Dispatch September 2008

Russia: Back to the Future

Washington should establish a new framework, based partly on an old paradigm, for its relations with Moscow

Condoleezza Rice’s “Russia expertise” has been nowhere in evidence during this first, fateful crisis with the Kremlin since the Cold War’s end. Why has neither she nor any other senior U.S. official visited Moscow with an eye toward repairing relations? Why did she leave peace negotiations to the European Union, when the very survival of a much-vaunted American ally was at stake? (The ceasefire drafted inexpertly by French President and current E.U. chief, Nicolas Sarkozy, afforded Russia loopholes it has used to justify maintaining forces inside Georgia proper.) Over the past seven years, on numerous occasions, President Bush has hosted his “friend” Vladimir Putin at his Crawford ranch and elsewhere. But now, facing a real emergency, Bush is holding no summits, no Camp-David-style sweatshop parleys with his Slavic counterpart. Bush must have assumed that a combination of blandishments and bluster would keep Russia in its place. Caught flatfooted by reality, his bluff called by Putin, Bush apparently does not know how to proceed, and his cabinet members, long laboring under delusions of U.S. omnipotence, and never having given Russia due attention since 1991 or pondered how it had changed since Yeltsin quit the Kremlin in 2000, cannot offer him sound counsel.

As a result, Russia and the United States find themselves drifting toward a future of confrontation. How can the drift be halted? The answer hinges partly on what Russia is today, and what it is patently not. Neither Russia’s actions nor the pronouncements of Russia’s leadership justify comparisons with Hitler’s Germany. Russia is not bent on the conquest and domination of Europe. It is, however, determined to reassert itself, however problematic this may be to the West, in what it calls its blizhnyeye zarubezh’ye (Near Abroad), lands that belonged to the Soviet Union until 1991, and to the Russian empire before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. (President Dmitry Medvedev, in a recent interview with Rai Uno, designated these lands “regions of privileged interests.”) Availing itself of elevated commodity prices, cognizant of the deep American military entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the resulting burden on the U.S. budget), and still smarting from unfriendly acts and humiliations carelessly inflicted by both the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations, the Kremlin is, with the support of the Russian people, returning to play its role on the world stage. But with the United States the de facto, if increasingly wobbly, world hegemon, this means Russia can only act to the detriment of what America perceives as its interests. For the United States, the entire planet has become, in effect, its region of privileged interests.

The sort of grumbling acquiescence that the cash-starved basket-case-land of Yeltsin always gave to Western encroachments in the 1990s would not befit the petro-flush giant now rearing its head. Russia’s ham-fisted response to Saakashvili’s attack on South Ossetia came as no surprise to those listening to the warnings Putin and other senior Russian figures had been issuing since the Bush administration embraced Saakashvili in 2004 and began advocating NATO membership for Georgia. The irony is that one might have expected more from the Bush administration, with its “Russia-expert” secretary of state.

However we might object to Russia’s assertion of its “privileged interests,” or disparage the curtailing of freedoms Putin has overseen, or point out Russia’s many other deficiencies, the fact is, Russia is doing what it is doing because it can—because the United States, overextended militarily and facing a growing economic crisis, cannot oppose it. Is the United States prepared to mobilize its forces to stop it? Mobilization would both limit American military options around the globe and probably require the reinstatement of the draft at home. (It is worth noting that the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq could have happened only after the Cold War, when the United States had the strategic leeway and troops to spare for an elective mission.) If confrontation is not a feasible option, then a framework for relations with Russia needs to be established that would stand on recognition of what amounts to, in some but not all formerly Soviet territories, a Russian sphere of influence – however distasteful that might sound today, and however messy it might be to implement, at least initially.

Recognizing a Russian sphere of influence of sorts (perhaps tacitly, or privately, between presidents in bilateral summits), would amount to a reversal of the hegemonic pretensions the United States has displayed since the fall of the Soviet Union. It would also reflect the real balance of power that obtains today across formerly Soviet Eurasia, and would allow the United States to manage its decline with some degree of dignity. The simple fact is that the United States—distant, short of manpower, and lacking funds—cannot counter Russia militarily in Russia’s own backyard. This reality has already turned some countries away from Washington and toward Moscow. (Most recently, Azerbaijan rejected Cheney’s request, made during his visit in early September, for support in building a pipeline to bypass Russia.)

The United States needs a working relationship with Russia. A return to spheres of influence may be the only alternative the United States has to endless tension and confrontation. American words of moral suasion fall on deaf ears in Moscow. The United States has squandered its moral authority in numerous ways – by using force to change Yugoslavia’s borders and create Kosovo; by invading Iraq under a false prospectus; by unilaterally abrogating the ABM treaty with Russia; by permitting the abuses of Abu Ghraib; by engaging in “renditions” across the globe and perpetrating constitutionally dubious practices at home. But if an American president were willing to talk to Russia in terms of interests, and concede that the Kremlin has legitimate interests to defend in the countries along its borders, no doubt the Kremlin would respond. For starters, the United States, in return for not enrolling Georgia and Ukraine in NATO, could demand guarantees of non-interference in these countries’ affairs from Moscow. Countries in NATO or the EU would continue to enjoy the rights and privileges they do now; while those outside the two blocs, after initial disappointment, would be compelled to build relations with Moscow based on strategic, geographic, and political realities that no external military alliance can counter or negate – not even NATO. The most morally reprehensible approach would be to do what the Bush administration did with Georgia – give all sorts of assurances and support, and then, when a crisis erupts, step back and do nothing, letting their trusting, hopeful ally and his people take their fall.

The United States has long regarded the Western Hemisphere as its own sphere of interest under the Monroe Doctrine. Proclaimed in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine states that, “[the United States] should consider any attempt on [the] part [of outside powers] to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” In 1848, President James K. Polk reaffirmed the doctrine, adding, “The United States, sincerely desirous of preserving relations of good understanding with all nations, cannot in silence permit any European interference on the North American continent, and should any such interference be attempted will be ready to resist it at any and all hazards.” Russia, however, has recently begun showing its teeth in the Western Hemisphere, sending long-rage Tu-160 bombers (without their usual load of nuclear weapons) to Venezuela, and broaching bomber flights to Cuba. So far the Bush administration has responded to these moves with restraint. Any agreement on spheres of influence would naturally rule out such encroachments on Russia’s part.

The United States’ “unipolar moment” in history has passed. The sooner we come to terms with this, and plan for a future that makes room for a resource-rich, autocratic Russia, the safer we will all be, in both East and West. Russian and American leaders need to talk—now—and open broad discussions on how the current crisis can be resolved. With all its potential drawbacks, an approach based on spheres of interest would be a good place to start.

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Jeffrey Tayler is an Atlantic correspondent living in Moscow.

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