Like two bullies taunting each other in a schoolyard, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been trading barbs since March. In response to Russia’s incursions into the Ukraine, on March 20 Obama blacklisted a bank and several wealthy businessmen with close ties to Putin. Obama targeted Sergei Ivanoff, the president’s chief of staff, Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire investor linked to Putin, and Yuri Kovalchuk, who is the personal banker for Russia’s leaders including Mr. Putin himself. At the time, Obama opened the door for additional sanctions against core elements of the Russian economy if Putin didn’t behave himself, including the oil and natural gas industries, metals and mining industries, and engineering and financial services industries. Taunted Obama at the time: “Russia must know that further escalation [in the Ukraine] will only isolate it further from the international community.”
It didn’t take long for Putin to push back. On May 13, 2014, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced: “Russia will ban the United States from using Russian-made rocket engines for [its] military launches.” Rogozin was referring to the RD–180 rocket engine used for the first stage of the US Atlas V vehicle. Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, a writer for the Washington Times, explained just how the United States got into this predicament:
American dependence on Russian rocket engines can be traced back to the 1990s when the newborn Russian Federation teamed with the US to launch components for the international space station.
The Air Force needed rocket engines. When one of its contractors, Aerojet, heard rumors that the Russians may have leftover engines from the extinct Soviet moon program, US officials traveled to Russia to investigate.
After inspecting the engines, the Americans were in awe. The Soviets had achieved something as early as the 1970s that they thought possible only in science fiction: rocket engines that recycled excess fuel exhausted from its pre-burners back into its combustion chamber.
That was enough to persuade Aerojet to start purchasing these engines from Russia rather than going to the trouble and expense of developing ones on their own for the US military. It was also enough for the US military to ignore exhortations from the Founders that such entangling alliances would only end badly. In his farewell address, President George Washington said:
It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.…
The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.
This position was reiterated by President Thomas Jefferson in his inaugural address in 1801, in which he said that one of the “essential principles of our government” would be that of “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, and entangling alliances with none.” In 1823, President James Monroe said essentially the same thing: “In the wars of the European powers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy to do so….”
When French Emperor Napoleon III asked the United States to protest Tsar Alexander II’s decision to quash a Polish uprising in 1863, Secretary of State William Seward declined, defending “our policy of non-intervention: straight, absolute, and peculiar as it may seem to other nations,” insisting instead that “the American people must be content to … forbear at all times, and in every way, from foreign alliances, intervention, and interference.”
Now that the consequences of those entangling alliances have become apparent, those approving, or at least intimately aware of, those entanglements, are now declaring the danger to US military interests. One of those is Gen. Michael Hayden, who served as Director of the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005. It was during this time that international agreements to support the International Space Station were completed between Russia, Japan, and the European Union. Therefore, it was the height of hypocrisy for Hayden, now retired, to distance himself from that decision when he rhetorically asked: “What were we thinking? It’s clear now that to rely on Russia for rocket engines was a policy based on hope, not good judgment.”
Another observer, Michael Waller, a political warfare professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington DC, noted cryptically: “Relying on Russian rocket engines to launch American spy satellites may not have been a problem when the US and Russia were working together to build the International Space Station, but it is definitely a problem now. The fact that we are dependent on the Russians for rocket engines gives Vladimir Putin a chokehold over the United States.”
Such bullying and taunting has led inevitably to retaliation. On July 17, Obama expanded sanctions against two Russian banks, two energy companies, and several Russian defense contractors. The president had great expectations that the sanctions that didn’t work the first time would work the second: “What we are expecting is that the Russian leadership will see once again that its actions in the Ukraine have consequences, including a weakening economy and increasing diplomatic isolation.” Putin just laughed, warning that there would be a “boomerang effect,” adding that such sanctions “are driving the Russian – US relations into a stalemate and seriously damaging them. I am certain that this is harmful to the US administration and the American people’s long-term strategic national interest.”
To make his point, Putin has put on hold Moscow’s renewal of its partnership with the International Space Station. And so it goes.
Waller is right. Those entangling alliances that US administrations have successfully ignored for so many years are having consequences. They now involve allowing the Russian thug Putin a chokehold over the operation of the US military services.
Washington Times: U.S. military reliance on Russian rocket raises security fears
New York Times: Obama Steps Up Russia Sanctions in Ukraine Crisis