Friday, November 21, 2008

To Russia with Love

Kristof wrote yesterday in the New York Times about Russia, Georgia and how Obama’s administration should approach the Caucasus. He thinks allowing Georgia into NATO is a bad idea, says we need a new approach to Russia to avoid a new Cold War.
Russia is flexing its muscles. That is beyond debate. A New Cold War, though? I’m not convinced. Moreover, I think analogizing our current relationship with Russia and the Cold War US-Soviet relationship is uninformative and likely obscures more than it enlightens. Much like the penchant for comparing negotiations to Munich, the Cold War comparison can lead to wrong impressions.

It is important for the United States to recognize that, regardless of what NATO countries may say about the eastward expansion of NATO, Russia views it as a threat. Not only has the expansion represented a weakening of Russia’s influence over its near-abroad-essentially Russia’s defensive buffer between Moscow and the rest of the world-but these states have, in Russia’s view, been turning away from Moscow and towards an organization that for fifty years was dedicated to defeating Russia. This is a difficult concept for those of us in the west, who viewed NATO as a benign entity, defending Europe and the World from the Soviet Empire. Nevertheless, Russia’s strongly negative reaction to NATO expansion is no way irrational and is eminently predictable.

The emerging difficulty for the United States and Europe is how to reconcile Russia’s legitimate security concerns, Russia’s apparent desire to project power-regionally, at least-and the strategic importance of the Caucasus. The governing principles for dealing with Russia, moving forward, should be based in Real Politik: 1) Russia’s assertiveness has increased as its revenues have increased and relative hard power has grown while the United States’ has diminished; 2) Russia has a long standing interest in dominating the Caucasus; the significance of the Caucasus to energy for both natural gas/oil extraction as well as pipeline transit has only exacerbated Russia’s interest in dominating the region; 3) re-read Kennan; drawing lines in the sand rhetorically and not backing them up will only encourage Russian aggression – also, take very seriously Russian statements about red lines, they tend to adhere to them.

The United States and Europe should not conflate power politics with the Cold War. Competition for resources and influence should not be an existential struggle. Injecting sensationalized rhetoric is the absolute wrong prescription for the United States. What the US needs now is cold, rational analysis about the state of the world as it is.

1 comment:

Peter said...

It's a tough question. We have this country claiming to be a democracy that is carrying out executions abroad while very effectively stifling internal dissent at home. The real problem with talking to Russia is that no other country is quite so duplicitous – the Russian government has a tendency to tell you what you want to hear, even when you know they’re lying. Case in point: the early statements by the Kremlin that they hadn’t invaded Georgia, even as TV cameras showed Russian tanks rolling in. That doesn’t mean we shouldn't engage in dialogue with them (what is this, kindergarten – “LALALA I’m not talking to you!”), but it does mean we should be cautious.

I’d also note that while Russian hard power has increased over where it was perhaps five years ago, it’s still no match for the United States. Not that that matters much – we’re never going to engage in direct conflict.