Reshaping US Space Policy: Let us Get Real about the Russians and Ourselves


2014-07-01 By Robbin Laird

The response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea has been disbelief, denial or condemnation.

The reality is that the Russians are a nationalistic power whose leader sees the post-Soviet order as illegitimate as many Germans saw the Versailles settlement after World War I.

Clearly, Putin understands that both cooperation and competition are essential in the 21st century, but he is focused on maximizing Russian resources – natural and technological – to shape a more powerful position for Russia in the period ahead.

Sanctions as a response are so-late 20th century and do not recognize that the interest groups in the West which benefit most from working with the Russians will work hard to deflect the impact of such sanctions.

No greater example of this could be a former Chancellor of Germany who is a beneficiary from the Russian energy complex travelling to Russia in the height of the first phase of the Ukrainian crisis. Former German Chancellor Schröder celebrated his 70th birthday with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of April. Putin welcomed his friend at a reception organized by Nord Stream AG, a pipeline operator controlled by Russian gas giant OAO Gazprom. Mr. Schröder is chairman of Nord Stream’s shareholder committee.

Russian tanks and soldiers storm a Ukrainian air force base in Belbek near the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 22, 2014. (Viktor Drachev / AFP/Getty Images).
Russian tanks and soldiers storm a Ukrainian air force base in Belbek near the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 22, 2014. (Viktor Drachev / AFP/Getty Images).

A seminal Latvian report on the Russian rethink and reshaping of their approach to military power as an integral element of augmenting their “soft” power underscored how the West needs to get realistic with regards to Putin and the nationalistic Russians but feared that the growing stake which the West has in Russia will simply blunt the West’s ability to understand its own interests.

As the author of the report on Russia’s New Generation Warfare noted,

“Economic interests are more important to some politicians than moral issues. One example is a document from the United Kingdom’s government stating that there should not be trade and financial sanctions against Russia so as not to harm the City of London.”

New Generation Warfare

One of the greatest failures of Western strategic thinking and of the strategic class is to assume progress for the inevitability of globalization when history does not operate that way.  There is no inevitability of progress; there is the certainty of conflict, entropy, collapse and development.

The 21st century is not one of the making of thought of Condorcet but of one where progress can be forged only in the midst of conflict and for the democracies this always is a challenge to manage an effective way ahead where dictators and authoritarian regimes persist in their efforts to set global agendas to their benefit, by taking actions, not simply talking at conferences.

As Putin rewrites the map and inserts his interpretation of Russian interests into the Western calculus, Western states need to rethink and rework a number of core agenda items to ensure that Putin and like-minded Russians understand that aggression has a significant cost.  Simply generating sanctions as a substitute for more fundamental shifts in policy will be seen as a short-term and short-sighted solution that will go away as vested interests in the West succeed in their rollback.

To be effective, key Western states need to take hard decisions and to shape new strategic realities, which the Russians will themselves need to adjust to in order not be marginalized in the global competition.

The Mistral Case

One example of a hard decision would be for the French to reverse their sale of amphibious ships to the Russians. The Russians are the throes of buying 2-4 Mistral ships from the French.

But these amphibious ships will include ice-hardened versions, which certainly the Nordics and the Balts understand where they will be used, and as these countries focus on deepening their joint defense, adding new capabilities to the Russians who are precisely the threat makes little sense.

The level of anger in the Nordics is very high. While the Northern Europeans, and the Baltic states in NATO are focusing on dealing with the direct threat of Russia to the North of Europe, it makes little sense for France to simply provide new warships for the Russians to be used precisely in this region.

The US Mistral: Dealing with Space Dependencies

In many ways, U.S. space policy and its dependence on the Russians is the functional equivalent of the Mistral challenge.

Dependency is significant in terms of the engines used by one of the two key rockets used by the Pentagon, and indeed in the views of many experts, the better of the two rockets.

The Soyuz space capsule approaches the International Space Station. Credit Photo: NASA
The Soyuz space capsule approaches the International Space Station. Credit Photo: NASA

Also, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, only the Soyuz is available currently for moving humans to the Space Station. And with the Russians in a central place in Space Station policy, the Russians can play havoc with the U.S. equity in the Space Station. This was not a Russian trick but deliberate US policy.

Reversing course is doable but costly.

But in the presence of Russian map-making, it is essential.

And past decisions such as NOT building a domestic variant of the RD-180 engine, not pursuing an effective alternative to the Space Shuttle, and not working with the Europeans on ATV as a player in an alternative Space Station policy are all parts of taking a relaxed view of Russian involvement in a number of strategic areas for US space policy.

Such a relaxed view, which really was done because of the absence of U.S. effort and investment, will only aid and abet further Russian map making. And the current Administration which clearly committed itself to a “re-set” of policy towards Russia as opposed to make tough decisions about building real space capabilities, needs to stop the rhetoric and get on with policies to build real capabilities.

And one can hope that a side bar debate about the role of Space-X in the nation’s launch future is not used a diversion from getting on with central decisions about whether the US intends or not become a 21st century space power, rather than operating as a custodian for what we did in the 20th century.

The 21st century is not the 20th; and this is not the replay of the Cold War.

It is something profoundly different than what the US policy community is focused upon. The Russians are not accepting the nice divide between soft and hard power, which folks who believe in the inevitability of globalization eliminating military conflict continue to push.

Rather the Russians under Putin understand that carrots and sticks and pressures combined with tactical flexibility can advance a national agenda.

Particularly when your competitors unilaterally eliminate core capabilities in key sectors, like the US has done in space, you can use their weaknesses to your advantage.

This is about power; in which military power used as a leverage tool can be very effective.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared in Space News:

US Needs to Get Real About Russia June 30 2014