Russia's Push to the West

Russia's Push to the West

Moscow wants to plan for unexpected crises. Is Washington listening?

The other main theme of the Valdai and Yaroslavl meetings this year was the Russian government’s proposals for a new European security architecture—something that the Russian group of the Valdai took further, drawing up a proposal for an “Alliance of Europe.” This new Russian thinking has four sources: Firstly, the Obama administration’s de facto shelving of NATO enlargement, which greatly reduces Russia’s fears of the West. Given Georgia’s behavior in 2008, the Ukrainian government’s withdrawal of the request for membership, the West’s fiscal woes, European opposition and America’s strategic overstretch, most Russian analysts with whom I spoke believe that the push for NATO expansion is unlikely to be seriously renewed even if the Republicans win the presidency in 2012.

The second reason has been the economic crisis of recent years, which has underlined Russia’s continued dependence on exports of energy and raw materials, and failure to achieve a breakthrough to a modern manufacturing economy. A very widespread view is that the only way that Russia can be shaken out of its present condition is much closer economic ties with the West.

This leads to the third reason, which has always been present in Russian thinking, but is increasingly rising to the surface of discussion: fear of China. In the elites at least this is not atavistic fear of swamping, but rather a cool calculation that if China continues to grow while Russia (relatively) stagnates, then in the end Russia will naturally become little more than a provider of raw materials to China, and, in consequence, even a form of Chinese dependency. The interesting thing about this fear is that it partially unites Russian liberals and Russian statists. The liberals deeply fear the influence of China’s authoritarian political model on Russia. The statists have no great problem with this, and indeed have used the success of China’s authoritarian development as a rhetorical club with which to beat the liberals. On the other hand, they are devoted to the idea of Russia as a great power, and dread dependency on China as much as they do dependency on the United States.

In one respect, indeed, it may already be too late for one old Russian liberal dream, which cropped up occasionally at the Yaroslavl forum: that of Russia one day joining NATO. It is almost certainly an impossible dream, but it is still cherished. When this possibility came up at Valdai, a Chinese analyst present stated quietly that such a move “would be viewed with some concern in China.” He didn’t need to raise his voice. Given Russian strategic weakness vis-à-vis China, especially in the Far East, no Russian in his senses could ignore such a warning. Incidentally, another small straw in the wind: This formidably intelligent and well-informed individual spoke fluent Russian—but not a word of English. He obviously felt no need to do so in order either to gain information or project influence.

Medvedev’s proposal for a new European security architecture is of course very different from NATO membership, and has in part a purely pragmatic motive, which (in a more limited form) should be fully shared by the West, and implemented as soon as possible. This is to put into place mechanisms which will prevent the eruption of more local crises like the Georgia war of 2008, with Russia and the West (especially the United States) drawn in on opposite sides. When NATO expansion was a real possibility, Russia’s interest in preventing such conflicts was limited, since—as August 2008 showed—they could be very useful in frightening the West away from taking on responsibility for the security of these areas. Today, with enlargement moribund and relations with Washington good, for the time being at least, Moscow has no interest in further crises.

The danger is that such crises may nonetheless burst upon us unexpectedly without either side wanting them. If we are not prepared for this, the automatic tendency alas will be for Russia and the United States to back opposing sides on the ground, and react to each others actions without thinking of their own vital interests or discussing what to do quietly between themselves rather than by megaphone. Let me give an example of the kind of thing that might happen—not because I think that it probably will in this case (though there is a possibility) but because the date is almost upon us and, as far as I can see, nobody in Western governments or bureaucracies has prepared for possible trouble.

On October 2, Latvia is holding parliamentary elections, on the basis of which a new government will be formed. According to numerous predictions, the Harmony Center bloc representing Latvia’s Russian speakers will do well (partly because of the fragmentation of the Latvian parties, partly because the dreadful economic crisis in Latvia has discredited existing governing parties, and partly as part of the process whereby the descendants of immigrants to Latvia under Soviet rule progressively grow up and start to vote). Some even predict that this bloc may win a plurality of seats and be in a position to lead the next coalition government.

This is something that would make radical Latvian nationalists very worried indeed. If they were to resort to street protests and civil disobedience in an effort to overturn the results, then there would be a serious possibility of the Russian speakers demonstrating in turn, and of violent street clashes erupting. Moscow would almost certainly feel obliged to back the Russian speakers, at least rhetorically—and to hell with good relations with the Washington. The risk would then be that America would feel obliged to throw its weight behind the Latvian nationalists—and to hell with democracy.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to be apocalyptic and, once again, I’m not saying this probably will happen. On the contrary, politics in Latvia in recent years have been characterized by a restraint which is truly remarkable and admirable given the terrible economic times the country is going through—and of course, Harmony may well not do so well. But I don’t think that anyone could describe the scenario that I have sketched as impossible, or claim that the resulting crisis between Russia and the United States would be either necessary or in the interest of either side. To prepare for such possible emergencies and draw up common responses (or at the very least, agree on mutual restraint), a strong measure of regular, institutionalized consultation between Moscow and Washington is urgently desirable. That can then form one of the building blocks for a deeper and wider security framework, if that ever proves possible and desirable.

(Photo by JacksonScott)