Why Russia is leaving the West door Dmitri TRENIN in Foreign Affairs, Juli/Augustus 2006.
After the Cold War, the West saw Russia as a special case, says Trenin. With nuclear weapons and a ‘great-power mentality shaken but not broken’, it was too big to be treated like other ex-communist states. The hope was that, with Western help, it would gradually transform itself into a free-market democracy. In the meantime, what mattered was that it should pursue a pro-Western foreign policy.
But Russia rejected this. Its leaders were unwilling to accept the same rules that its former satellites were following. For all the talk about its integration into Western institutions, the project was stillborn from the start.
Bringing Russia into the G-7, making it the G-8, was meant to tie it to the West politically. The NATO-Russia Council was supposed to harmonise security agendas. The EU-Russia ‘common spaces’ were designed to Europeanise Russia economically and socially and associate it with Europe politically. Admission to the Council of Europe was supposed to promote Western values and norms in Russia.
These arrangements did not so much fail as grossly under perform, says Trenin. ‘The G-8 is still the G-7 plus Russia; the NATO-Russia Council is merely a low-key technical co-operation workshop; the EU-Russia road maps for the creation of common spaces offer only a set of general objectives with no hard commitments; and the Council of Europe, especially its Parliamentary Assembly, has become a wordy battleground between Russian deputies and their European counterparts.
After 9/11 President Putin offered the White House a deal. Russia would accept US global leadership if the US recognised Russia as a major ally, with special responsibility for former Soviet space. But Washington rejected this proposal, ‘which was made from a position of weakness’, and would go no further than discuss ‘rules of the road’ in the post-Soviet CIS.
According to Trenin, Russia gave Westpolitik another try by joining the major European powers – France and Germany – in the opposition to the US invasion of Iraq. But a new anti-American entente did not materialise. ‘Instead, transatlantic and European institutions continued to enlarge to the East, taking in former Warsaw Pact and Comecon countries and the Baltic states.’
At the same time both the US and Europe began supporting regime change from within, most notably in Ukraine and Georgia. ‘From 2003 to 2005, for the first time since 2001, Moscow’s relations with both parts of the West – the US and Europe – soured at the same time.’
Towards the end of Putin’s first term, Western governments finally realised that Russia was not going to turn democratic in the foreseeable future. ‘Reluctantly they put it into the same slot as China, still hoping, improbably perhaps, to make the most of the partnership established in a happier era.’
Astoundingly, says Trenin, the Kremlin bounced back. With China, it called for the withdrawal of the US military from Central Asia. Then, toward the end of 2005, it boldly embraced Uzbekistan as an ally. Then came the Ukrainian gas price dispute. Finally, it took on the so-called ‘beacon of democracy’ raised by Georgia and others
Having left the Western orbit, Russia is also working to create its own solar system, including by promoting Russian economic expansion in the CIS. At the same time, ‘beyond former Soviet space, it sees US influence waning and the EU as an economic, but not political or military, unit that will remain self-absorbed for a while.’
Moscow’s confidence has been helped by its greatly improved financial situation, based on high energy prices, enabling it to build the third largest currency reserves in the world.
‘With the standard of living in Russia rising, the political opposition marginalized, and government authority recentralised, the Kremlin has grown assertive, and occasionally arrogant. The humility of the post-Soviet generation has passed: Russians have made it clear that their domestic politics is no one else’s business.’
Trenin gives a half-approval to the way that Russia has decided to exploit its oil and gas resources. Energy is a political weapon, but one to be handled with care. ‘So far Moscow has done the right thing - ending energy subsidies to the former Soviet republics – but in the wrong way. ‘Rather than transforming the energy relationship with Ukraine in a steady and open manner … Russia’s state-controlled energy company, Gazprom, resorted to eleventh-hour pressure, which seemed like blackmail and made Russia look like a threat to global energy security.’
So far as the Russian ruling elite cares about the West, it is mainly about economics. But ‘by and large’ Russians leaders care even less about their image in the West than Soviet leaders did…. Officials in Moscow privately enjoy Senator John McCain’s thunderous statement about kicking Russia out of the G-8 because they know it is not going to happen, and they take pleasure in the supposed impotence of serious adversaries.
Russia today is not, and is not likely to become, a second Soviet Union, says Trenin. It is not a ravanchist and imperialist aggressor bent on absorbing former provinces. It is not a rogue state, nor a natural ally of those states that may be called rogues. As for a Sino-Russian alliance against the US, this could only occur as a result of extremely short-sighted and foolish policies on Washington’s part.
Trenin is sharply aware that the present state of Russia-Western relations can lead to tension, ‘and even conflict.’ But nothing is gained by phobia, or self-delusion. On the contrary:
‘The West needs to calm down and take Russia for what it is: a major outside player that is neither an eternal foe nor an automatic friend. Western leaders must disabuse themselves of the notion that by preaching values one can actually plant them.
‘With US-Russian relations at their lowest point – and the Kremlin at its most confident – since 1991, Washington must recognise that frustrated Russia-bashing is futile, says Trenin. It must understand that positive change in Russia can only come from within and that economic realities, rather than democratic ideals, will be the vehicle for the change.’