On June 21, 2007, the Carnegie Endowment hosted an event on Russia’s Strategic Choice to launch a new policy brief of a similar title. The meeting featured the author of the policy brief, Carnegie senior associate and deputy director of Carnegie’s Moscow Center, Dmitri Trenin. Carnegie senior associate, Amb. James Collins, chaired the session.
As I prepared to write this policy brief, there was one question on my mind: Russia is back, so what? It is a question that is very important for both Moscow and Washington and my essay seeks to provoke thought and action from both sides: it provides Washington with a Russian perspective on Russia’s new foreign policy approach, and as for Moscow, it highlights the very important foreign policy choices that Russia faces and offers some solutions to an incipient disease, which was called some time ago “business with success.”
Analyzing Russia’s foreign policy is a difficult task because of the mixed signals coming from Moscow. How can Putin compare the U.S. to the Third Reich in one breath and in the next reach out to the U.S. as a potential “partner”? In order to disentangle the rhetoric, one needs to start with the issue of the humiliation that Russia ostensibly suffered during the 1990s, which is real in the minds of leaders or at least being used more often as a tool.
A reinvigorated Russia, intent on undoing its past humiliation, is in fact more reactive to the outside world. Every offhand comment by U.S. government officials makes headline news in Russia. But Foreign Minister Lavrov captured the essence of Russia’s approach to the U.S. in a speech given earlier today at the Carnegie Moscow Center: the West, according to Lavrov, needs to make a choice between pursuing a policy of containing Russia or one of collaboration with Russia. He added that the basis for that collaboration can only be equality and equal relations. While total equality is impossible given the stature of the U.S., in areas where the U.S. and Russia collaborate equality looks like a doable proposition.
However, Lavrov’s first proposition could also be addressed to the Russian leadership. It is at the foundation of the myriad strategic choices that Russia faces, and about which I write in my brief. I will name some of those choices here, but allow the paper to stand on its own two feet.
Russia knows what it doesn’t want, but hasn’t set a positive agenda: what does Russia stand for? Russian leaders have trumpeted pragmatism, which according to them lacks any ideology. But pragmatism cannot exist without underlying values. With out those values, pragmatism only stands for money and nothing else. In short, Russia needs to define its values.
The idea that Russia is an independent power, on par with the U.S. and China, is very popular in Russia. How much is this idea grounded in reality? Russia may be sitting alone, but in geopolitical terms it’s not sitting pretty.
What are Russia’s aims in its neighborhood? Is its policy post-imperialist as it seems, or neo-imperialist, as I fear? How about Russia’s European vocation? Is the EU the only real partner, with which Russia will choose to integrate or is it just another part of the alphabet soup of international organization, on par with ASEAN and the OSCE? The choice here is between anchoring and drifting.
Are oil and gas export commodities or weapons? Will Russian leaders seek a symbiotic relationship between suppliers and producers or will they bolster their position by building a coalition of suppliers?
Is Nato a partner or a competitor? Is it wise to threaten the new Nato countries in Eastern Europe, which will soon be the home of new missiles? Is it really wise to bury the CFE treaty? In short, does Russia consider the West a potential military adversary in the 21st century or not?
What should Russia’s relationship with China look like? China is now stronger than Russia, but they remain amiable partners. The really important challenge is to find a realistic strategy for developing eastern Siberia so that it remains under the Russian flag 50 years from now.
Finally, should Russia consider the U.S. as the biggest threat to international security? Is U.S. democracy promotion truly a bigger threat to world peace than nuclear weapons proliferation? Is the U.S. really considering a strategy of breaking Russia into three or four pieces?
Russia’s foreign should not be dismissed as going in only one direction at the moment. Russia’s leadership is faced with many challenges. The changing of teams in the Kremlin has created the opportunity for dialogue about these issues. It is important to start that dialogue now.
Q: The debate over Kosovo presents the most immediate crisis in international relation, in which Russia is involved. Russia is threatening to veto any resolution for independence that comes before the Security Council. Russia obviously has interests beyond its affinity for Serbia that play a role in its stance on Kosovo. How does Kosovo factor into Russia’s new strategic outlook?
Kosovo is exactly the area where cooperation between the US and Russia could lead to fruitful results and also the area where lack of collaboration could lead to crisis. The Russian policy of delaying a decision on Kosovo is flawed. On the other hand, a Russian veto would not be good for the US or the EU.
Russia isn’t really a key element in the resolution of the Kosovo issue. The solution lies with the Serbs and Kosovars. They need to sit down and reach and agreement that satisfies both parties and is lead by Europe. Any agreement will most likely take a very technical form, but most importantly, both sides need to agree its terms.
It is difficult to accept that after having been in Kosovo for 8 years that the EU and U.S. would abdicate their role in the situation. The US obviously has other priorities elsewhere, but on an issue of great importance to Europe, it is hard to understand why there hasn’t been any serious discussion—no “European Dayton Accords” if you will.
Russia, however, really doesn’t have a legitimate role to play in this process.
Q: Russia seems to perceive itself as surrounded by enemies: Europe, the U.S., China, Georgia, etc. In Russia, the government has also sponsored a crackdown on immigrants. Is this the Kremlin trying to play a xenophobia card and if so, can they control such a strategy?
Russia is the last former soviet country to embrace nationalism, and its nationalism has some ugly characteristics. The government has tried to domesticate the nationalist tiger, but it is a very shortsighted policy that could prove very deadly, and has for some. The riots this last fall illustrate what can happen.
But the nationalist tendencies in Russia’s polity aren’t the most troubling aspect of Russia’s foreign policy. Rather, it is Russia’s propensity to screw things up even when it has a legitimate case. The Ukrainian gas crisis clearly illustrates how adept Russia is at shooting itself in the foot: Russia had a legitimate interest in receiving market value for its gas, but its timing in moving to market prices couldn’t have been worse. So maybe the real threat stems from a lack of competence.
Q: What do you think Putin wants to get from the Kennebunkport Summit with President Bush, both in style and substance?
Putin views the summit as his last chance to use his special relationship with Bush to talk about important bilateral issues and perhaps elicit some concessions. Since Munich, Putin has tried to get the US to agree to his new formula of a US-Russian partnership, which could be summed up in the following formula: accept us as we are, treat us as equals, and let’s do business on the basis of mutual interests.
He has also participated in a strategy that was not wise—one that I call operation angry Russia. As a part of this strategy, the Russian leadership has made numerous provocative statements to try and get the attention of Washington. These statements accompanied calls for increased cooperation. Either Russia is really confused or one of the rhetorical lines is a ruse. In my opinion, the hard-line approach was simply a tactic to convince the West to talk.
As for Kennebunkport, Putin wants to push forward the agreement on nuclear energy. Russia’s nuclear agency is currently in the process of transforming itself from a government agency into a state-owned corporation with a global reach in the industry. They view Iran as a dry hole, and are ready to walk away from Iran and embrace the world market.
Putin also wants respect from Bush, and he is getting it. He was the first to receive an invitation to Crawford and also the first world leader to receive and invitation to Kennebunkport.
Q: Do you think anything short of the U.S. giving up its sites in the Czech Republic and Poland will satisfy the Russian domestic audience? The Gabala proposal was obviously aimed at a that audience.
After Putin suggested the Gabala alternative, the domestic debate about missile defense came to an abrupt stop, and anti-American rhetoric has ceased for the time being as the Russian population waits for a response. Russian experts know that the proposal doesn’t make sense, but it has played well in the press.
But that isn’t surprising: Russians are generally supportive of Putin’s foreign policy, especially his policy toward the U.S., but I don’t think that they are supportive of a worsening of material relations between Russia and the West. The danger is that the former, Putin’s hard-line approach, can negatively impact the later, US-Russian commercial relations. If Putin’s hard-line approach starts to affect their standard of living, they will call for change.
Q: A few years ago, the White House developed a strategy of using energy cooperation as a positive aspect of US-Russian relations. That didn’t work out the way that they planned as evidenced by recent developments. It seems that this strategy of cooperation has turned into a zero-sum game in the energy sector. Do you see any way to escape that zero sum thinking or are we stuck?
The expectations that both sides had in 2002 when this dialogue was started were too high, and based on false assumptions. It is safe to assume that the Russian leadership for some time to come will view energy as Russia’s crown jewel. According to prevalent Russian thought, each country uses its comparative advantages on the world market. Russia has relatively few advantages, but energy is a very large one. They want to keep the advantages of oil and gas to themselves.
We are not stuck, however. Clearly the Russians want to expand their upstream monopoly into downstream gains. This provides opportunities for all parties involved, and also for increasing integration between Russia and the West. It means that the West and in particular the US will have to craft a new, more realistic policy towards Russia, but it doesn’t mean that we are stuck in a zero sum game.