Russia and the XXI Century Geopolitical Challenges. On the Eve of President D. Medvedev`s Visit to the US

15:00 21.06.2010 • Nikolai Dimlevich , political scientist



Russia gained enormous foreign-politics experience across the world in the imperial epoch and in the Soviet era. Assessing the Russian-US relations over the past year from the standpoint of this experience, one readily concludes that the highlight for the period of time has been Washington`s generous offer to press the reset button. No doubt, there are profound reasons why the US wants its relations with Russia reset.

After September 11, 2001 Washington`s foreign politics was entirely dominated by the vision of a unipolar world. The US political establishment was convinced that Russia had lost the Cold War but was nevertheless treated gently considering that no effective ruler like Gen. D. MacArthur was installed to act as its vice-king. The majority of the US politicians including all of G. Bush`s Administration were under the impression that the Kremlin`s reaction to the situation was that of ingratitude and that Russia`s political course was both unlogical and unacceptable. Like the Roman emperors who could not agree to king of Armenia Mithridates` claiming his own sphere of influence, Washington could not accept the aspirations of the post-Soviet Russia.

At that moment, Washington`s priority was to demonstrate to both Russia and Serbia that it was the US who had the final say in the Balkan affairs, and eventually not only the Kremlin but also the rest of the world were forced to realize to what extent this was the case. In 2006, C. Rice bluntly interrupted Russian diplomacy chief S. Lavrov at the hearings in the Council on Foreign Relations by saying she had already told him the problems related to the territories west of the Danube were not to be discussed.

Why was Washington so outraged by Russia`s resolute response to the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia and the killing of Russian peace-keepers? The reason was that for the US Georgia`s President M. Saakashvili was the number one partner in the Caucasus, and Moscow`s dealing him a blow called into question the widening of the US hegemony.

As a result, the situation during the last six months of G. Bush`s presidency resembled that of the second half of 1983 when the S. Korean Boeing drama prompted an outpouring of emotions in Moscow and Washington and the dialog between the USSR and the US had to be completely suspended. It did not evade watchers that in 2008 the US reaction was in part shaped by the affectivity of C. Rice who perceived the August developments in the Caucasus as her personal diplomatic defeat.

From a broader perspective, the US “righteous indignation” was due to the fact that, leveling as much criticism at Russia as it wished to, it clearly lacked the potential to actually influence Moscow without harming Washington`s own interests. Quite a few forces in today`s world would be happy to see the US and Russia clash, and in the light of the fact the new US Administration`s pledge to reset the relations with Moscow gives a cause for cautious optimism.

At the same time, one should keep in mind that the US founding fathers with all their internal disagreements invariably shared the view that they had invented a superior form of statehood and that it was their mission to spread it across the world, converting peoples to their political faith or – if necessary – helping peoples displace their rulers if they stood in the way. Even nowadays, the essentially messianic notion, which is clearly rooted in protestantism, remains the underlying philosophy of the US international politics.

Unlike philosophy, the political tactic has to be based on compromises, and the Kremlin is ready to embrace those in various spheres. Strictly speaking, Russia`s presidents were markedly open to compromise throughout the post-Soviet epoch, while the US position used to be asymmetric.

The advent of the new US Administration revived hopes that serious compromises can be reached, but the first and extremely important step must be to set fair and transparent rules of the game. Russian President D. Medvedev is calling for a new European Security Pact as the mechanisms built in the framework of the once useful Helsinki Accords no longer guarantee the same level of security to all European countries.

Recently, Russia and the US penned the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. In the context, though Moscow had to state unilaterally that this treaty is contingent upon the United States` not building up its missile defense to the level at which Russia`s nuclear deterrent might be eroded. Russia is offered to join the US-led collective missile defense system, but at the moment the plan appears to be an equation with many unknowns. While the benefits of joining in are obvious, Moscow should make sure that Russia`s own defense research will not be constrained under the arrangement. Another dimension of the problem is that Russia – in the case of its integration into the European missile defense initiative - has to avoid being dragged into the ongoing conflict between the US and the countries Washington regards as sources of threat to the US and its allies. In other words, Russia can cooperate with NATO, but not at the cost of alienating Iran, Syria, or N. Korea.

The Kremlin is carefully monitoring the evolution of NATO. It should be remembered, however, that in 1904 Russian Emperor Nicholas II said: “There will be no war with Japan because I don`t want it and Japan will not dare to wage it”. Peaceful intentions are not necessarily forever, while the NATO military potential got a boost over the past years which saw the infrastructures of the alliance inch towards Russia`s borders.

On May 17, 2010 a group of experts chaired by M. Albright unveiled NATO`s rather contradictory new strategic concept. Admitting that NATO authority and resources are limited, the document nevertheless contains proposals for widening the alliance`s responsibility zone. First, Russia cannot agree to NATO`s taking the role of a global gendarme or the Orwellian Big Brother. Secondly, Moscow holds that NATO has already reached its natural confines in the expansion process. Over the recent years, novices have been injecting into NATO their political problems and conflicts rather than brining to it new military capabilities, thus confronting the bloc with the indigestion problem. Currently the countries bracketed together in NATO fall into several asynchronous factions with diverging interests. Thirdly, Moscow is unhappy about NATO`s tendency to permanently sideline the UN as it did in Yugoslavia in 1999. We are witnessing attempts to create a parallel global governance body along with defamation campaigns targeting the UN which has deserved its status in the international politics. The latter tendency becomes particularly visible in the context of the raising World War II revisionism. For Russia, the recurrent attempts to equate Germany and the USSR in terms of the responsibility for the outbreak of World War II are absolutely inadmissible. They disguise the plan to discount Russia as a global political player. It is true that the configuration established by the Yalta and Potsdam conferences no longer exists in its original form, but its key structural elements – the UN with its institutions, the system of international law based on the UN Charter upholding the principles of sovereignty and non-interference, the UN Security Council with veto-wielding permanent members – are still there. Currently the world has no alternative platform for global dialog and peaceful resolution of conflicts.

The situation in Iraq, the country de facto partitioned by the US, is a vivid example of the current state of the international affairs. Chunks of Iraq have been appropriated by the Kurds (a development which strained the relations between the US and its former staunch ally Turkey), the Shia Iran (the main foe of the US that was thus geopolitically empowered in the region), and the Sunni Muslims. The US invasion bred chaos of such proportions in the Sunni triangle that currently Washington is forced to pay the Sunnis for abstaining from military activity. US President B. Obama says the US will withdraw from Iraq in 2010, but the stated parameters of the “withdrawal” undermine the credibility of the plan – for years to come, the US will maintain stronger military presence in Iraq than in Afghanistan.

Russia faces biting criticism over its position on the Middle Eastern affairs, especially over its contacts with HAMAS and its “dissent” concerning Iran. As for HAMAS, Moscow maintains that no stable and cohesive Palestinian state can be established without the organization`s help. Moreover, the Kremlin regards attempts to expel Arabs from Jerusalem as an open aggression. The ruthless blockade imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip turned it into a huge concentration camp where some 500,000 Muslim and Christian Arabs are enduring unprecedented hardships. Russia is doing everything it can to have the blockade of the Gaza Strip lifted.

While Moscow is lambasted over its ties with HAMAS, the US and European envoys are also - on a confidential basis – dealing with the organization which in fact legitimately represents the Palestinians. It is an open secret that, in pursuit of its own objectives, the US resorted to arm-twisting in its relations with Israel to get HAMAS to win in Palestine. It is a well-known story that in 1978 a group of high-ranking US and Israeli military officers came to Iran to help train commandos for countering the surging resistance to the shah`s regime. Oddly enough, at the same time a group of people from the US Department of State and affiliated NGOs landed in the country to promote democracy and human rights. As a result, the military officers left shortly since it became clear that the victory of Ayatollah Khomeini was imminent.

The Russian political science community is increasingly adopting the view (to which I do not subscribe) that the US is implementing the chaos control strategy in various parts of the world. In the Middle East, the outcome may be the demise of nation-states and the formation of a Muslim caliphate. I do find the scenario unrealistic, at least because its materialization would entail the collapse of the XX century grand project of the Jewish statehood in the Middle East. I am not sure that the US establishment is ready to sacrifice Israel in its political games, though is is true that the US – as well as Great Britain – have permanent interests, but no permanent allies.

Therefore, the US is trying enthusiastically to subject its strategy to an overhaul, and not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan. In the latter case, the shift largely amounts to the readiness to work tightly with the Talibs who used to be regarded as nearly the worst enemies of the US. At this point, not only Russia but also the public in the US can expect the new rules of the game to be spelled out. Lots of questions have to be answered. From the outset, what sense did it make to invade Afghanistan? Is Washington going to admit that the motivation was to route energy supplies from Central Asia to the south, diverting them from Russia and China? Promises of future American-style democracy in Afghanistan or allegations that the country posed a terrorist threat to the US cannot be taken seriously.

These days, the actual threat emanating from Afghanistan is its steadily growing drug output, which has risen by a factor of 44 since the 2001 invasion. Washington`s representatives say fighting the drug business is not part of the mandate of the international coalition occupying the country. The US position is explainable – narcotics from Afghanistan are flowing into Europe and Russia, not into the US. In contrast to what we see in Afghanistan, Washington shows much greater assertiveness in Mexico and Columbia, the two countries from which drugs are trafficked to the US, and does not shy away from using defoliants to eradicate drug crops regardless of the consequences the practice carries for human health.

A while ago, the forecasts for Iran were totally pessimistic regardless of whether the country actually had any nuclear weapons ambitions (which it would have been hard to put into practice in any case). The current developments around Iran seem to replicate those of 2003 around Iraq on which - as an obvious prelude to war - sanctions were slapped following charges of possessing stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. It transpired soon that the US intelligence data implicating Iraq was bogus, but it was late. The war took hundreds of thousands of lives of Iraqis and positioned the omnipresent Halliburton the top candidate for Iraq`s oil fields.

Iran is currently being confronted with a kind of “the presumption of guilt”. Its leader M. Ahmadinejad has to prove that he is not hiding what the IAEA inspectors are trying but are unable to find, and the country risks being punished militarily in case he fails to do so. The situation is patently absurd. A court case against Abdul Qadeer Khan was opened in the Netherlands almost three decades ago, but his dossier disappeared in 2005. Judge Anita Leeser said she had no doubts as to who wanted it stolen. Israel`s nuclear arsenals are also of the illicit origin. Overall, the country claiming the role of the top guaranspelltor of nonproliferation selectively helps countries to develop nuclear weapons while threatening with sanctions and military action others who say they have no nuclear weapons or plans to develop them.

The Israeli aspect of the problem is significant. The purely hypothetical nuclear bomb in the hands of Iran still would not expose Europe, Russia, or the US to considerable risk. Things are different for Israel. Considering the state of relations between Israel and Iran, the former can realistically be expected to attack the latter. It cannot be denied that the international crisis around Iran is, among other factors, bred by the international community`s efforts to neutralize the scenario under which Israel attacks Iran and the conflict escalates into a wider war with unpredictable consequences.

Furthermore, natural gas for alternative projects of energy supply to Europe is supposed to come from the Iranian reserves. For example, the Nabucco project is viable only provided that Iran contributes its gas – otherwise the planned new pipeline is bound to lack the necessary workload. Europe therefore needs Iran`s gas, and the European capitals as well as Washington are fully aware of the fact.

The recent trilateral Iran-Brazil-Turkey uranium enrichment deal has certainly been good news. Brazil proposed the uranium enrichment scheme employing Turkey, the country Tehran has no reasons to suspect of hostile intentions. Russia will have its own reasons to feel satisfied in case the breakthrough solution materializes as Moscow was instrumental – albeit not quite publicly – in devising it.

Like all things in the world, the global politspellical climate tends to be fluid, but geopolitical landscapes do persist. On the whole, the contours of the Eurasian geopolitical landscape remain unchanged, and a special place in it belongs to Russia. Moscow is well aware of its standing, and all countries will have to reckon with it.


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