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Time To Recognise The Reassertion

July 17, 2009

Time To Recognise The Reassertion

Political stability in Iraq and Afghanistan; resolution in the Middle East; the rise of India and China; ongoing unrest in the Balkans and Africa. When predicting the foreign policy priorities for the UK in the coming decades, these issues and more feature in even the briefest assessment. But what of Russia? As the woeful mismanagement of the West’s relationship with that country in recent years has shown, Russia remains curiously low profile – a strange state of affairs given the Cold War history which cast a four decade long shadow on post-World War Two affairs.

This is a mistake. In recent years we have seen a reassertion, if not a full scale re-emergence, of Russian power that suggests that far from being on a journey towards democracy, Russia is in fact turning away from the West, becoming increasingly belligerent in the pursuance of its own interests and keen to re-establish itself as an independent-minded global player.

This matters to Britain. The invasion of Georgia in 2008, the cutting of the Ukraine’s gas supply in 2006, the steady influx of superrich Russians into our economic and political spheres – all these events are relevant to our future security be in it terms of military commitments or energy. Without immediately giving some serious strategic thought to our relationship with Russia, and clearly assessing what we want from it, we risk getting psychologically outgunned by a country whose forte lies in exploiting the competing interests of Western nations and the hypocrisies those interests often reveal.

The West has had a complacent tendency to view the collapse of the Soviet Union as the end game in the international battle of ideas. Before the recess, I posted an article on China that suggested it is naïve to assume that country will become more open, democratic and liberal the richer it becomes. Similarly, Russia is no longer on an inevitable path to multi-party democracy, rule by law and press freedom. The free market economy and liberal democracy are not universally accepted as the only way to prosper fully, no matter how much we may protest. Indeed while we like to assume capitalism and democracy are inextricably bound, the experience of the past decade or so in both Russia and China seems to suggest that capitalism can coexist with an authoritarian regime – stability and increased wealth are a powerful combination. Capitalism may have triumphed over communism after the Cold War. Democracy did not.

In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the signs of communism’s failure were inescapable. Pragmatic welfare capitalism was unquestionably superior. Russia subsequently spent most of the 1990s struggling to make the transition to becoming a ‘normal’ state. Along with the painful admission of ideological defeat – all the more so given the sense of pride felt by its people – came the disintegration of the USSR, an acceptance of the Soviet Union’s darker history and a collective shame. Accompanying financial meltdown underlined the sharp downgrading of the former global superpower to weak, failing state.

Whilst paying lip service to the integration of Russia as a friendly state on the international stage, US foreign policy suggested that it was still viewed with deep suspicion. NATO was enlarged to bring former Soviet states into the Western fold and Russian interests were disregarded the more US hegemony entrenched itself. From the bombing of Serbia in the late 1990s to the invasion of Russia’s client state, Iraq, it was clear that Russian opinion no longer shaped events nor played any significant role in influencing US or UN thinking.

For a time, even Vladimir Putin, who officially became Russia’s second President in 2000, was keen to demonstrate Russian willingness to become an important ally to America in areas of mutual interest. He accepted a second stage of NATO enlargement to the Baltic states, allowed America to withdraw from the anti-ballistic missile treaty and stood shoulder to shoulder with George W Bush in the battle to defeat terrorism.

What we in the West see as a predictable outcome to the unravelling of a hitherto omnipotent state, a slow and difficult march to normality and the reluctant acceptance of a different place in the world, the past twenty years are seen very differently by Russia. Many Russians now reflect upon the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras as ones of chaos, uncertainty and utter humiliation. We have consistently underestimated the importance of face and pride to the Russian people. In the aftermath of the Cold War, they had lost both.

Now, even when clearly demonstrating Russian willing, President Putin was getting nothing back from co-operation with the United States, not even a cursory nod to Russia’s strategic interests. The new world order was not one of co-operation but one of US unilateralism. Friendship clearly paid no reward and painfully highlighted the drastically reduced currency of Russian support on the international stage.

By 2006, the Kremlin felt it pointless to maintain the charade. Russia would only be respected if it began to talk – and act – tough. Putin began to cultivate the idea that Russia could restore primacy in its former empire, get a seat back at the top tables and regain international esteem. Success would now be measured by his nation’s ability to stand up to the West.

The President was able to tap into a large pool of resentment amongst those who disliked the post-Cold War international order. He filled the vast ideological vacuum left by the disintegration of the communist ideal with the notion of a Russian civilisation based upon patriotism, selflessness and deference to a powerful state. It would be distinct from that of the West with its hypocrisy, shallowness, selfish individualism and indecision. Putin promoted Russia’s great power status and set about rewriting history, sanitising the darkest moments of the Soviet past and labelling the collapse of the USSR a great geopolitical catastrophe. Though it coincided with a curtailment of freedom in Russia, Putin’s brand of robust nationalism was to prove a winning formula with the Russian people. His stance was also lent an air of legitimacy by increasing anti-Western sentiment across the world as American foreign policy pursuits became mired in unpopularity.

After establishing support for a new direction, Putin showed himself willing to bolster it through tough action, testing Western resolve whilst shoring up his own domestic popularity. The most notable example of this was the Russian invasion of the Georgian province, South Ossetia, last summer – though technically an operation conducted under the new Presidency of Dmitriy Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin remains a driving force in the Kremlin. While largely now out of the British news, the events of 2008 will loom large for years to come.

After a period of corruption and chaos after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly independent state of Georgia elected the dynamic, apparently pro-West leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, as its President in 2003. His government introduced a flat tax, improved public services, attracted foreign investment and fostered a booming economy. Though no clear pathway had been proposed, NATO had even promised it future membership.

Georgia’s economic success presented a profound ideological challenge to Russia and had started to help integrate its breakaway, Russia-allied regions, such as South Ossetia. Through fear of declining influence and knowing that it could cause confusion amongst its Western allies, it has been suggested Russia deliberately tried to destabilise Georgia by firing up those in the country’s disputed provinces. By taking no clear stance in the military conflict that ensued in South Ossetia, the West made clear its internal divisions, its wavering support for its allies and the higher value many of its countries placed on trade links to Russia.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of either side in that conflict, it assisted Russia in testing Western resolve, reasserting itself in its traditional sphere of influence and frightening countries on its border who had assumed Western protection. It also exposed an increasing erraticism and an authoritarian streak in President Saakashvili, a man now seen by many of his countrymen as an American puppet. Russia may not have been trying to recreate its empire, but it was sending a clear message to the West not to encroach further into its sphere of influence.

Putin’s project to restore Russian pride was boosted by the fact that he appeared to deliver results – the country became six times richer in his time as head of state, in large part due to the exploitation of vast natural resources. Russia now provides 42% of all EU gas imports, a figure that is rising. It is an energy dependence that Russia has displayed willingness to exploit. Gazprom, the state owned Russian energy company, is buying up distribution networks in other countries and continues to avoid any break up of its monopoly. Russia uses this control of energy supply as a tool with which to create disunity amongst EU member states, making energy deals with individual countries that could eventually force them to choose between secure energy supply and commitments to the protection of other member states.

The EU was woken up to this vulnerability in 2006 when Russia turned the gas tap off to the Ukraine in a dispute between the two countries. It created gas shortages across the continent as a major pipeline must pass through the Ukraine before it reaches its customers. On that occasion, it was in Russia’s interest not to prolong the conflict. After all, it needs European custom almost as much as Europe needs its gas. But with Russia’s domestic gas market set to increase and the global demand for energy bringing new foreign customers from the east, the European market will become less vital to Russia’s economy. At that stage, Europe may well become vulnerable to Russian political whims.

Russia is already actively giving greater consideration to relations with countries like India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia. Most importantly, however, trade with China has more than tripled under Putin and the two countries see themselves as having important similarities – they shun hypocritical idealism, detest outside interference and the projection of Western values, and have state-dominated market economies.

Of course Russian reassertion should be kept in perspective. There remain significant and deep problems in the Russian economy. There is a dearth of foreign direct investment as international businesses prove reluctant to involve themselves in a notoriously corrupt and bureaucratic economy. There is also an over reliance on natural resources. The drop in oil and gas prices and the fall in demand due to the global recession mean that the Russian economy is set to contract 8.5% this year. The failure to deliver economic results will put the spotlight on its political leaders. But I suspect the Kremlin will not miss the opportunity to present any troubles as a crisis of capitalism, projecting blame on US unilateralism and the West’s neglect of the moral and ethical basis of capitalism. Indeed it is possible that the economic problems of the past year will accelerate not only an economic movement of power away from the West but an ideological one too. It may be that once the lights are switched on after this period of economic darkness, we find ourselves in a multipolar world with US dominance history.

Hitherto Russia has shown no appetite for prolonged confrontation with the West and presents no immediate direct security threat. While it seems to be starting to turn eastwards, Russia also still regularly interacts with the EU and America. Aspirant Russians buy Western goods and property, send their children to our schools and universities, and extend their business interests here. Furthermore, Russia has not yet earned or demonstrated truly serious economic and political clout.

But that nation has demonstrated a fresh desire to be taken seriously on the world stage. In realising this ambition, it is unlikely to play by Western rules. Whilst no longer a great military power, Russia has shown its ability to stand firm in the face of Western prevarication. Increasingly assertive in getting what it wants from its foreign relationships, the country is also becoming more inclined to look to new partners to fulfil its needs.

In contrast we have failed to keep our minds sharp yet alone think strategically about what we want from our relationship with Russia. In recent years, our diplomatic relations with that country have been woefully mismanaged, with apparent aggression belying the weak willed confusion that rests beneath official policy. The psyche of the Russian government will recognise our even handed indecision and mercifully exploit it as a weakness. As well as neglecting our own interests, our current stance towards Russia also fails to understand the Russian mindset and its development since the Cold War. Russia’s strong sense of pride and its recognition only of strength not weakness mean that it is reluctant ever to climb down from escalation or be seen to pander to the West.

We must now form our relationship with Russia around clear priorities. We need to trade with Russia. We require its natural resources as cheap and secure energy. We need its co-operation in dealing with terrorism and we wish it to shy away from military aggression on its borders. Around those hard priorities we must approach the softer aspects of the relationship with greater sophistication. For one, we must stop projecting our values and trying to influence Russia’s domestic policy. That is not to say that we abandon Western ideology. On the contrary, we should firmly assert our values. But we should be more understanding of Russian priorities and needs rather than offering only simplistic analysis based on what we may find ideologically abhorrent.

As much as it rankles us, unfortunately foreign policy is not black and white – there are many shades of grey in between. We should enter into our relationship with our eyes fully open. I regretfully suggest that we extend NATO and EU membership only sparingly instead of dangling them as deliberately unreachable carrots to those countries on the EU’s eastern edges – false promise harms our credibility, stokes resentment and ties us up in competing interests. Finally, we should do what we can to avoid overdependence on Russia in key strategic matters be it in energy or in defence.

Russia will be sure to test Western resolve in the coming years. Pushing the boundaries of its rank in the world order will prove popular at home and may begin to make more sense as the West’s ideological superiority is challenged by the fallout from the financial crisis. We must be ready for the Russian reassertion by staking out clearly what the UK wants and needs from Russia. At the moment we bluster without the political willpower to back it up. If we are not careful, we may find that the world has changed, our confused lambasting of Russia’s approach to its domestic and foreign affairs no longer relevant. A key potential partner (if not ally) in security, trade and energy will have moved away from our sphere of influence.