Turning Point: Russia and the West

in Program

By Barry Blechman – The still unsettled events in Georgia constitute an important turning point in Russia’s relations with the West. Depending on how the current crisis is resolved, Russian-US/European relations could continue to spiral downward as they have for the past four years, or, conversely, cooperation of mutual benefit might be renewed. If the former occurs, Russia will become increasingly isolated, diplomatically and economically, with dire long-term consequences for the wellbeing and security of its citizens. If the latter occurs, Russia could gradually be integrated into the world community as a respected partner with bright prospects for continuing growth and prosperity.

The short-term issue is whether or not Russia abides by the terms of the cease-fire and, within a reasonable period of time, withdraws its troops not only from Georgia itself, but also from the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian troops in the latter areas would be replaced by neutral peacekeeping forces and negotiations initiated to define a level of autonomy that is acceptable to Russia, Georgia, and the local authorities.

Accomplishing this goal is an imperative for the US and Europe. If Russian troops are permitted to remain, nations with large ethnic Russian populations, especially Ukraine and Estonia, will worry about future actions on their territory. Moreover, many of the other nations freed from Russian domination less than 20 years ago may rethink how to ensure their security, with unknowable consequences for Western security and economic structures.

Obviously, the US and Europe are not willing to use force to push the Russians out of Georgia, nor should they be given the situation’s ambiguity and Georgia’s unfortunate decision to escalate the long-simmering conflict by attempting to re-occupy South Ossetia. Nor will bluster persuade the Russians to leave. Kicking Russia out of NATO’s headquarters will cause no tears in the Kremlin and the threat of an Olympic boycott – the Sochi Winter Games in 2014 – scares only the athletes whose careers would be jeopardized. Russia would be more concerned about being expelled from the G-8 and having the promise of eventual membership in the World Trade Organization removed. But treating Russia like an inferior nation that can be pushed around is precisely what brought about the sorry state of Western-Russian relations.

No, the US and Europe can only cajole Russia out of Georgia and the disputed territories by diplomatically making clear the alternative futures it faces. For despite its military victory in Georgia and its current oil price-driven economic strength, Russia’s future depends on Western help. It has a declining population and a pervasive health crisis. Life expectancy for a male Russian born in 2008 is less than 60 years. Russian oil and gas wealth is a wasting asset. A lack of technology and expertise make it difficult to recover those resources as completely as they are exploited by Western companies. The pipeline system leaks millions of gallons of oil. Moreover, besides the sale of natural resources, few other industries are performing well, a guarantee of continuing economic weakness.

Even Russia’s armed forces are in trouble. They may be able to push tiny Georgia around, but apparently did not perform well even against such a small foe. Failed equipment and vehicles were reported to have littered the route into Georgia and Russian aircraft losses were high for a nation facing only shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. And looming in Russia’s future if it backs itself into a corner is not only continuing conflicts with the West, but the potential for conflict with China over the Russian Far East. If it chooses the confrontational path, much of Russia’s oil wealth will be spent to modernize and expand the armed forces.

Far better for Russian security would be cooperation and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Western leaders may be able to induce Russia’s leaders to see this by altering their own behavior. From Moscow’s perspective, the West took advantage of Russian weakness in the 1990s; expanding NATO to Russia’s borders, ignoring Russian concerns about military actions in the Balkans and Middle East and about missile defenses, and generally disregarding Russia’s interests. This perception induced a “Weimar mentality” among many Russians – a feeling that their former leaders had sold them out, that they were being treated unfairly, and that they needed to assert themselves to regain respect.

US and European leaders need to restart a positive dialogue with Russia. The decision in Bucharest last Spring not to begin the NATO membership process for Georgia and Ukraine was a positive move. More meaningful would be serious discussions about the limits of NATO’s ambitions and the possibility of creating a new security institution that would incorporate Russia, rather than corner it. One helpful short-term gesture would be to terminate the dubious plan for a missile defense site in Eastern Europe. If the West is truly concerned about Iranian missiles, why not incorporate Russia into the plan, as President Putin has proposed?

The current crisis in Georgia can be resolved to reflect all parties’ interests, but the US won’t bring about such a solution through empty threats. From a long-term perspective, the West is in the driver’s seat. What is needed is a positive approach that recognizes Russian interests and concerns, that acts to accommodate them when legitimate, but denies them when clearly insincere, and that clarifies the benefits to Russia itself of choosing a path of cooperation and restraint.

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Barry Blechman is co-founder of the Stimson Center and a Stimson Distinguished Fellow currently working on developing solutions for the nuclear threat. 


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