Distrusting the Russians (Again)

With elections in Russia fast approaching, relations with the West are deteriorating drastically. Three recent events highlight this downward trend. The most dramatic has been the failure of the United States and Russia to compromise on anti-missile defense (AMD). Reflecting months-long tensions, the latest round of talks in Maine between President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin ended with U.S. insistence on setting up a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The failures – mostly on the U.S. side – to reach a compromise on the issue prompted Putin to pull out of a treaty on conventional forces in Europe (CFE), which is now in its death throes. Also on the rocks are negotiations to further reduce the respective nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers. Finally, Russia’s already shaky diplomatic relations with Great Britain plummeted after the latter requested a change in the Russian constitution to accommodate the extradition of a suspect in the poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko.

Instead of Cold War flashbacks, however, the latest developments point to a far more subtle fact that is becoming all too obvious. The West never really trusted Russia. It has previously chosen to mask that distrust with a patronizing insistence that Russia is part of an imaginary country club of nations. On the verge of new administrations in both Russia and the United States, it looks as though the West would like to revoke Russia’s membership.

Last week, the chairman of the House International Relations Committee Tom Lantos (D-CA) summed up the inconsistency of U.S. policy. “Russia is using anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism to wreak havoc,” he said. “No one is more aware than the Kremlin that the proposed missile defense system has nothing to do with Russia, but [Putin’s] claims fit neatly into the spiteful rhetoric emanating from Moscow these days.”

But what U.S. officials perceive as an acute bout of anti-Americanism is actually a Russia on the defensive. The Kremlin is desperately struggling to save face and figure out what exactly the West wants. Is the West still keeping a place at the table for Russia as a developed player in the world arena? Or is the West casting Russia in the role of an exporter of natural resources on the fringe of the international community? So many critical issues – from arms control and the world’s energy supply to the global economy and the trajectory of current conflicts with Iran and other countries – hinge on the resolution of this question.

Containing Iran – or Russia?

Missile defense is the catalyst for the latest downward spiral in relations. U.S. protests to the contrary, the Kremlin in fact believes the new system has everything to do with Russia. U.S. refusals to consider joint bases closer to the Middle East –in Azerbaijan or southern Russia – point to an AMD system that has very little to do with Iran and very much to do with Russia. This is so obvious that both analysts and laymen in Russia are wondering what exactly the United States is trying to achieve with its rhetoric.

“This system can and should control any objects that will fly over Russian territory,” says a retired Russian officer who, like most Russians, doesn’t see the Eastern European bases protecting against threats from Iran and North Korea. “Judging by its radius it should be enough to cover Russia’s entire air space, including lower flying objects, at least as far as the Urals. What’s strange is that Americans already have bases in Turkey [and Alaska].”

More troubling still is that many in America don’t seem to believe that Iran has anything to do with the AMD plans, either. “If we are going to pursue missile defense, we should not only accept [Putin’s] data-sharing offer but also place American defense radars and other technology in Azerbaijan, or possibly in nearby Turkey,” Theodor Postol writes in The New York Times. “[W]orking together could substantially increase the chances of making a missile defense against Iran more effective.”

If Washington so easily dismissed Putin’s compromise, then what, exactly, is its strategy? Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Russian branch office of the World Security Institute, believes that a nearby missile shield does not necessarily entail an arms race but does suggest an attempted transatlantic alliance against Russia. “In the energy sector, Russia is trying to act as an independent player. An AMD system in Eastern Europe will negatively affect energy cooperation with Europe,” he says, citing negotiations between Gazprom and BP as a case in point. “The missile shield is perceived as an attempt to undermine a Russian-EU union.”

Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov indeed argues that this is the whole point of the missile shield. “After the Cold War, when the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, the U.S.’s West European allies no longer needed the American ‘nuclear umbrella,’” he writes in a recent column in The Moscow News. “That created a fundamentally new situation: Western Europe acquired the right to maneuver and a free hand to protect its national interests, which did not entirely coincide with U.S. interests, especially in the economic sphere.”

Russia’s reaction to this challenge was not particularly surprising. It perceived an aggressive maneuver for what it was and reacted by throwing off the limitations in conventional weapons in the CFE Treaty, which no other NATO member had ratified. At issue were the commitments made to withdraw Russian troops from Georgia and Moldova. But this is clearly a problem of different perspectives. Russia is shutting down two Georgian bases, in Batumi and Akhalkalaki by 2008, and is ahead of schedule in this endeavor. But it still has 300 troops in a base in Gudauta, in breakaway Abkhazia, and 1,250 troops in Moldova’s separatist Transdniestria. From the Kremlin’s perspective, this is progress: the troops in question are “peacekeepers” in breakaway regions supported by Moscow but unrecognized by anyone else. Both of the separatist regions are pro-Russian to the point of even considering joining Russia. But to the West, there are still Russian troops that remain in sovereign Georgia and sovereign Moldova. With NATO countries not having ratified the treaty and making no sign to consider the progress Russia has made, Russia’s position as the only state fulfilling the obligations of the treaty and working towards fulfilling conditions that need to be met before other members can ratify it has become both irrational and demeaning.

Lieutenant General Gennady Yevstafiev, who took part in CFE talks back in 1990, calls the current standoff a mirror of what went on then. “Then we had an advantage over them militarily. We said, do you really think we’re going to attack you? They said, no, but your capabilities are worrisome. Today we have a reverse situation.”

Under Siege

Putin has already responded by revealing plans for more aggressive military development, indicating he sees the bases as a threat. The government has already made several announcements about plans to increase military spending on missiles and missile defense. This means that the next administration might give top priority to defense issues rather than the “national projects” that are designed, however clumsily, to raise the standard of living and improve Russia’s industry.

But Western policy will more likely have a political than a military outcome. For instance, Washington’s hardline approach toward Russia is not surprisingly inflaming anti-American sentiment. “It certainly introduces an element of confrontation and undermines pro-Western sentiment inside the country,” says Anton Surikov, a former military intelligence officer. “All our candidates are chosen by a single elector,” he adds, referring to the likelihood that Putin will single-handedly choose a successor, “and this can affect his choice.”

Safranchuk also notes the significance of this confrontation. “The entire Russian political spectrum will shift away from America,” he says. “Now, absolutely everyone – including Putin’s opponents – are saying that America is being an fool, even those who are for closer cooperation with the United States.”

At the same time, however, Surikov concedes what a number of experts, including Yevstafiev, are saying – that it will not lead to an arms race. “The increase of military forces is unlikely,” he says.

Yevstafiev rules out the possibility of another Cold War given the “geopolitical risks” that Russia has already taken by its willingness to cooperate with the United States. Nor does he think that confrontation with the United States will play any significant role in the upcoming elections. What is meaningful is that “it is not in the opposition’s best interest to accentuate [this confrontation].” The United States fears not an unstable Russia, he concludes, but a “conservative” one.

Certainly the latest strategic developments will not strengthen Russia’s democratic foundations. More likely, it will undermine them. Russia is still too weak to overcome a dangerous besieged mentality, especially since this mentality was vigorously cultivated during the Soviet years as a justification for everything from a low standard of living to lack of democratic institutions. It is also no help that the current behavior coming from Washington, Brussels, and London seriously undermines what is left of the credibility of Russia’s liberal opposition, which is mustering its forces ahead of the December parliamentary elections.

Dismantling the Façade

U.S. policymakers can’t help but understand that its politics of distrust will elicit a conservative reaction from Russia. And yet, American politicians seem surprised and angry when Russia responds in a predictable fashion.

A similar dynamic is on display in British-Russian relations. The two countries exchanged harsh words and visa bans all because Great Britain asked Russia to change its constitution, and Russia refused. London responded with an expected chastisement of Moscow for being undemocratic. “The level of human rights abuses in Russia today is so significant,” Laborite Chris Bryant said during a session of the House of Commons last week, “that no country that respects human rights and believes in the foundation of the principle of law can engage in an open relationship with the Russian Federation without being explicit about the problems there.”

This reveals a peculiar undercurrent in the latest Western rhetoric. Since Russia doesn’t believe in the foundation of the principle of law anyway, what harm would it do to change its constitution to accommodate Western demands?

While the West can often sound “explicit” about Russia’s internal “problems” – especially ahead of major summits – these problems have apparently never been bothersome enough for any Western country to implement a real policy to address them. And this is not surprising, since most of them – like the utter lack of the rule of law in Russia – hardly affect, in any meaningful sense, Russia’s status as an energy magnate in the world arena. And so the latest behavior toward Russia points to a looming inconsistency of policy. The West can’t seem to decide whom it wants to deal with more: an independent, economic equal – a G-8 member and a candidate for the World Trade Organization (WTO) – or a rogue resource exporter, a colonial backwater whose human rights record doesn’t really matter.

The reality is that this decision is much trickier to make than it looks. On the one hand, Russia is – and has been for centuries – the West’s source of raw materials, from fur and timber to gas and oil. Russia’s feeble attempts to transform its economy from a colonial-style, raw materials exporter to a producer of manufactured goods – for instance, through strengthening local industry by raising export tariffs – are met with threats of exclusion from the WTO. Mikhail Remizov, a conservative political expert who heads the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, argues that Russia is trying too hard to become a member of the world market without first developing a domestic market. In his view, WTO membership will actually undermine precisely the protectionist policies needed to grow Russia’s economy in the first place.

On the other hand, a Russia that is integrated as an equal player in major geopolitical and economic institutions means added leverage for the West. Apart from its economic might as the world’s largest gas producer and second largest oil producer, Russia still possesses considerable geopolitical clout in the Eastern world. Its closeness with China, its nuclear ties with Iran, and, particularly now, its willingness to negotiate with Hamas all make it a valuable intermediary. Then again, Russia’s geopolitical clout often manifests itself in inconvenient ways – a traditional support for Serbian sovereignty, for instance, and Russia’s occasionally suspicious closeness with rogue states. For instance, last summer, allegedly in return for a $3 million Russian arms deal with Venezuela, the United States slapped sanctions against two major arms companies for illegal arms trading with Iran, and threatened to strip Russia of trade benefits it enjoyed under the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences. There have been no sanctions – however mild – connected to Russia’s poor human rights record or lack of “principle of law.”

And so, in lieu of picking a set policy and deciding what kind of Russia it wants to deal with, the West has instead embarked on a chaotic scramble to get the best of both worlds while Russia is still in “transition.” Even so, that scramble had at least one advantage, and that was engagement. And this points to perhaps the most damaging consequence of the latest Western posturing: the dismantling of the façade of Russia’s membership in the club of developed nations.

While it will mean a more honest approach to Russian policy and an opportunity for Russia to focus on its internal issues, honesty in this case is a double-edged sword. It may signal to a Russia still struggling to put back the pieces after the breakup of the Soviet Union that sovereignty is incompatible with democratic values. But if today Russian leaders at least have the incentive of playing a role in global institutions, with that gone there will be nothing stopping them from turning away from the West entirely. Because, as Alexander Pushkin once remarked in a letter to Piotr Chaadayev, “the government is the only thing European in Russia.”

Anna Arutunyan is an editor at The Moscow News (http://www.mnweekly.ru/) and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).