The Russian military was clearly superior to that of a small country in its “near abroad”—Georgia—but is a “resurgent” Russia a threat to the United States? If the United States insists on expanding its informal empire into Russia’s nearby sphere of influence, it has to expect some pushback from a Russia that is no longer as weak as it once was and is resentful at having been trampled on during the 1990s and early 2000s.

At the end of the Cold War, the United States pledged verbally to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that if the U.S.S.R. allowed Germany to reunite and embed in NATO, the U.S. would not expand the alliance, which the bear perceives as hostile. The United States, however, violated this promise and repeatedly expanded NATO—inducting former Soviet Warsaw Pact allies in Eastern Europe and even former Soviet republics (the Baltic states). (Incredibly, even after the U.S. and NATO were proved impotent in helping Georgia during its recent war with Russia, the Bush administration is still pressuring its reluctant European allies to admit Georgia and the Ukraine, an even more important former Soviet republic on Russia’s border). Further showing that the U.S. foreign policy elite never ended the Cold War have been repeated acts by both Democratic and Republican presidents to thumb their nose at a weakened Russia—for example, winning U.S. access to military bases in former Soviet Central Asia, rerouting energy pipelines from the oil-rich Caspian Sea around Russian territory, and planning to build missile defense installations in the territories of former Soviet allies Poland and the Czech Republic.

But the bear is now coming out of a long hibernation a bit rejuvenated. Using increased petroleum revenues from the oil price spike, the Russians will hike defense spending 26 percent next year to about $50 billion—the highest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet as the oil price declines from this historic high, Russia will have fewer revenues to increase defense spending and rebuild its military.

Even the $50 billion a year has to be put in perspective. The United States is spending about $700 billion per year on defense and starting from a much higher plain of capability. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian military fell apart and was equivalent to that of a developing country. Even the traditionally hawkish U.S. military and defense leaders and analysts are not worried about Russia’s plans to buy modern arms, improve military living standards to attract better senior enlisted personnel, enhance training, and cut back the size of the bloated forces and officer corps. For example, Eugene B. Rumer of the U.S. National Defense University was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that Russian actions are “not a sign, really, of the Russian military being reborn, but more of a Russia being able to flex what relatively little muscle it has on the global scale, and to show that t actually matters.”[1]

In addition, the Russian military is very corrupt—with an estimated 40 percent of the money for some weapons and pay for personnel being stolen or wasted. This makes the amount of real defense spending far below the nominal $50 billion per year.

U.S. analysts say, however, that increased military spending would allow Russia to have more influence over nations in its near abroad and Eastern Europe. Of course, throughout history, small countries living in the shadow of larger powers have had to make political, diplomatic, and economic adjustments to suit the larger power. Increased Russian influence in this sphere, however, should not necessarily threaten the security of the faraway United States. It does only because the United States has defined its security as requiring intrusions into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. By expanding NATO into Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the United States has guaranteed the security of these allied countries against a nuclear-armed power, in the worst case, by sacrificing its cities in a nuclear war. Providing this kind of guarantee for these non-strategic countries is not in the U.S. vital interest. Denying Russia the sphere of influence in nearby areas traditionally enjoyed by great powers (for example, the U.S. uses the Monroe Doctrine to police the Western Hemisphere) will only lead to unnecessary U.S.-Russian tension and possibly even cataclysmic war.

[1] Quoted in Thom Shanker, “Russia Is Striving to Modernize Its Military, the U.S. Notes With Interest, Not Alarm,” New York Times, October 20, 2008, p. A8.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute and Director of the Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty.
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