Fascinating article from Stratfor. (c2009 stratfor.com)
THE WESTERN VIEW OF RUSSIA
By George Friedman
A months-long White House review of a pair of U.S. ballistic missile defense
(BMD) installations slated for Poland and the Czech Republic is nearing
completion. The review is expected to present a number of options ranging
from pushing forward with the installations as planned to canceling them
outright. The Obama administration has yet to decide what course to follow.
Rumors are running wild in Poland and the Czech Republic that the United
States has reconsidered its plan to place ballistic defense systems in their
countries. The rumors stem from a top U.S. BMD lobbying group that said this
past week that the U.S. plan was all but dead.
The ultimate U.S. decision on BMD depends upon both the upcoming summit of
the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany on the Iranian
nuclear program and Russia’s response to those talks. If Russia does not
cooperate in sanctions, but instead continues to maintain close relations
with Iran, we suspect that the BMD plan will remain intact. Either way, the
BMD issue offers a good opportunity to re-examine U.S. and Western relations
with Russia and how they have evolved.
Cold War vs. Post-Cold War
There has been a recurring theme in the discussions between Russia and the
West over the past year: the return of the Cold War. U.S. President Barack
Obama, for example, accused Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of having
one foot in the Cold War. The Russians have in turn accused the Americans of
thinking in terms of the Cold War. Eastern Europeans have expressed fears
that the Russians continue to view their relationship with Europe in terms
of the Cold War. Other Europeans have expressed concern that both Americans
and Russians might drag Europe into another Cold War.
For many in the West, the more mature and stable Western-Russian
relationship is what they call the “Post-Cold War world.” In this world, the
Russians no longer regard the West as an enemy, and view the other republics
of the former Soviet Union (FSU) as independent states free to forge
whatever relations they wish with the West. Russia should welcome or at
least be indifferent to such matters. Russia instead should be concentrating
on economic development while integrating lessons learned from the West into
its political and social thinking. The Russians should stop thinking in
politico-military terms, the terms of the Cold War. Instead, they should
think in the new paradigm in which Russia is part of the Western economic
system, albeit a backward one needing time and institution-building to
become a full partner with the West. All other thinking is a throwback to
the Cold War.
This was the thinking behind the idea of resetting U.S.-Russian relations.
Hillary Clinton’s “reset” button was meant to move U.S.-Russian relations
away from what Washington thought of as a return to the Cold War from its
preferred period, which existed between 1991 and the deterioration of
U.S.-Russian relations after Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. The United
States was in a bimodal condition when it came to Russian relations: Either
it was the Cold War or it was post-Cold War.
The Russians took a more jaundiced view of the post-Cold War world. For
Moscow, rather than a period of reform, the post-Cold War period was one of
decay and chaos. Old institutions had collapsed, but new institutions had
not emerged. Instead, there was the chaos of privatization, essentially a
wild free-for-all during which social order collapsed. Western institutions,
including everything from banks to universities, were complicit in this
collapse. Western banks were eager to take advantage of the new pools of
privately expropriated money, while Western advisers were eager to advise
the Russians on how to become Westerners. In the meantime, workers went
unpaid, life expectancy and birth rates declined, and the basic institutions
that had provided order under communism decayed — or worse, became
complicit in the looting. The post-Cold War world was not a happy time in
Russia: It was a catastrophic period for Russian power.
Herein lies the gulf between the West and the Russians. The West divides the
world between the Cold War and the post-Cold War world. It clearly prefers
the post-Cold War world, not so much because of the social condition of
Russia, but because the post-Cold War world lacked the geopolitical
challenge posed by the Soviet Union — everything from wars of national
liberation to the threat of nuclear war was gone. From the Russian point of
view, the social chaos of the post-Cold War world was unbearable. Meanwhile,
the end of a Russian challenge to the West meant from the Russian point of
view that Moscow was helpless in the face of Western plans for reordering
the institutions and power arrangements of the region without regard to
As mentioned, Westerners think in term of two eras, the Cold War and the
Post-Cold War era. This distinction is institutionalized in Western
expertise on Russia. And it divides into two classes of Russia experts.
There are those who came to maturity during the Cold War in the 1970s and
1980s, whose basic framework is to think of Russia as a global threat. Then,
there are those who came to maturity in the later 1980s and 1990s. Their
view of Russia is of a failed state that can stabilize its situation for a
time by subordinating itself to Western institutions and values, or continue
its inexorable decline.
These two generations clash constantly. Interestingly, the distinction is
not so much ideological as generational. The older group looks at Russian
behavior with a more skeptical eye, assuming that Putin, a KGB man, has in
mind the resurrection of Soviet power. The post-Cold War generation that
controlled U.S.-Russian policy during both the Clinton and Bush
administrations is more interesting. During both administrations, this
generation believed in the idea that economic liberalization and political
liberalization were inextricably bound together. It believed that Russia was
headed in the right direction if only Moscow did not try to reassert itself
geopolitically and militarily, and if Moscow did not try to control the
economy or society with excessive state power. It saw the Russian evolution
during the mid-to-late 2000s as an unfortunate and unnecessary development
moving Russia away from the path that was best for it, and it sees the Cold
War generation’s response to Russia’s behavior as counterproductive.
The Post-Post Cold War World
The U.S. and other Westerners’ understanding of Russia is trapped in a
nonproductive paradigm. For Russia, the choice isn’t between the Cold War or
the Post-Cold War world. This dichotomy denies the possibility of, if you
will, a post-post-Cold War world — or to get away from excessive posts, a
world in which Russia is a major regional power, with a stable if troubled
economy, functional society and regional interests it must protect.
Russia cannot go back to the Cold War, which consisted of three parts.
First, there was the nuclear relationship. Second, there was the Soviet
military threat to both Europe and the Far East; the ability to deploy large
military formations throughout the Eurasian landmass. And third, there were
the wars of national liberation funded and guided by the Soviets, and
designed to create powers allied with the Soviets on a global scale and to
sap U.S. power in endless counterinsurgencies.
While the nuclear balance remains, by itself it is hollow. Without other
dimensions of Russian power, the threat to engage in mutual assured
destruction has little meaning. Russia’s military could re-evolve to pose a
Eurasian threat; as we have pointed out before, in Russia, the status of the
economy does not historically correlate to Russian military power. At the
same time, it would take a generation of development to threaten the
domination of the European peninsula — and Russia today has far fewer
people and resources than the whole of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact
that it rallied to that effort. Finally, while Russia could certainly fund
insurgencies, the ideological power of Marxism is gone, and in any case
Russia is not a Marxist state. Building wars of national liberation around
pure finance is not as easy as it looks. There is no road back to the Cold
War. But neither is there a road back to the post-Cold War period.
There was a period in the mid-to-late 1990s when the West could have
destroyed the Russian Federation. Instead, the West chose a combined
strategy of ignoring Russia while irritating it with economic policies that
were unhelpful to say the least, and military policies like Kosovo designed
to drive home Russia’s impotence. There is the old saw of not teasing a
bear, but if you must, being sure to kill it. Operating on the myth of
nation-building, the West thought it could rebuild Russia in its own image.
To this day, most of the post-Cold War experts do not grasp the degree to
which Russians saw their efforts as a deliberate attempt to destroy Russia
and the degree to which Russians are committed never to return to that time.
It is hard to imagine anything as infuriating for the Russians as the reset
button the Clinton administration’s Russia experts — who now dominate
Obama’s Russia policy — presented the Russian leadership in all
seriousness. The Russians simply do not intend to return to the Post-Cold
War era Western experts recall so fondly.
The resurrection of talks on the reduction of nuclear stockpiles provides an
example of the post-Cold generation’s misjudgment in its response to Russia.
These START talks once were urgent matters. They are not urgent any longer.
The threat of nuclear war is not part of the current equation. Maintaining
that semblance of parity with the United States and placing limits on the
American arsenal are certainly valuable from the Russian perspective, but it
is no longer a fundamental issue to them. Some have suggested using these
talks as a confidence-building measure. But from the Russian point of view,
START is a peripheral issue, and Washington’s focus on it is an indication
that the United States is not prepared to take Russia’s current pressing
Continued lectures on human rights and economic liberalization, which fall
on similarly deaf Russian ears, provide another example of the post-Cold War
generation’s misjudgment in its response to Russia. The period in which
human rights and economic liberalization were centerpieces of Russian state
policy is remembered — and not only by the Russian political elite — as
among the worst periods of recent Russian history. No one wants to go back
there, but the Russians hear constant Western calls to return to that chaos.
The Russians’ conviction is that post-Cold War Western officials want to
finish the job they began. The critical point that post-Cold War officials
frequently don’t grasp is that the Russians see them as at least as
dangerous to Russian interests as the Cold War generation.
The Russian view is that neither the Cold War nor the post-Cold War is the
proper paradigm. Russia is not challenging the United States for global
hegemony. But neither is Russia prepared simply to allow the West to create
an alliance of nations around Russia’s border. Russia is the dominant power
in the FSU. Its economic strategy is to focus on the development and export
of primary commodities, from natural gas to grain. In order to do this, it
wants to align primary commodity policies in the republics of the former
Soviet Union, particularly those concerning energy resources. Economic and
strategic interests combine to make the status of the former Soviet
republics a primary strategic interest. This is neither a perspective from
the Cold War or from the post-Cold War, but a logical Russian perspective on
a new age.
While Russia’s concerns with Georgia are the noisiest, it is not the key
Russian concern in its near abroad — Ukraine is. So long as the United
States is serious about including Ukraine in NATO, the United States
represents a direct threat to Russian national security. A glance at a map
shows why the Russians think this.
Russia remains interested in Central Europe as well. It is not seeking
hegemony, but a neutral buffer zone between Germany in particular and the
former Soviet Union, with former satellite states like Poland of crucial
importance to Moscow. It sees the potential Polish BMD installation and
membership of the Baltic states in NATO as direct and unnecessary challenges
to Russian national interest.
Responding to the United States
As the United States causes discomfort for the Russians, Russia will in turn
cause discomfort for the United States. The U.S. sore spot is the Middle
East, and Iran in particular. Therefore, the Russians will respond to
American pressure on them where it hurts Washington the most.
The Cold Warriors don’t understand the limits of Russian power. The
post-Cold Warriors don’t understand the degree to which they are distrusted
by Russia, and the logic behind that distrust. The post-Cold Warriors
confuse this distrust with a hangover from the Cold War rather than a direct
Russian response to the post-Cold War policies they nurtured.
This is not an argument for the West to accommodate the Russians; there are
grave risks for the West there. Russian intentions right now do not forecast
what Russian intentions might be were Moscow secure in the FSU and had it
neutralized Poland. The logic of such things is that as problems are solved,
opportunities are created. One therefore must think forward to what might
happen through Western accommodation.
At the same time, it is vital to understand that neither the Cold War model
nor the post-Cold War model is sufficient to understand Russian intentions
and responses right now. We recall the feeling when the Cold War ended that
a known and understandable world was gone. The same thing is now happening
to the post-Cold War experts: The world in which they operated has
dissolved. A very different and complex world has taken its place. Reset
buttons are symbols of a return to a past the Russians reject. START talks
are from a world long passed. The issues now revolve around Russia’s desire
for a sphere of influence, and the willingness and ability of the West to
block that ambition.
Somewhere between BMD in Poland and the threat posed by Iran, the West must
make a strategic decision about Russia, and live with the consequences.
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