Don’t bait the Russian bear

Russia, the world’s critical "swing" state

Russia, while remaining central to Indian foreign-policy interests, faces a tough challenge to engage a sceptical West more deeply.

Brahma Chellaney The Hindu newspaper June 16, 2009

Even if it is to prescheduled Brazil-Russia-India-China (BRIC) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit meetings, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is making the symbolically significant first foreign visit of his second term in office to Russia, which he had once called a “tried and tested friend” of India. Russia, with its vantage location in Eurasia and matching strategic concerns, is a natural ally of India. A robust relationship with Moscow will help New Delhi to leverage its ties with both Washington and Beijing. 

Which is the only power India can tap for critical military technologies? Which country today is willing to make a nuclear-powered submarine for India? Which state is ready to sell India a large aircraft carrier, even if an old one? Which power sells New Delhi major weapons without offering similar systems to India’s adversaries? The answer to all these questions is Russia. Little surprise Dr. Singh admitted in early 2007: “Although there has been a sea-change in the international situation during the last decade, Russia remains indispensable to the core of India’s foreign-policy interests.”

Three facts about Russia

Three important facts about Russia stand out. One, Russia has gradually become a more assertive power after stemming its precipitous decline and drift of the 1990s. Two, it now plays the Great Game on energy. Competition over control of hydrocarbon resources was a defining feature of the Cold War and remains an important driver of contemporary geopolitics, as manifest from the American occupation of Iraq and U.S. military bases or strategic tie-ups stretching across the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea basin and Central Asia.

Three, Russian democracy has moved toward greater centralized control to bring order and direction to the state. During Vladimir Putin’s presidency, government control was extended to large swaths of the economy and the political opposition was systematically emasculated. 

Such centralization, though, is no different than in, say, Singapore and Malaysia, including the domination of one political party, the absence of diversified media, limits on public demonstrations and the writ of security services. But in contrast to Russia, Singapore and Malaysia have insulated themselves from official U.S. criticism by willingly serving Western interests. When did you last hear American criticism of Singapore’s egregious political practices?

Yet Russia faces a rising tide of Western criticism for sliding toward autocracy. Indeed, ideological baggage, not dispassionate strategic deliberation, often colours U.S. and European discourse on Russia. Another reason is Russia’s geographical presence in Europe, the “mother” of both the Russian and U.S. civilizations. There is thus a greater propensity to hold Russia to European standards, unlike, say, China. Also, Russia was considered a more plausible candidate for democratic reform than China. Little surprise Russia’s greater centralization evokes fervent Western reaction.  

Today’s Russia, however, bears little resemblance to the Soviet Union. Life for the average Russian is freer and there is no Soviet-style shortage of consumer goods. There are also no online censors regulating Internet content. But what now looks like a resurgent power faces major demographic and economic challenges to build and sustain great-power capacity over the long run. 

Demographically, Russia is even in danger of losing its Slavic identity and becoming a Muslim-majority state in the decades ahead, unless government incentives succeed in encouraging Russian women to have more children. The average age of death of a Russian male has fallen to 58.9 years — nearly two decades below an American. Economically, the oil-price crash has come as a warning against being a largely petro-state.

In fact, Moscow’s economic fortunes for long have been tied too heavily to oil — a commodity with volatile prices. In 1980, the Soviet Union overtook Saudi Arabia as the biggest oil producer. But oil prices began to decline, plummeting to $9 a barrel in mid-1986. U.S. intelligence, failing to read the significance of this, continued to claim Moscow was engaged in massive military modernization. During the Putin presidency, rising oil prices played a key role in Russian economic revival. The higher the oil prices, the less the pressure there is on Russia to restructure and diversify its economy. The present low prices thus offer an opportunity to Moscow to reform. 

Still, it should not be forgotten that Russia is the world’s wealthiest country in natural resources — from fertile farmlands and metals, to gold and timber. It sits on colossal hydrocarbon reserves. It also remains a nuclear and missile superpower. Indeed, to compensate for the erosion in its conventional-military capabilities, it has increasingly relied on its large nuclear arsenal, which it is ambitiously modernizing.

Right international approach

Whatever its future, the big question is: What is the right international approach toward a resurgent Russia? Here two aspects need to be borne in mind.

First, Russia geopolitically is the most important “swing” state in the world today. Its geopolitical “swing” worth is greater than China’s or India’s. While China is inextricably tied to the U.S. economy, India’s geopolitical direction is clearly set — toward closer economic and political engagement with the West, even as New Delhi retains its strategic autonomy. But Russia is a wild card. A wrong policy course on Russia by the West would not only prove counterproductive to Western interests, but also affect international peace and security. It would push Moscow inexorably in the wrong direction, creating a new East-West divide.

Second, there are some useful lessons applicable to Russia that the West can draw on how it has dealt with another rising power. China has come a long way since the 1989 Tiananmen Square episode. What it has achieved in the last generation in terms of economic modernization and the opening of minds is extraordinary. That owes a lot to the West’s decision not to sustain trade sanctions after Tiananmen Square but instead to integrate China into global institutions.

That the choice made was wise can be seen from the baneful impact of the opposite decision that was taken on Burma after 1988 — to pursue a punitive approach relying on sanctions. Had the Burma-type approach been applied against China, the result would not only have been a less-prosperous and less-open China, but also a more-paranoid and possibly destabilizing China. The lesson is that engagement and integration are better than sanctions and isolation.

Today, with a new chill setting in on relations between the West and Russia, that lesson is in danger of getting lost. Russia’s 16-year effort to join the World Trade Organization has still to bear fruit, even as Moscow is said to be in the last phase of negotiations, and the U.S.-Russian nuclear deal remains on hold in Washington.

Little thought is being given to how the West lost Russia, which during its period of decline eagerly sought to cosy up to the U.S. and Europe, only to get the cold shoulder from Washington. Also, turning a blind eye to the way NATO is being expanded right up to Russia’s front-yard and the U.S.-led action in engineering Kosovo’s February 2008 self-proclamation of independence, attention has focused since last August on Moscow’s misguided but short-lived military intervention in Georgia and its recognition of the self-declaration of independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia — actions that some portrayed as the 21st century’s first forcible changing of borders.

But having sponsored Kosovo’s self-proclamation of independence, the U.S. and some of its allies awkwardly opposed the same right of self-determination for the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It is as if the legitimacy of a self-declaration of independence depends on which great power sponsors that action.

The world cannot afford a new Cold War, which is what constant bear-baiting will bring. Fortunately, there are some positive signs. Nuclear arms control is back on the U.S.-Russian agenda, and U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to be in Moscow for a July 6-7 summit meeting. The U.S. is going slow on missile-defence deployments in Eastern Europe and there is a de facto postponement of NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia. As part of what Obama has called a “reset” of the bilateral relationship, a U.S.-Russia joint commission headed by the two presidents is to be established, along with several sub-commissions. This is an improvement on the 1993 commission established at the level of No. 2s, Vice President Al Gore and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

The key issue is whether the U.S. and Russia will be able to seize the new opportunity to redefine their relationship before it becomes too late. For Russia, the challenge is to engage the West more deeply. It also needs to increase its economic footprint in Asia, where its presence is largely military. For the U.S., the challenge is to pursue new geopolitics of engagement with Moscow.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

(c) The Hindu, 2009.

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