U.S. President Barack Obama’s Moscow visit offers a historic opportunity to avert a new Cold War by establishing a more stable and cooperative relationship between the West and Russia.
Obama has reiterated his "commitment to a more substantive relationship with Russia." This needs to translate into policy moves symbolizing new, broad engagement.
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 oil-rich Persian Gulf, 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 U.S. criticism by willingly serving Western interests. When did you last hear official American criticism of Singapore’s egregious political practices?
Yet Russia faces a rising tide of Western censure for gradually sliding toward autocratic control at home. Actually, ideological baggage, not dispassionate strategic deliberation, tends to often color 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, now the world’s largest, oldest and strongest autocracy. 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 as in China, and criticism of the Russian government is, by and large, tolerated, especially if it does not threaten the position of those in power.
While China seeks to project power in distant lands, including Africa and Latin America, Russia wishes to project power in its own neighborhood, or what it calls its "Far Abroad," including Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, Central Asia and the Caucuses. Given its geopolitical focus on states in its vicinity, not on the "Far Abroad," Russia, with its size and clout, is able to bring pressure and intimidation to bear on such adjacent states. And given its own relative stability, Russia is able to exploit political instability in neighboring states.
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. While Japan faces a population decline, Russia confronts depopulation.
Economically, the oil-price crash has come as a warning to Russia 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.
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 more than China’s or India’s. While China is inextricably tied to the U.S. economy and India’s geopolitical direction is clearly set toward closer economic and political engagement with the West — even as New Delhi retains its strategic autonomy — 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 could 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 massacre of prodemocracy demonstrators. 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 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 obvious 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 (WTO) 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 has been given to how the West lost Russia, which during its period of decline eagerly sought to cozy up to the U.S. and Europe, only to get the cold shoulder from Washington. And even as NATO is being expanded right up to Russia’s front yard and after the U.S.-led the action in engineering Kosovo’s February 2008 self-proclamation of independence, attention has focused since last August on Moscow’s misguided five-day military intervention in Georgia and its recognition of the self-declaration of independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia — actions that some have tried to portray 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. Can the legitimacy of a self-declaration of independence depend on which great power sponsors that action?
The world cannot afford a new Cold War, which is what constant baiting of the Russian bear will bring. Fortunately, there are some positive signs. Seeking to heel the rift triggered by the yearlong developments over Georgia, the U.S. and Russia are resuming full military cooperation and have reopened negotiations on nuclear arms control, with the talks centered on quickly establishing a successor to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, whose 15-year term runs out December 5. Also, the U.S. is going slow on missile-defense deployments in Eastern Europe and there is a de facto postponement of NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia.
Russia, for its part, has continued to provide critical logistic assistance to the U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan. As part of what Obama has called a "reset" of the bilateral relationship, a U.S.-Russia joint commission headed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is being 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.
To be sure, fundamental differences between Washington and Moscow persist on some major international and regional issues — from U.S. opposition to the Russian idea for an international treaty to outlaw cyberspace attacks along the lines of the Chemical Weapons Convention to the continuing discord over Georgia spurring rival military maneuvers in the Caucasus region.
The increasingly authoritarian Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, blamed by some international analysts for provoking last year’s war through a military strike on South Ossetia that killed Russian peacekeepers and civilians, has become for Moscow what Cuba’s then leader Fidel Castro was for Washington — the villain-in-chief.
The key issue is whether the U.S. and Russia will rise above their differences and seize the new opportunity to redefine their relationship before it becomes too late. For Russia, the challenge is to engage a skeptical 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.