How To Interpret Russia's Latest Posturing

It may not be newsworthy that a pair of nuclear-armed Russian submarines was caught patrolling near the U.S. coast. But it was bound to make headlines no less, and for that alone it is worth asking: What kind of signal is Moscow trying to send?

Before reading too much into the story it should be added that a similar controversy stoked tensions after Russia resumed cross-Atlantic flights of nuclear-armed bombers in 2007. Nothing much came of the episode, and relations returned to normal (which were not that good at the time anyway).

Still, the timing of the latest military posturing is noteworthy. Russia has ratcheted up its incendiary rhetoric ahead of the one-year anniversary of its war with Georgia. A flare-up of violence along the South Ossetian border has kept the situation there tense. And President Dmitry Medvedev, after wishing President Obama a happy birthday by telephone, reportedly discussed the escalating tensions in the Caucasus. His Georgian counterpart, Mikhail “Misha” Saakashvili, has also accused Russia of violating the terms of the truce by blocking access to EU monitors to the provinces.

But don’t look for a beer summit at the White House between Misha, Medvedev, and Obama anytime soon. Washington has taken a hands-off approach to the dispute and called for greater diplomacy and engagement to resolve their differences.

When it has waded into Russian-Georgian affairs, the tone has been mostly admonitory. Vice President Joseph Biden on his recent visit to the region effectively told the Georgians to cool it, withholding from them anti-aircraft and anti-tank hardware and refusing their request to send U.S. monitors to the region. Obama, meanwhile, is reported to have told Medvedev privately in Moscow that the United States would not sit by idly were Russia and Georgia to square off again, nor would Washington or anyone outside of Nicaragua ever recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

That has set the stage for both Russia and Georgia to be forced like schoolchildren separated after a fight to lash out verbally at one another but unable to get back into the ring.

The upturn in U.S.-Russian tensions also follows the disparaging remarks made by Biden, in which he called Russia out on its poor demographic trends, its “withering” economy, and its “clinging to something in the past” (note to this administration: lose the word “clinging” from all future off-the-cuff interviews). His remarks predictably drew a revanchist response from the Kremlin (“perplexing,” offered Medvedev’s chief foreign policy adviser). And they seemed to poison the well of goodwill after Obama’s otherwise successful first visit.

All of which brings us back to why Russian submarines are poking around the East Coast. The knee-jerk answer from U.S. hardliners: Russia, its hands tied in the Caucasus, has sought other arenas to project itself militarily and politically abroad. Oil prices are nudging back upwards. And Russia has a habit of making news in August, when its leaders take off for the Black Sea and the rest of the world checks out on summer recess. Even Vladimir Putin baring his ripped torso on Lake Baikal seems almost like a veiled message to portray Russian strength abroad.

Yet if Russia bristles when Biden says it is “clinging to something in the [cold war] past,” then moving its submarines 200 miles off our coast is an excellent way to prove him and American hardliners right. Even if not provocative, the move smacks of desperation. After all, Russia’s navy is but a shell of its former self. Most likely, as happened in 2007, the episode will blow over and relations will resume on their upward trajectory. This is not cause to sound the alarm, but rather just Russia being Russia. Nor is it to downplay Russian military maneuvers in the world, but only to assume there will be these minor hiccups from time to time.

The Obama administration is right to keep its eyes on the prize--better relations and breakthroughs with Moscow on longstanding disagreements--and ignore Russia's macho posturing.

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