Thursday, September 18, 2014
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Realism about Russia

BERLIN – Russia’s strategy to revise the post-Soviet order in what it calls its “near abroad” will be pursued with even more perseverance following its victory over Georgia. Europe should have no illusions about this and should begin to prepare itself. But, as the European Union ponders what to do, cold realism, not hysterical overreaction, is in order.

Unfortunately, equating the current situation in the Caucasus with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 does not attest to this kind of realism. Neither the West nor NATO constitutes the decisive strategic threat facing Russia, which comes from the Islamic South and from the Far East, in particular the emerging superpower, China. Moreover, Russia’s strength is in no way comparable to that of the former Soviet Union.

Indeed, demographically, Russia is undergoing a dramatic decline. Apart from commodity exports, it has little to offer to the global economy.

Notwithstanding booming oil and gas revenues, its infrastructure remains underdeveloped, and successful economic modernization is a long way off. Likewise, its political and legal system is authoritarian, and its numerous minority problems remain unsolved. As a result, Russia’s current challenging of the territorial integrity of Georgia might prove to be a grave error in the not-so-distant future.

Given this structural weakness, the idea of a new Cold War is misleading. The Cold War was an endurance race between two similarly strong rivals, the weaker of which eventually had to give up. Russia does not have the capacity to wage another struggle of that type. Nevertheless, as a restored great power, the new Russia will for the time being attempt to ride in the slipstream of other great powers for as long as doing so coincides with its possibilities and interests; it will concentrate on its own sphere of influence and on its role as a global energy power; and it will otherwise make use of its opportunities on a global scale to limit America’s power. But it will not be able to seriously challenge the United States – or looking towards the future, China – in ways that the Soviet Union once did.

It is now clear that in the future, Russia will once again pursue its vital interests with military force – particularly in its “near abroad.” But Europe must never accept a renewal of Russian great power politics, which operates according to the idea that might makes right. Indeed, it is here that Russia’s renewed confrontation with the West begins, because the new Europe is based on the principle of the inviolability of boundaries, peaceful conflict resolution, and the rule of law, so to forgo this principle for the benefit of imperial zones of influence would amount to self-abandonment. Further eastward expansion of NATO, however, will be possible only against fierce Russian resistance. Nor will this kind of policy in any way create more security, because it entails making promises that won’t be kept in an emergency – as we now see in Georgia.

For too long, the West has ignored Russia’s recovery of strength and was not prepared to accept the consequences. But not only Russia has changed; so has the entire world. America’s neo-conservatives have wasted a large part of their country’s power and moral authority in an unnecessary war in Iraq, willfully weakening the only global Western power. China, India, Brazil, Russia, and the Persian Gulf today are the world economy’s new growth centers and will soon be centers of power to be reckoned with. In view of these realities, the threat of exclusion from the G8 doesn’t really feel earth shattering to Russia. Europe’s disunity and impotence underline this image of a West that has partially lost touch with geo-political realities.

The response to the return of Russia’s imperial great power politics has nothing to do with punishing Russia, and a lot to do with establishing innately Western – especially European – positions of power. This requires several measures:

·        a new political dynamism vis-à-vis Turkey to link this country, one crucial for European security, permanently to Europe;

·        putting a stop to Moscow’s divide-and-conquer politics by adopting a common EU energy  policy;

·        a serious initiative for strengthening Europe’s defense capabilities;

·        a greater EU commitment to Ukraine to safeguard its independence;

·        a greater freedom of travel for all the EU’s Eastern neighbors.

All of this, and much more, is needed to send a clear signal to Russia that Europe is unwilling to stand idly by as it returns to great power politics.

Presumably, none of this will happen, and it is precisely such inaction that is, in large part, the cause of Russia’s strength and Europe’s weakness. At the same time, however, one shouldn’t lose sight of the joint interests linking Russia and the West. Cooperative relations should be maintained as far as possible.

It is blatantly obvious that for Russia’s elites, weakness and cooperation are mutually exclusive. Therefore, whoever wants cooperation with Russia – which is in Europe’s interest – must be strong. That is the lesson from the violence in the Caucasus that Europe must urgently take to heart.

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