The president of Syria spent two days this week in Russia with a shopping list of sophisticated weapons he wanted to buy. The visit may prove a worrisome preview of things to come.
If Russia’s invasion of Georgia ushers in a sustained period of renewed animosity with the West, Washington fears that a newly emboldened but estranged Moscow could use its influence, money, energy resources, United Nations Security Council veto and, yes, its arms industry to undermine American interests around the world.
Although Russia has long supplied arms to Syria, it has held back until now on providing the next generation of surface-to-surface missiles. But the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, made clear that he was hoping to capitalize on rising tensions between Moscow and the West when he rushed to the resort city of Sochi to meet with his Russian counterpart, Dmitri A. Medvedev.
The list of ways a more hostile Russia could cause problems for the United States extends far beyond Syria and the mountains of Georgia. In addition to escalated arms sales to other anti-American states like Iran and Venezuela, policy makers and specialists in Washington envision a freeze on counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation cooperation, manipulation of oil and natural gas supplies, pressure against United States military bases in Central Asia and the collapse of efforts to extend cold war-era arms control treaties.
“It’s Iran, it’s the U.N., it’s all the counterterrorism and counternarcotics programs, Syria, Venezuela, Hamas — there are any number of issues over which they can be less cooperative than they’ve been,” said Angela E. Stent, who served as the top Russia officer at the United States government’s National Intelligence Council until 2006 and now directs Russian studies at Georgetown University. “And of course, energy.”
Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor and the chief Russia adviser for Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said Russia appeared intent on trying to “disrupt the international order” and had the capacity to succeed. “The potential is big because at the end of the day, they are the hegemon in that region and we are not and that’s a fact,” Professor McFaul said.
Russia may yet hold back from some of the more disruptive options depending on how both sides play these next few weeks and months. Many in Washington hope Russia will restrain itself out of its own self-interest; Moscow, for instance, does not want Iran to have nuclear weapons, nor does it want the Taliban to regain power in Afghanistan. Dmitri Rogozin, a hard-liner who serves as Russia’s ambassador to NATO, told the newspaper Izvestia this week that Moscow still wanted to support the alliance in Afghanistan. “NATO’s defeat in Afghanistan would not be good for us,” he said.
Moscow may also be checked by the desire of its economic elite to remain on the path to integration with the rest of the world. The main Russian stock index fell sharply in recent days, costing investors $10 billion — many with close ties to the circle of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin.
Still, although the confrontation over Georgia had been building for years, the outbreak of violence demonstrated just how abruptly the international scene can change. Now Russia is the top focus in Washington and some veteran diplomats fret about the situation spiraling out of control.
“Outrage is not a policy,” said Strobe Talbott, who was deputy secretary of state under President Clinton and is now the president of the Brookings Institution. “Worry is not a policy. Indignation is not a policy. Even though outrage, worry and indignation are all appropriate in this situation, they shouldn’t be mistaken for policy and they shouldn’t be mistaken for strategy.”
For Washington, there are limited options for applying pressure. Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, wants to throw Russia out of the Group of 8 major powers. Such a move would effectively admit the failure of 17 years of bipartisan policy aimed at incorporating Russia into the international order.
Yet Washington’s menu of options pales by comparison to Moscow’s. Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said “there’s a lot more” that the United States needed from Russia than the other way around, citing efforts to secure old Soviet nuclear arms, support the war effort in Afghanistan and force Iran and North Korea to give up nuclear programs. “Hence Russia has all the leverage,” she said.
In forecasting Russia’s potential for causing headaches, most specialists look first to Ukraine, which wants to join NATO. The nightmare scenario circulating in recent days is an attempt by Moscow to claim the strategic Crimean peninsula to secure access to the Black Sea. Ukrainian lawmakers are investigating reports that Russia has been granting passports en masse to ethnic Russians living in Crimea, a tactic Moscow used in the Georgian breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to justify intervention to protect its citizens.
Arms sales, as Mr. Assad’s visit underscored, represent another way Russia could create problems. Israeli and Western governments have already been alarmed about reports that the first elements of the Russian-built S-300 antiaircraft missile system are now being delivered to Iran, which could use them to shoot down any American or Israeli planes that seek to bomb nuclear facilities should that ever be attempted.
While Mr. Rogozin expressed support for assisting NATO in the war in Afghanistan, other officials have warned darkly about cutting off ties with NATO. The two sides have already effectively suspended any military cooperation programs. But Russia could also revoke its decision in April to allow NATO to send nonlethal supplies overland through its territory en route to Afghanistan.
Russia could also turn up pressure on Kyrgyzstan to evict American forces that support operations in Afghanistan and could block any large-scale return to Uzbekistan, which expelled the Americans in 2005. “The argument would be, ‘Why help NATO?’ ” said Celeste A. Wallander, a Russia scholar at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.
Even beyond the dispute over Iran, Russia could obstruct the United States at the United Nations Security Council on a variety of other issues. Just last month, Russia vetoed sanctions against Zimbabwe’s government, a move seen as a slap at Washington.
“If Russia’s feeling churlish, they can pretty much bring to a grinding halt any kind of coercive actions, like economic sanctions or anything else,” said Peter D. Feaver, a former strategic adviser at the National Security Council.
Russia could also accelerate its withdrawal from arms control structures. It already has suspended the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty to protest American missile defense plans and threatened to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. Renewed tension could fray a recently signed civilian nuclear cooperation agreement and doom negotiations to extend soon-to-expire strategic arms control verification programs.
“Ironically, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there’s always been the concern about Russia becoming a spoiler,” said Ms. Stent, of Georgetown, “and now we could see the realization of that.”