Squabbles over the post-Soviet space

Sergei Markedonov
20 April 2009

In 2007, the three "buzz" words in Russia were "glamour", "nanotechnology" and "blog". In 2008 they were "crisis", "collider", and "war". This year, in Oleg Reut's opinion, "reset" looks as if it will be one of them. It is hard to disagree.

However, as yet the concept amounts to no more than a successful PR move. Barack Obama's new team has good speechwriters who have come up with a effective word to characterise Russian-American relations now. Only time will show whether this "reset" will come to have real meaning, whether it will become a political-ideological reality, like "détente" or "new thinking".

Real understanding will be required to prevent it becoming just a PR project. Which legacy is it that Moscow and Washington are going to have to put behind them? And can we talk about a "new page" in bilateral relations if it is going to be written by the same old authors? The Russian side, at least, is going to have to demonstrate new "writing gifts". The present American state secretary Hillary Clinton can hardly be seen as a newcomer to politics either. After all, her husband played a considerable role in launching that most sensitive of issues in Russian-American relations, NATO eastward expansion. It was during his two presidential terms that the first attempts were made to include former Soviet satellites in the NATO bloc.

Not the Cold War

First, we have to get rid of some of the misleading terminology that has been used to describe relations between the USA and the Russian Federation today. It has become fashionable among journalists and political analysts in both countries to refer to a revival of the spirit of the "cold war", if not a complete return to it. This has been encouraged by a number of "landmark" speeches by leaders in both countries  - Vladimir Putin's Munich speech and Vice-President Cheney's speech in Vilnius.  There have also been the geo-political crises in the South Caucasus and Ukraine, and the eastward expansion of NATO.

The very term "cold war" is historical in origin. No one would dream of talking about modern Russian-American and Russian-European relations as a continuation of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Thirty Years War or even the Hundred Years War. The "cold war" belongs just as much to a particular historical period as they do. It defines the reality of the Yalta-Potsdam peace that marked the end of the Second World War. This world no longer exists. It was ceremonially "buried" at the NATO Prague summit in 2002. A new world order is in the making now.

A new world order

There is no way of predicting with any confidence how the outlines of this world order will ultimately be determined. The Yalta-Potsdam peace, unlike the post-Versailles world, was created by friends who were also enemies. This was reflected in the subsequent course of history, which was based on "checks and balances", maintaining the inviolability of borders and territorial integrity, and guaranteeing national self-determination. These "checks and balances" were provided by the "cold war", the confrontation of the two superpowers and the military-political blocs grouped around them. It was not so much a military and political confrontation as an ideological one. One side was fighting  for a new society and Soviet communism, while the other was protecting the "free world from the totalitarian monster". The "cold war" ended when the USSR and the Warsaw bloc ceased to exist, and communism was thrown into the severe crisis it is in today. We need more accurate, relevant categories to describe relations between Russia and the West since then.

You can't have a "cold war" without the existence of a second ideological superpower. "Sovereign democracy" and "energy imperialism" hardly fulfill that role. They are no more than PR concepts. What is more, the new Russian president Dmitry Medvedev is not particularly keen on "sovereign democracy". It has not featured in the repertoire of relevant ideas since 2008.

As for the Russian military budget, in absolute figures it is almost 25 times smaller than America's. Even taking into account the different principles of army recruitment in Russia and the USA and the different ways of calculating the value of their military equipment, America's budget  is still five times greater.

So Russia is not a rival of the USA either militarily, in terms of wealth or ideology. As the events of last August demonstrated,  Russia, for better or worse, no longer  constitutes a separate geo-political world power. Russia is indisputably a strong regional power in the post-Soviet space, with the resources to determine the "rules of the game" within it. But beyond that territory, no country is prepared to make a decisive choice between Moscow or Washington. Even Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan or Belarus prefer to pursue a diversified foreign policy.

Furthermore, one can only agree with Oleg Reut, who worked as an employee of the Nixon Center in Washington in 2007, that "recent years have seen an increasing asymmetry between the two powers. America occupies a much larger place in the political consciousness of Russia than vice versa. In Russia the United States is to a significant extent  both a rival and an object of emulation.  The rivalry may be a natural continuation of a "cold war" way of thinking. But the United States has only relatively recently become a power to be emulated.  

This is the background against which Russia will decide on which issues it is prepared to compromise with the USA, and on which it will dig in its heels.

Strategic v regional

After the first meeting between Presidents Barak Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, it was possible to define two groups of problems. The first was strategic. The USA and Russia signed joint statements on the future of Russian-American relations, and on a document to replace START-1 (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). Both sides showed an interest in cooperation in Afghanistan, in controlling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and also the Iranian nuclear programme.

The second group could be called the "Eurasian" issues. These, unlike the first, are regional. They concern events in South Ossetia in August 2008, the unilateral recognition of independence of the two former autonomous regions of Georgia, the integration of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, and Russian policy on the territory of the former USSR in general. The main issue here is whether Washington is prepared to consider the post-Soviet area as primarily a Russian "sphere of influence".

Before the first "reset" meeting, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Washington was prepared to recognize Russia's influence only within the Russian Federation, not beyond its boundaries. The meeting between Medvedev and Obama saw no movement on this. The US President showed no understanding of his Russian colleague's position. Obama made it clear to Medvedev that Washington does not recognize the territory of the CIS to be a "zone of Russian influence", and will not approve of a post-Soviet version of the "Monroe doctrine". In this sense, there is clearly a continuity between the policies of the previous administration and this one.

The problem is that even before the "reset", Moscow had expressed its readiness to work on a wide range of strategic issues, from opposing terrorism to the Iranian or Korean issue, or Afghanistan. The bone of contention was the post-Soviet area. The Americans insist on  seeing Russia's instincts as authoritarian and archaic.

Conceding realities in Russia's "near-abroad"

At the same time, the Americans have often ignored Russia's interests, which are real, whatever the domestic politics. The measure of democracy in this or that CIS country cannot be determined by whether there is Russian influence, or a military presence there. Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan can hardly be seen as successful democracies merely because they have no Russian military bases.

Russian military presence in Tajikistan not only prevented civil war, but gave an example, and not a bad one either, of successful post-conflict regulation. It was Russian peacekeepers, not those of NATO or America, who stopped the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In Abkhazia, it was thanks to Russian soldiers that some 60,000 Mingrelians returned to the Gali district. In 2004 it was Georgia, not Russia, that began the "thawing" of the conflict in South Ossetia, which ultimately lead to the "five-day war".

If the "reset" is going to work, Washington will have to admit that Russia's role on the territories of the former USSR cannot be the same as its role in Africa or Latin America. The ties are too strong. Many conflict areas in states of the "near abroad" also have a serious impact on internal security both in individual regions of Russia, and in the country as a whole. The Georgian-Ossetian and Ossetian-Ingush conflicts are examples of this, as are the Georgian-Abkhazian confrontation and the situation in the northwest Caucasus.

Russia, for its part, will have to admit that its special role in the CIS is not going to mean the rebirth of communism in Eurasia, or the growth of Moscow's global ambitions. Winning the "five-day war" is not enough. Global ambitions today are unthinkable without attractive values, powerful economic potential and a circle of potential allies, and Russia has serious problems here. Consequently, Russia's interest in Eurasia is more defensive than offensive. Its primary goal is to support stability inside Russia.

Russian diplomacy also needs to recognize difficult but obvious truths. Firstly, we should not extrapolate our disagreements with the USA in the post-Soviet area onto bilateral relations as a whole. Whatever happens in Georgia or Azerbaijan, cooperation on Afghanistan is objectively necessary and beneficial for both Moscow and Washington.

Secondly, the post-Soviet area has ceased to be the geo-political property of the Russian Federation. And the longer the post-Soviet countries are independent, the more internationalized the CIS will become. It will not be possible to stop the westernization of these former Soviet republics by building a "great wall of China", however much some may want to do this. The CIS already has its "losers' club", whose members connect their failures and losses with Russia, and their hopes for the future with the USA. The main thing is that Russia's lawful interest be taken into account, as it was when the Dagomys agreement on South Ossetia were signed in 1992, and the Moscow agreement on Abkhazia in the same year. No one should try to exclude Moscow from this process, as Georgia did in 2004-2008.

A successful outcome to attempts at "resetting" Russian-American relations today will depend ultimately on negotiations over the post-Soviet space.

Sergei Markedonov is head of the Department of International Relations at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, and a candidate of historical science.


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