After the Summits: Russia's Role as a Player in the International Arena

June 11, 2003

After the Summits: Russia's Role as a Player in the International Arena

More than a month before a sequence of summits between the leading powers, we concluded, writing in the April 23, 2003 issue of In the National Interest: "Perhaps for the first time in the last decade not only the political, but also the economic int

More than a month before a sequence of summits between the leading powers, we concluded, writing in the April 23, 2003 issue of In the National Interest: "Perhaps for the first time in the last decade not only the political, but also the economic interests, of the United States and Europe could turn out to be different, if not opposing." (   We expressed doubt that Vladimir Putin would succeed in turning a St. Petersburg summit between Russia and the EU scheduled mainly to coincide with the city's tri-centennial into something historic based on "the character of the decisions reached."   We, as many observers elsewhere, had doubts about the effect of the Russian-American summit and the summit of the G-8 in Evian.  The only thing forecasted by everyone was that there would be a compelled "reconciliation" of all key players.

Weightlifting is the appropriate metaphor, and what we observed was "the triumph of the form" (to use the expression coined by one Russian expert).  The main players, moved from one stage to the next, demonstrated their new moves, exchanged remarks with other participants, evaluated each other's biceps.  But none of them could agree on defining the various weight categories (lightweight, medium weight, heavy weight).

Russia 's own category is not very high.  After all, even if Russia participates in the discussions of the G-8, it does not have the financial means or even the organizational instruments to be involved in many initiatives discussed under the auspices of the G-8.  When America allots $15 billion to fight AIDS in Africa , all arguments of the Russians to also claim to "play a role" look unconvincing.

Yet there is no question that in the super heavyweight category, only "Uncle Sam" qualified.  And, to borrow another comic book icon as example, the American president played the role of Superman (something which he believes the victory in Iraq manifests).  Superman sets his own schedule; similarly, President Bush kept his own schedule--arriving at banquets on his own time, delivering his remarks, and once convinced that nothing more important was taking place, would depart to take care of more important things.

George Bush's aides put together a schedule with no unambiguous messages.  By staying in Warsaw for almost twenty-four hours (equal to the amount that he was late to Petersburg compared to other leaders), President Bush showed President Putin that he values the loyalty and importance of the new strategic ally in Europe (Poland) no less then the importance of the partnership with Russia.  Departing from Evian almost twenty-four hours earlier then the others, he made it clear that pursuing a Near East settlement was more important than the ritual display of G-8 unanimity.

It also calls into question whether the "active disagreement" phase with America over Iraq has truly been resolved.  Russia and America's European opponents are facing a choice: to either repeat- now in case with North Korea and Iran- the same diplomacy, which changes depending on a situation: from "active disagreement" to "passive disagreement", and then to passive agreement and even to pragmatic cooperation.  Or, should they join the American bandwagon now and so secure their guaranteed slice of the postwar pie?

This is why, in the end, Russia has little choice to change tactics and to build on the American plans to re-carve and re-arrange the world.

At Evian , Russia did receive responsibility for the post-Soviet space.  In other words, Moscow now has accountability to ensure that no CIS country starts evolving into a "failed state."  The real test now for Moscow is what happens in Turkmenistan , because by all accounts Turkmenbashi is now a leading candidate to become the "new Saddam."  This is why, during the CIS summit in St. Petersburg , as well as in a tense meeting on its sidelines with Turkmenbashi himself, Putin stressed the need to fulfill at least a minimal number of human rights requirements. Russian authorities are well aware that if they are unable to fulfill the mandate to act as a regional policeman, the United States and its allies will step in to become the new guardians of the region.

At the same time, Russia has little chance, in the near future, to become a real part of a united Europe .  The gap is so profound, making proposals for "common economic spaces" and visa-free travel seem like a dream rather than reality.

What remains?  Realistically--to augment Russian participation in the America-centric system of international political decision-making.  Putin's loyal pragmatism--a practical agreement to legitimize the results of the war and the creation of the occupational regime in Iraq-made a decisive contribution to "reconcile" supporters and opponents of the war in Iraq .   What was perceived in Washington even more favorably was that Russia as an "oppositionist" would unlikely be able to count on some considerable and guaranteed pieces of the "Iraqi pie."

Here is the possibility for mutual dependence.  The Iraqi affair showed that the United States always has the last word in the most important global decisions.  The other states can either approve such decision and hence join America, or condemn them and be removed from the decision-making process--and only later invited to participate to ratify the decisions already made (as UN Resolutions 1441 and 1483 demonstrated).

Hence, a logical conclusion: there no sense to sacrifice its relationship with the United State for the sake of "active disagreement", if, of course, American actions do not touch the questions of one¹s own survivability, territorial integrity, security at the perimeter of the borders, and other vital questions.  The Russian elite has come to such an understanding.  

As the Iraqi example showed, the United States will always find supporters to form "the coalition of the willing." By participating, in turn, coalition members receive a chance to transform Washington 's decisions, making them more advantageous for their own interests and the interests of the international community.  ( Poland 's role--and the benefits that accrue from it--is one such example.)
Moscow can now decide whether to join such coalitions in the future, or to continue standing and opposing on the "side of the road," trying to join an American project only after it has succeeded--as in Iraq .

The evolving shift in Russia 's position toward Iran raises hopes that Russia is leaning toward becoming a permanent member of the coalition.   Russia 's unique geopolitical position makes her one of the most important players over practically the whole space of the "arc of instability," particularly in the direction of Iran , Central Asia , and the Far East .  To a large degree, that was the reason why the United States chose not to make an issue of Russia 's decision to oppose the Iraq war.

However, Russia today does not have a prospect of entering the decision-making system as a permanent member, so that her voice would be heard not only at her borders, but also on the global scale.  The "permanent" participation envisages Russia becoming a member of the Euro-Atlantic association only.  However, the latter should be objectively considered as the United States offers real dividends to Russia .

Will the West agree with that?  Of course, United States sees Russia as too weak, as for Europe , Russia remains too far to meet the tough standards that are prerequisites for other candidates joining the united European space.

However, while one could wait and demand from Russia to correspond to all standards, values, norms and rules of such an association, is it not more logical to begin first with the process of political integration?  Did the "conversion" of the Central, Eastern European, and Baltic countries into the West not happen thanks, first of all, to the political decisions made in view of the known considerations and not because of the objective criteria?  "Pulling up" of these countries toward the Western standards in full measure started after they had joined the Euro-Atlantic "club", as one of the ways to cement their new standing.

Yes, Russia is too big to be directed according to the Eastern-European scenario and to start the process of Westernization after inclusion rather than before.  Moreover, there is still a lack of confidence that the Russian leadership after achieving its goals in the arena of international affairs would really concentrate on the liberal democratic reforms required by the West.  For, Russia has never set, (and still does not) a goal to become in the end a member of the West, but also at the same time has always claimed to be an equal with the West to lay down the global order.

Washington will set the pace--but Moscow now considers, as does the rest of Europe , that there might be a "rearward" transformation of American foreign policy, depending on the outcome of the next presidential election.  American leadership, after all, may be affected by the domestic failures of the Bush Administration.

Yevgeny Verlin is the assistant international editor for Nezavisimaya Gazeta (  He is also a contributing editor to In the National Interest.  Dmitrii Suslov is an international correspondent for Nezavisimaya Gazeta.