WASHINGTON -- The great horned owl is a magnificent raptor with feathers so soft its prey can't even hear it coming until it's too late. But even this superb hunter has a major challenge to overcome: It cannot move its eyes. To scan forest or field for danger -- or its next meal -- the owl, its eyes fixed straight ahead, must rotate its head. Today, the U.S. national security apparatus is much like an owl with a stiff neck.
For more than three years now, our White House, State Department and Pentagon have been fixated on America's adversaries in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Our preoccupation has been on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. Unfortunately, we seem to have missed what's happening in Russia. Not to carry the wildlife metaphor too far, but "the Bear" is back.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow would build a new air defense radar system in St. Petersburg, to be "the first step in a large-scale program," and that it will be "carried out before 2015." This follows Putin's threat to re-target Russian nuclear weapons on Europe if Washington goes ahead with plans to deploy missile defense radars in the Czech Republic and anti-missile interceptors in Poland. As usual, the Blame America First crowd claims that the U.S. ICBM shield is precipitating a "crisis." Perhaps, but the Euro-critics and our own foreign policy wonks -- like owls that can't turn their heads -- may be missing what's really happening in Putin's world.
In July, the Russian president told newly promoted military and security officers at the Kremlin, "One of our absolute priorities is an all-round strengthening of the armed forces." Putin added, "Both the situation in the world and internal political interests demand that Russia's foreign intelligence service constantly increases its resources, above all in the field of information and analytical support for the country's leadership." And last week, Adm. Vladimir Masorin, Russia's navy chief, declared intentions to "restore a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea," a capability Moscow has not had since the Cold War.
But Moscow's new assertiveness isn't just talk. Sales of Russian military hardware to Iran, Syria, Venezuela and North Korea are up more than 25 percent in the past two years. A few weeks ago, Russian explorers planted a flag on the seabed at the north pole, "claiming" the region for Moscow -- despite angry protests from the U.S., Canada, Denmark and Norway. Last week, Pentagon officials acknowledged Moscow's boast that two Russian Tu-95 long-range turboprop bombers had "buzzed" U.S. military bases on Guam. And this week, Russia and China began a massive joint military exercise -- only the second ever, and it's the first to be held on Russian soil.
What's going on here? What's "the Bear" doing behind "the Owl's" back? Is Vladimir Putin bent on starting a new Cold War?
The fact is, we don't know. Our human intelligence resources are so thin that "we have no idea what's happening inside the Kremlin," according to one retired senior intelligence officer. But what we do know for certain should be alarming enough to make us pay attention.
First, we know that Russia is awash in gas and petrodollars. Thanks to the worldwide spike in oil and natural gas prices, Moscow is raking in euros and fueling military and intelligence expenditures that were previously financially impossible.
Second, we know that in the long term, Russia is in very serious trouble because it is simply running out of Russians. To sustain economic growth, a nation needs a growing population. Increasing the number of people requires either babies to be born in sufficient numbers or immigration -- or both. Moscow's problem is that it has neither. Even neutral population growth requires 2.1 live births per couple. Russia's birthrate is less than 1.6 -- and nobody immigrates to Russia.
According to the CIA, Russia also has one of the lowest average life spans on the planet: 66.6 years. Absent a dramatic increase in birthrate, longevity and/or massive immigration, the population of 141.3 million Russians will continue to decline at a rate of about 700,000 per year. This population implosion means that in little more than a decade there will simply be too few Russians to control one-sixth of the world's land mass and perhaps a third of the world's petroleum and natural gas reserves. To further complicate the situation, to the south, energy-starved China -- population 1.4 billion -- already has 70 million more men than women and a military more than double the size of Russia's.
We don't seem to know what Vladimir Putin has decided to do about his country's precarious future, but it would be naive for us to ignore the enormous potential for miscalculation. Better intelligence is a must. Even owls move their heads to look around. Maybe that's why they are said to be wise.