldn’t both buy the American-made F-35 jet fighter and have a Russian air-defense system geared toward shooting down that same jet, Russia stepped up and said it also would sell its own jet fighters to Turkey instead.
North from Syria, along the borders of Eastern Europe and rounding the Arctic Circle to the east, Russia has built a ring of air defenses that threaten the reach of the U.S. military, forcing Washington to rethink its place as the world’s undisputed air power.
Russia’s S-400 antiaircraft missile system, a nettlesome and potentially deadly aerial shield, is changing the calculus of the U.S. and its allies in potential hot spots, beginning with its deployment in Syria.
Radar employed by the S-400, which Russia claims can detect the latest stealth aircraft, casts a net around western Syria that stretches from Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea to Israel.
Proliferation of the S-400 system demonstrates how Russia is also investing heavily in traditional military firepower.
.. “We have to understand that the period of U.S. absolute dominance of the air is over,” said Elbridge Colby, the director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan defense think tank.
The Pentagon acknowledged that S-400 batteries in Syria have forced adjustments to coalition air operations, but it contended the U.S. in general still maintains freedom of movement in the air. “We can continue to operate where we need to be,” a U.S. defense official said.
.. Russia is “fielding military capabilities designed to deny America access in times of crisis and to contest our ability to operate freely,” a report said. “They are contesting our geopolitical advantages.”
A bipartisan commission established by Congress to evaluate President Trump’s defense strategy echoed those fears in a paper released in November. Russia, the commission concluded, was “seeking regional hegemony and the means to project power globally.”
.. Moscow isn’t eager to confront U.S. forces head-on: Russia has a military budget about a 10th the size of the Pentagon’s. Despite Russia’s intervention in Syria and invasion of Crimea, its air force and navy capabilities fall far short of the U.S. and China’s military.
In Syria, more Russian army personnel have been killed in plane crashes than enemy fire, according to official data. Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is being overhauled. In October, a crane fell on the vessel, causing serious, possibly irreparable damage to the carrier.
The S-400’s guided missiles are intended to give Russian President Vladimir Putin a lethal threat against Western military intervention should a crisis erupt on Russia’s European borders, in the Middle East or North Korea.
The presence of the S-400 in Syria has been an effective sales tool, drawing interest among both American foes and allies. Purchases by China and India, as well as prospective deals with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have raised alarms among officials in Washington and at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
By selling the S-400 to other countries, Russia spreads the cost of limiting U.S. forces.
“Russia doesn’t want military superiority, but it has ended the superiority of the West or the U.S.,” said Sergey Karaganov, a foreign-policy adviser to Mr. Putin. “Now, the West can no longer use force indiscriminately.”
.. The Pentagon said Russian measures have yet to change America’s position.
“The U.S. remains the pre-eminent military power in the world and continues to strengthen relationships with NATO allies and partners to maintain our strategic advantage,” said Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman. “The U.S. and our allies have quite a few measures at our disposal to ensure the balances of power remain in our favor.”
.. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. used its air superiority against foreign governments considered a threat. Afghanistan, Iraq and then Libya fell into the crosshairs.
In 2010, Mr. Putin announced a plan in to modernize Russia’s military, saying his nation would spend the equivalent of $650 billion over a decade. The plan included replacement and upgrades of aging Soviet antiaircraft and antiship defenses.
.. Russia’s preoccupation with defense is a product of its history, spanning past invasions by Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in the War of 1812 to Nazi troops during World War II.
“The Russian military is configured very differently from expeditionary powers like the United States,” said Michael Kofman, a research scientist at CNA, a nonprofit research group in Arlington, Va. “It’s not meant to mirror powers like the United States, it’s meant to counter them.”
Buyers of the S-400 face possible U.S. sanctions under a 2017 law that penalizes allies that do business with the Russian defense industry.
China received an S-400 shipment last year, and its Equipment Development Department, which oversaw the purchase, was sanctioned in September.
India agreed in October to a $5 billion-plus deal for the S-400 antiaircraft system. It hopes to evade sanctions, saying that as a U.S. security partner it can counterbalance China’s growing power. It is unclear whether Saudi Arabia’s deal with Russia will be completed because of likely U.S. pressure.
The Pentagon has objected to Turkey’s planned S-400 purchase, saying it would give Russia too close a view of NATO operations. Antiaircraft missile systems typically receive data from satellites as well as aircraft to detect attacks. Integration of the S-400 system on Turkish bases also would give Russia insight into radar-evading F-35 combat jets, U.S. officials said.
.. The S-400 hasn’t been tested in battle but on paper it outperforms the comparable U.S.-made Patriot system. Sales to China and India, along with prospective deals with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have raised alarms in the West.
.. Turkish officials said they need the antiaircraft system to shield the southern border with Syria. Washington installed U.S.-operated Patriot missiles in southern Turkey in 2013, after Syrian armed forces shot down a Turkish jet fighter killing two. The systems were removed in 2015 when the U.S. saw the threat from Syria fading.
The U.S. has since offered to sell Turkey its Patriot missile defense systems, and an American delegation was in Ankara last week to hash out the details. Still, Turkey said, it had no intentions of giving up the S-400 purchase.
.. The basic S-400 unit has four launchers carried on a wheeled transport vehicle. It takes about eight minutes to push the 33-foot launching tubes into a vertical position, initiate tracking radar and lock onto targets.
.. The bulk of Russia’s S-400s are deployed along the country’s western border; S-400 divisions also defend the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Several divisions are positioned on four of Russia’s Arctic territories. As polar ice gives way to global warming, both Washington and Moscow see the far north as a new frontier for Arctic sea travel, potentially connecting Asia and Europe, as well as a spot for energy exploration.
Washington accuses Moscow of violating the Cold War-era Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, saying the Russian 9M729 missile could fly at a range prohibited by the agreement. Russia says the missile doesn’t violate the agreement.
.. Looking ahead, Almaz-Antey, the Russian arms maker that builds the antiaircraft defense systems, is designing a more advanced S-500 model to counter next-generation hypersonic and intercontinental ballistic missiles.