Friday, 3 July 2009

Russia's foreign policy backfires

There's a great piece in the Times on how Russia's sledgehammer diplomatic tactics have backfired, badly.

Belarus — which was promised $2 billion in Russian aid — is in open rebellion against the Kremlin, flaunting its preference for Europe while also collecting money from the International Monetary Fund. Uzbekistan joined Belarus in refusing to sign an agreement on the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces, an idea Moscow sees as an eventual counterweight to NATO. There are other examples, like Turkmenistan’s May signing of a gas exploration deal with a German company, and Armenia’s awarding of a major national honor to Moscow’s nemesis, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia. But the biggest came last week when Kyrgyzstan — set to receive $2.15 billion in Russian aid — reversed a decision that had been seen as a coup for Moscow, last winter’s order terminating the American military’s use of the Manas Air Base there.

After WWII people realized that eventually Germany would need to be reincorporated into Europe. Now the post-cold-war thinking is pointing toward the same for Russia. But only if they themselves see the need.

Russia’s superpower status was based on intimidation rooted in its military might – which was exposed as powerless in Chechnya, and as almost comical in Kosovo. In terms of actual military might, the US still accounts for 48 percent of global defense spending; Russia can never catch up.

Russia has a thirst to be respected as an equal which is pathetic. They are so eager to restore their self-image that they actually crowed about how proud they were, as Russians, that they killed large numbers of Georgians last year for no earthly reason. The Russians thought they were scoring points abroad, arguing that action in the Kosovo enclave justified the Georgia incursion, but they lost face abroad: nervous Europeans now support the U.S.-NATO presence more enthusiastically, almost no one recognized Ossetia’s “independence” (I think it was recogized by Nicaragua and Belarus), and that independence effort may actually give Russia’s own internal minorities ideas.

The only mistake Obama can make on Georgia is to show weakness, or eagerness to negotiate – if he does, the Russians might invade outright. Russia succeeded in driving investment away from Georgia with its incursion: Obama should promise the Georgians arms and aid. He should avoid too enthusiastic an embrace with Georgia’s hyper-active leader who has fired both his foreign minister and his defense minister. He should also see to it that the gas pipeline is protected – that is the tool Europe will use to evade Russian blackmail on energy supplies.

Obama should be careful about anything which fans the flames of Russian paranoia. We can talk to the nervous Europeans about NATO enlargement, but only when we figure out how and why we are doing it. Likewise weight the costs and benefits of outreach in Eastern Europe, and bases and pipelines in Central Asia.

Medvedev wants to ignore international institutions which he sees as tools of the west, drive a wedge between the US and Europe, replace America as the big player in Europe, intimidate Europe via military power and economic coercion, boot us out of their “near abroad” so they can pursue their “privileged interests”, and set up an anti-NATO with China and other potential partners. A bit much.

Missiles in Europe: Bush wanted to put anti-ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe, with the aim of shooting down Iran’s missiles (even though the technology is still unproven); Russia retaliated by threatening to put its own missiles near Poland. So far there is a lot of fencing. We offered to allow Russian monitors at the missile sites, but the Poles and Czechs balked. Putin did offer to accept the missiles given certain conditions. Medvedev swore to neutralize the missiles, then back off a bit. Obama has not said clearly whether he will move forward; he doubts whether it will work.

Again, the only wrong move for Obama is showing weakness: Eastern Europe is watching to see how Obama handles Russia. Consider how utterly stupid this debate is: the US could potentially deploy anti-ballistic missiles which only work against other missiles even when they do work, and Obama is not convinced they do work, and won’t deploy them until they are proven. And Medvedev threatens to retaliate by deploying, to Kaliningrad, an Iskander missile which is laughably inaccurate, which couldn’t be used against Obama’s missiles, and which has no strategic target to shoot at. What are they going to shoot at? Downtown Warsaw, just to prove a point? This sounds like something pretty stupid for either side to spend political capital on.

The NY Times noted last year that Russia is trying to force its way to the top of Obama’s agenda. Dealing with people who are too eager for attention is child’s play -- I’ll pay attention when you do what I want.

All the chest-thumping by Medvedev is for domestic consumption – there are many stakeholders who have an interest in continued international confrontation, to include generals, political ideologues, bureaucrats and contractors – but it is doing nothing but damage on the international front, particularly among investors.

Eastern Europe still feels as though they are an odd security anomaly, still stuck between Russia and NATO. Russia is still active in Transdniestria for reasons no one can understand. Russia will look for trouble in the Baltics, and with Ukraine which has an ethnic Russian majority, and whose Russian fleet base lease deal (in Sebastopol) runs out for Russia in 2017.

The Russians do have other opportunities for mischief – giving Iran nuclear technology or topnotch air defense missiles, the S-300. But not much else. Just threaten to embarrass them publicly – problem solved.

Russia is now claiming half of the Arctic Ocean as Russian territory, because it has around 90 billion barrels of oil under it, to say nothing of the natural gas. They specified that they would defend their claim. Their Federal Security Service (read: KGB) launched an all-new Arctic Directorate for the purpose, and its boss flew to the North Pole to plant a Russian flag there. We may have to go up there and fight for it. A potential problem: who do you think has the upper hand: the men of the U.S. navy, who made their bones in the sunny Pacific, or the Russians, who know cold-weather ops inside and out?

Meanwhile the Russian navy began joint exercises with Venezuela. I’m shaking in my boots.

Russia’s economic ambitions

The only thing more laughable than Russia’s strategic ambitions are their economic ambitions.

Their political humiliations are matched by their economic humiliations. Not only were they outperformed by the west during the Cold War, they are now being outperformed by their former Warsaw Pact clients. Without natural gas they could have become the economic basket case of the former Soviet Union.

They dream of using energy as a political weapon by building a global gas cartel with Iran and Qatar so the Europeans can’t free themselves of Russia by diversifying energy supplies, and maximizing its control over Central Asian gas by threatening the pipeline that runs through Georgia. That was a risky prospect since gas often requires long-term contracts. Also Russia’s behaviour makes that prospect even less attractive (and what would they offer potential allies, other than gas? Arms?). And Russia even now has only 6.5 percent of Europe’s energy supply; Europe is neatly diversifying with gas from Algeria and Nigeria, and even petroleum prices are dropping so much that OPEC can’t prop up its own prices for oil. Once gas prices crater, so do Medvedev’s dreams – and then Medvedev will have domestic problems too.

Although the other gas producers have reservations about Russia, the Central Asian gas producers will hesitate before approving pipeline deals that make them independent of Russia. That would be provocative.

The delusions of grandeur are endless. Medvedev wanted Moscow to be a global financial market and establish the ruble as a major global currency, but nobody takes the sagging ruble seriously and their stock market dropped 65 percent. They are succumbing to dropping gas prices, unemployment, inflation, rapidly disappearing foreign currency reserves; they need foreign investment, which they won’t get if they persist in angering the US and Europe.

Who is really running Russia?

Neither Putin or Medvedev is a real leader. Putin never bothered with the issues of diversification, modernization or corruption, and Medvedev only paid lip-service to the problems. Accordingly foreign investment is hesitant.

The unstable dynamic between Putin and Medvedev is fascinating to watch.
Putin, I’m sure, thinks he’s the James Bond of the (now non-existent) Soviet bloc – he thinks he’s so hard to read, but in fact he’s the big “E” on the eye chart, for anyone who has any perceptive ability. Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and thought he was looking into his soul; Clinton, on the other hand, immediately pegged Putin as soulless.

Medvedev is trying to out-macho Putin, and if Putin gets too chesty, Medvedev may push back.

Medvedev has sometimes criticized Putin’s record -- very softly.

Perhaps we should wait to see how this foolishness works itself out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What is scary to me is the return of the "great Russia" ideology. Even the kids in Brighton Beach are affected by this. Putin might not be completely in charge ( Russia is so corrupt - nobody could be at this point, and maybe it's better then if somebody would)but he seams to be in charge of their souls. Did you know that he began rehabilitating Stalin's image? "Downtown Warsaw just to prove a point". You bet you! Living in Poland I'm not going to take a chance.