RT Expert View: it takes two to tango

This week RT invites experts to discuss what steps the Kremlin can take to soften the tension with the West – the United States in particular.

Peter Lavelle, RT's political commentator and anchor

There are rumors in Moscow that the Kremlin is about to announce a number of measures to improve relations with the West, particularly the United States. The reason being given for this possible diplomatic campaign is “the Kremlin understands it has gone too far because of the South Ossetia and Abkhazian situation” and the resulting “isolation.”

Part of that “isolation” includes the need to have good relations with the West during the ongoing global financial crisis. Simply put, Russia can’t afford to be left in the cold internationally because it cannot financially afford it. And part of this campaign, the rumor continues, the release from prison individuals such as Mikhail Khordorkovsy.

Does this make any sense to you? Does the Kremlin really fear being “isolated?” Let’s assume such a campaign may soon become a reality – would the Kremlin expect some form of reciprocity? After all, bilateral relationships have two players.

Peter Lavelle's blog on RT

Vlad Sobell, senior economist, Daiwa Research, London

Since the foundations of the new security architecture in Europe are far from being in place, there would be little purpose in debating the details. Let us therefore consider the big picture.

We are currently witnessing the final phase of the secular process launched by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s with the introduction of perestroika, whose first phase consisted of the unravelling of the Soviet bloc and eventually of the Soviet Union itself. One would naturally expect that, after the Soviet collapse, the Western defence structures (principally NATO but also the armed forces of its members) would gradually wind down. I write “naturally” because these structures were almost as pathological as their raison d’etre – the Soviet totalitarian system. (While Europe’s co-operation in defence is welcome, and is, of course, infinitely preferable to competition, an alliance detached from the European Union and dominated by a non-European superpower surely is not a normal state of affairs.)

Unfortunately, instead of winding down, NATO embarked on its expansion into the post-Soviet space justifying its drive by the need to stabilise the former communist countries and protect them against nebulous (and in fact highly improbable) Russian resurgence. Worse, since NATO’s expansion necessitated an ideological justification, Washington and European capitals also found it necessary to embark on a propaganda campaign, depicting Russia as incurably authoritarian and, as such, fundamentally different from the Western democracies. In other words, although the Soviet Union had vanished, NATO – and especially Washington – continued to portray Russia as its fully-fledged successor. In so doing, the West sank to levels of mendacity similar to the Soviet propaganda of yesteryear.

Although Moscow’s proposals for a new security architecture in Europe echo the strategy of Soviet leaders to de-couple Europe from the United States (and thus make it more vulnerable to Soviet power), those believing that this is actually Russia’s objective are grossly mistaken. Such analysts should be reminded that the Soviet Union really is a thing of the past and that the ideology purporting to portray Russia as its successor really is just propaganda, spun by short-sighted officialdom with a vested interest in the status quo.

Viewing comments by Russian leaders and officials, one is struck by their restraint and the extent to which they perceive the current disorder in Europe – the enlargement of NATO to Russia’s borders – as being rooted in systemic rather than personal factors. Thus they tend to depict Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia as the outcome (almost inevitable) of the dysfunctional security architecture, rather than the design of powerful individuals, such as President Bush. (Of course, Moscow sees Georgian president Saakashvili as being personally responsible, but does not perceive his Western counterparts in the same light.) Moscow therefore considers the Russo-Georgian war as incontrovertible evidence that the debate on the new security arrangement in Europe can no longer be postponed.

Peter Lavelle asks the pertinent question of what would be the role of the United States in the new security system promoted by Russia. I do not believe that Moscow would like to see a complete banishment of US influence from Europe. Why should it? After all, the US is a valued partner not only for the Europeans, but also for Russia.

Russia wants something entirely different. It wants the end of ideology (it has the experience of parting with such things itself) and systematic lying about the nature of its governance and geo-political intentions. It wants to be accepted as an equal partner with its own important stake in European security and stability. It wants a system that generates security, rather than the current pathology, which produces military aggression by the likes of Saakashvili and his US backers.

It is just conceivable that the United States, currently witnessing an unprecedented financial crisis and landmark presidential elections will finally embark on its own perestroika. Such a process is long overdue and desperately needed. Unfortunately, however, I am not optimistic on this score.

Joera Mulders, independent Russia watcher, Amsterdam

What does Russia want? Even though the post-Soviet period has spanned only 17 years, Russia has seen enough of its place as the eternal apprentice to the Western world. Russia has also seen that objecting to the post-Soviet power balance is not getting the country the anywhere. Russia's leadership therefore has realized it should change the vector within the discourse and take the helm by proposing its own visions of the future. This is the novelty about Medvedev's call for a new security arrangement. The downside is that there is little to no content to his call.

Yet, the world is increasingly convinced that it has entered a flux. Change can be postponed no longer. Few have a vision of the new world, which puts the Russian president ahead of the pack. Although unsure where the tide will take him, he rides the waves, while other world leaders still search for the solid ground of the past. Perhaps this is the advantage only a country that has just been coming out of a socio-economical u-turn can muster.

Medvedev, like his American counterpart, is preaching the message of change – a change, whose content is about to be filled by processes much bigger than both men.

The question therefore is not about what Medvedev proposes, but about the ways in which the balances of power are shifting across the globe. With hindsight, these changes may come to be seen as the birth of a new security arrangement.

Let me give you one example of a situation which is much more open than general news coverage suggests: Under the smoke of the five-day war the US administration brokered a preliminary deal with Poland about the placement of the third component of its missile defense system. Yet the final declaration of the August NATO summit read that “we task the Council in Permanent Session to develop options for a comprehensive missile defense architecture to extend coverage to all allied territory and populations not otherwise covered by the United States system for review at our 2009 summit.” Furthermore the NATO member states wrote that “we encourage the Russian Federation to take advantage of United States missile defense cooperation proposals and we are ready to explore the potential for linking the United States, NATO and Russian missile defense systems at an appropriate time.”

This example shows that while the current US administration continues to push its plans in the new Europe, the old Europe within NATO has already been shifting towards a position much more open to Russia.

The field is open. The players are watching each other. The ball is in the air. Russia and Europe are waiting for the post-Bush US foreign policy. Russia and the US wonder when there will ever be a common EU foreign policy.

The ball will likely drop elsewhere, for example in the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Will Europe prefer to look the other way, while the US army does the dirty job? Does the resurgent but still not first class Russian Federation consider itself to be too small to play a decisive role?

The power balance will not be changed by proposals, but by the way players react to unforeseen events. Remember the world before the August 7, 2008.

Sergei Roy, editor, www.guardian-psj.ru security website

Roy’s comment: Unfortunately, my view of President Medvedev’s desiderata on security in Europe is tinged with absolute hopelessness. What Peter Lavelle refers to as the “current security architecture” in Europe can well be called the “current insecurity architecture” and be done with it.

This was made all too clear by the recent conflict in the Caucasus, of which the consequences are fraught with even greater future dangers. That is what President Medvedev stated, and that’s what he is right about – whereas rebuilding the “current security structure” and replacing it with a new one is a forlorn hope, however intelligent and highly promising Medvedev’s proposals may be.

Security structures are not instituted or refurbished at the insistence of individual politicians or states, whatever the promise they may hold for eternal peace on earth. Security institutions are entirely the product of power politics, and the balance of power in Europe right now is definitely not in Russia’s favor. In defense terms, the West holds almost all the cards (apart from the nuclear ones), and it is not going to reshuffle them to suit Russia’s desire for peace and security.

The West has NATO, a military bloc that is stronger than in the past, having absorbed elements of the Warsaw Pact and even parts of the Soviet Union proper, the latter having proved even more virulent in their hatred of Russia than the old ones. Inspired by the US that dominates NATO absolutely, some of these Russia-haters have gone so far as to engage in open aggression against territories inhabited almost entirely by Russian citizens, whatever the legal status of those territories. I do not mean Georgia alone here: the facts about the sale of Ukrainian weapons that are coming out right now prove that Ukraine was not merely selling those weapons to the aggressor at a fraction of their cost and thus encouraging aggression – it was also providing the personnel to operate ground-to-air missiles, which is tantamount to participating in an act of aggression.

This act of aggression, sponsored by the West, is just one move in an ongoing campaign to surround Russia with military bases in a bid to beat it into a 1990s-like submission. Gestures of appeasement on Russia’s part, like President Putin’s offer for joint-US-Russian operation of the Azerbaijani radar station, were rejected on manifestly nonsensical grounds, while the construction of US military installations, including most recently in Poland and the Czech Republic, continues apace. 

There is no sign at all of the West contemplating anything but a continued military encroachment on territories immediately bordering Russia. The next move is supposed to be Georgia’s involvement in NATO and the construction of US military bases on Georgia’s territory, eyeball to eyeball with Russia’s. Every effort is also being to draw Ukraine into NATO. A propaganda campaign has already been launched about the imperialist “aggressor” Russia harboring designs on the Crimea – a classical “Stop thief!” operation by a bunch of thieves.

Russia is at a serious disadvantage in this stand-off in that it lacks allies. Even Belarus, which is supposed to be part of the union of two states, Russia and Belarus, has been disgracefully lukewarm in its support for Russia’s effort to contain aggression. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a fine enough organisation as far as it goes, but it obviously does not go far enough – not enough, anyway, to take Russia’s side in any acute confrontation with the West.

Thus there is no reason at all for the West to offer Russia a place in any new security configuration in Europe – or elsewhere. There was perhaps a tiny chance of Russia entering NATO in the early 1990s, with the resultant absorption of Russia’s defense establishment in NATO’s or, rather, in that of the USA. That chance was missed, and one hopes it was missed for good, for it would have meant the end of Russia as a thousand-year old geopolitical entity.

President Medvedev’s talk of a new security structure for Europe is basically sound on a rational, intellectual level. Sadly, that is not the level at which international relations are configured. Medvedev’s proposals for new security architecture in Europe will only be good as a weapon in diplomatic warfare, in much the same way as Immanuel Kant’s ideas about eternal peace on earth have been an inspiration for countless dreamers.