PARIS – “Let’s engage Russia if we can, but contain it if we must.” These two alternatives already defined Western strategy toward Russia in the mid-1990’s. Since then, Russia may have changed dramatically, but not our questions about it. What do you do when your big neighbor widens the gap that exists between its culture, which is European, and its political system, which is becoming increasingly “Asian,” at least in the bad old sense of “Oriental despotism”?
Should the best answer to the return of Russia’s imperial ambitions be a modern version of a Holy Alliance of stability designed to contain the world’s new maverick? Or is a latter-day Yalta Conference, aimed at redrawing the political boundaries of Europe, necessary? Could the answer be a bit of both?
If Russia is becoming what revolutionary France was under Napoleon, or reverting to Soviet form – shorn of a totalitarian ideology but with an appetite for conquest and re-conquest – what is needed is not the “league of democracies” advocated by some conservatives in America. What is needed, instead, is a “stability league” that includes prominent actors like China, India, and other countries that are more interested in economic growth than in “rocking the boat” of the international system. Such a strategy implies, first of all, a solid partnership with China, not because it is evolving in the direction of democracy, but because it is a status-quo power.
Such a strategy could lead to the opening of negotiations with Iran, and of course to a further closing of ranks within NATO. The message to the Kremlin here would be crystal clear. “Do not fool yourself. Nationalism and imperialism will lead you nowhere; you cannot expand geographically without serious costs to your economic growth and your personal enrichment. Europe may be weak and divided, America may no longer be what it was, but with your falling population and the sad state of your economy beyond oil and gas, you simply are not equipped to be in the league of great global powers. China is; you are not.”