Fortenberry reacts to Russian military maneuvers

LINCOLN – In his latest Fort Report column, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry says recent military maneuvers ordered by Russian President Vladmir Putin may have greater meaning than testing a new U.S.  President.

He notes that Putin’s popularity is lagging among young Russians and foreign wars, but policies of Russian aggression and expansion continue.

Here is the congressman’s Fort Report:

This week, while I was poring over, line by line, tens of billions of dollars in proposed defense spending, Russian President Vladimir Putin, as if on cue, amassed and then suddenly un-amassed a massive contingent of Russian forces at the Ukraine border.  These maneuvers had several intended audiences: to prove to the Russian people that he was still capable of big things, to signal to the new Biden Administration that he was not going away, and to warn the European Union, Ukraine, and NATO to not trifle with him.

As a Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, I have frontline responsibility to wisely spend your money to keep you safe.  As founder of the Congressional Nuclear Security Working Group and representative of a Nebraska district that includes a key piece of American security infrastructure––Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue––I have a necessary special interest in Russia, our chief nuclear adversary.  

The President of Russia’s actions this week and last might seem like standard operating procedure in the complicated history of U.S.-Russia relations.  But I sensed something different this time that departed from predictable DC caricatures of Putin and Russia.  With his toughest and most popular critic, Alexei Navalny, gaining global stature from a hunger strike in a Russian prison hospital, a strong distaste among his people for new wars abroad, and his popularity at an all-time low among Russian youth, the President of Russia was going beyond his normal testing of a new American Administration.  This became clear on Wednesday of this week, when Putin pronounced, in his annual state-of-the-nation address, that if any country crosses his “red line,” Russia’s response would be “asymmetric, fast, and tough.”

After years of probing U.S. resolve, and with neighboring Belarus sending up flares that it too, like Crimea before it, could be a willing candidate for annexation, Putin might be poised to boldly act.  With U.S. and Russian land-based nuclear missiles on ever-present alert, any miscalculation by either side could have catastrophic consequences.

Also this week, in a separate meeting with our key ally, Great Britain, we discussed their latest defense document: Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy.  It’s a long name with a singular aim–– a 21st architecture for safety and well-being grounded in defense but including much more.  The document contained a notable proposition––an increased determination to seek multilateral solutions to biodiversity and climate change.  

The bottom line is that Russia and the U.S. have enough nuclear weapons to destroy one another many times over.  The challenge is how to maintain necessary strategic deterrence and some strategic settlement that both prevents hostilities and works toward projects of mutual benefit.  In the spirit of yesterday’s celebration of Earth Day, and a growing push by young people worldwide for better biosphere sensitivity, it’s a notable development of military doctrine elsewhere (and here) to think through how natural security affects national security.

When it feels hemmed in, a bear is most likely to lash out.  While there are no easy answers to an aggressive, expansive Russia, looking for real points of mutual interest, such as environmental security, can enhance different types of strategic dialogue.  I have no illusions about Russian interest in environmental affairs, given how dependent the country is on hydrocarbons for economic and political stability.  But a holistic integrated approach to our safety and defense requires these issues be on the agenda.  It seems a risk worth taking to avoid the unthinkable.