Russia Makes Partner

Russia Makes Partner

With the dust settled from the Georgian conflict, it’s clear that Russia doesn’t have grandiose imperial ambitions. But Moscow does want a seat at the table.


After the end of the Russian-Georgian conflict the world's multipolar nature became obvious. Despite its huge economic, military and political power, the United States no longer has the resources required to carry out unilaterally its foreign-policy goals. Russia's public flogging of Georgia, the "spoiled child" of the United States, showed that despite efforts to prevent the invasion, the United States failed to stop Russia or to protect Saakashvili. Neither the United States nor Western countries sought outright confrontation with Russia, which indicates that Saakashvili's allegations that Russia's attack against Georgia was an attack against the West and against democracy were not really taken seriously. Neither the United States nor Europe accepted the argument that it was in Georgia, of all places, that the destiny of democracy was at stake.

It also became clear that it is impossible to restart the cold war with Russia in the old sense of the term. Russia has neither the required resources nor an alternative ideology to impose upon the rest of the world. That is why it cannot be viewed as a global threat to the West. It was also quite natural to expect that the West would not be united in its opposition to Russia. Though officially the NATO countries condemned "Russia's excessive use of force" against Georgia, many countries of old Europe assumed the role of a mediator rather than a party to the conflict. It was in this capacity that French President Nicolas Sarkozy-currently holder of the EU presidency-acted in Moscow while coordinating the conflict settlement plan with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.


It seems that the Western world, by default, came to the conclusion that Russia was resolving a local problem to ensure stability and security along its borders. Those who called for isolating and punishing Russia were put to shame. It is becoming increasingly clear that in today's world, unlike in the 1990s, all roads do not lead to Washington. It is also becoming evident that several power centers have emerged in the world and that Russia is viewed as a serious partner in many of these centers, and even as an ally for some states attempting to restore the balance in international relations disturbed after the end of the cold war and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, any serious politician and analyst clearly understands that such modern global issues as non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, climate change, energy security, the problem of Iran's nuclear energy ambitions, the fight against international terrorism and many others are absolutely impossible to resolve without the active participation of Russia.

Another issue arises in this connection: what was the signal that Russia sent to the world and what must its partners, neighbors, friends and foes take into account?  The first and most important message boils down to the fact that Russia has no intention whatsoever to start any major confrontation with the West. This is not part of Moscow's strategic or tactical goals. Russia's leaders are prepared for a confrontation if it is imposed upon them, but they will try their best to overcome, as soon as possible, the negative effects of this conflict on the Russian-American relationship and, more broadly, on relations between Russia and the West. Russia certainly understands that Washington feels humiliated to a certain degree. Indeed, for the first time since the end of the cold war, a country under U.S. patronage was punished by another state-a fact that clearly displeased Washington. Russia acts on the assumption that the administration will finally draw the right conclusions and will by no means view this as a challenge to its global interests. In this region, Russia is just dealing with the very specific task of securing stability on its borders.

The next important message that the Russian leaders sent is that Russia does not include territorial expansionism and a new arms race among its goals. Its main objective is the implementation of the 2020 Program proclaimed by Vladimir Putin earlier this year and supported by Medvedev. The real priority for the country is restructuring its economy, developing high-tech industry, reducing its dependence on oil and gas, creating an extensive middle class, developing small and medium-size businesses, and promoting Russian products on international markets.

Russian leaders realize that confrontation with the West will divert the energy of the people and the country's resources from tackling this priority. The most important-and only-thing that Russia wanted to demonstrate to the West was that it had outgrown the role of a junior partner. Moscow now has the resources, the will and the determination not only to articulate its national interests but also to stand up for them. Russia will even use military power if it decides that its neighbors, partners or foes crossed the red line in their actions. Russia's conduct became a logical continuation of Vladimir Putin's speech in Munich where he stated unambiguously that Russia was displeased with the way certain international political issues were being dealt with-in particular, when these issues concerned vital interests of the Russian state. In such cases, Russia is prepared to show such displeasure by words and by deed. The future development of Russian-American relations will depend on whether Washington will be prepared to accept the new role that Russia wants to assume in international relations and, more broadly, on whether the United States is prepared to view any state as an equal partner rather than a satellite. Russia has made its move, and in this sense President Medvedev was right in stating that the ball is now in Washington's court.

A few words about two other issues that were quite frequently raised by Western analysts and politicians with regard to the conflict. In the West, most went so far as calling President Medvedev's statement about Russia's special interest in areas adjacent to its borders a return to the nineteenth century world of subdivided spheres of influence. However, I think these commentators deny Russia a natural right of any state: namely, the ability to determine those regions outside its borders that are vital to stability inside its borders. States relied upon this right in the ninth century, in the nineteenth century and, it seems, will continue to do so in the twenty-first century.

Last but not least, most American politicians and analysts thought that Russia's goal in the conflict with Georgia was to oust Saakashvili. Yet even if Moscow did really want to do this-and there is no evidence that it did-Russia could not replace the Saakashvili regime and get away with it. Unlike in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, there are no serious forces in Georgia that would follow Russia's lead. Russia would have had to engage in a full-scale occupation and take the position of an open aggressor, which is contrary to its long-term interests.

A relatively short history of the modern Georgian state shows that regimes change there because of the will of the Georgian people, rather than as a result of outside pressure. Georgians get enchanted by their leaders very quickly and will give them utmost support as long as those leaders live up to their hopes and expectations. This was what happened to former Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was supported by virtually all of the Georgian population. The same happened with Eduard Shevardnadze, and it is also true in the case of Saakashvili. However, as soon as the Georgian people get disappointed in their leaders they oust them and select others who enchant them at the moment. The Georgian people got rid of both Gamsakhurdia and Shevardnadze before the end of their terms. It seems likely that the very same fate will befall Saakashvili. That is why there is no reason whatsoever for Russia to try to bring about regime change. The Georgian people will deal with their third president themselves, in the same manner as they dealt with the first two presidents.


Andranik Migranyan is professor of political science at the Moscow State University for International Relations (MGIMO) and the director of the New York City branch of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation.