Handling The New Russia


Putin isn't Yeltsin; but neither is he Brezhnev. Finding a way to contain Russia's new ambitions without pushing it up against a wall that will only make it more troublesome is the difficult task. It requires the kind of diplomatic nuance that John McCain regards as sissy. A reader writes:

As events unfold, it's worth looking at what's beneath this vicious war. a number of key structural drivers are at play. Moscow has a zero-sum view of geopolitics, especially in the Eurasia region.  So for the Kremlin, the threat of Georgian membership in NATO meant simultaneously Ukrainian membership in NATO and this constituted an unfathomable dismemberment of the old empire, and a continuation of the US policy of containment into the post-Cold War era.  It was a nightmare scenario.  If we look at the historical development of the Russian polity in the modern era, one factor was determinant in whether there was a "big Russia" or a "small Russia," and that was the inclusion of Ukraine in the Russian state.  Today we have a "small Russia."  Positioning Ukraine as an independent state is hard for Russian nationalists to swallow, but allowing Ukraine to join a powerful military alliance whose ostensible purpose is the containment of Russia is simply unimaginable.  So the "strong men" like Putin will make it a high priority to block this scenario.

It's wrong to view this as a reawakening of the Soviet menace or an existential threat to the west.  But on the other hand, it has serious ramifications for the states on Russia's periphery and for the Europeans.  It presents a new security environment which is far more complex.  Saakashvili emerges as a target particularly because he fully understands these dynamics. Saakashvili speaks Ukrainian and studied in Ukraine; he has close ties with powerful Ukrainian political figures. He also recognized early on the risks of Russian energy policy and championed the Baku-Soupsa-Ceyhan pipeline--which is designed to break Russia's monopoly on energy transportation out of the Caspian. This is the reason which Putin sees Saakashvili as an utter nemisis and why he is determined to destroy Saakashvili.  At the present stage, the Russian objectives of incorporating South Ossetia and Abkhazia are realized.  The current Russian priority is to eliminate Saakashvili.  They want him out of the picture.

What's needed now is an effort to craft a new relationship with Russia that makes the most possible of the West's soft power. The major problem is that seven years of Bush-Cheney foreign policy have undermined the credibility on which Western soft power rests.

But using measured language and having your warning received as credible is essential to this process.  I am increasingly convinced that McCain would be a nightmare scenario.  He reacted to the crisis in Georgia with shrill, provocative rhetoric and he issued serial threats on which he certainly could not act.  Of course this was an election campaign and he was playing to the voters and not the international stage.  But these tactics, whatever effect they have at home, will undermine his credibility on the international stage.  The fact is that the U.S. has ever fewer tools that can be used with Russia.  So far the debate about what to do is badly misdirected.  Creative thinking is called for, but we haven't heard much of it.  The McCain strategy is to kick Russia out of the G8, to demonize them, and to pursue an aggressive strategy of containment.  This would produce a more menacing and hostile Russia. 

A successful strategy would focus on incorporating Russia progressively into the world economy, convincing Russia that it is not the hostile object of NATO, and convincing Russians that the burdens of empire are greater than the benefits--and thus it should accept the dissolution of the old empire.  Actually, in the period 1992-99, large parts of the Russian population and intelligentsia accepted these ideas, but since Putin's rise, things have swung in the other direction.

(Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty.)