Monday, 10 August 2009

A start to building partnership: treat Russia's security propositions seriously

The anniversary of last summer’s war between Georgia and Russia has formed a pretext for predictable anti-Russian posturing. Politicians in Britain and elsewhere have been quick to rationalise their initial reactions to the conflict, despite the improvement in tone which Barack Obama’s arrival at the White House has precipitated between western governments and the Kremlin during the last six months. However, despite the residual, reflexive Russophobia which informs much of this analysis, it has generally been expressed in terms which are distinctly more temperate than the (empty) sabre rattling we witnessed last August.

Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, is a particularly blinkered critic of Moscow, and compulsively meddles in the affairs of sovereign states. But he met the anniversary of Saakashvili’s invasion with an uncharacteristically muted statement which welcomed President Medvedev’s call for a ‘new security architecture’ in Europe. The Conservative shadow defence minister, Liam Fox, was, regrettably, less circumspect; though his senior colleague, William Hague, has already signalled any Tory government’s intention to pursue a cautious, non-interventionist foreign policy, seeking rapprochement with Russia.

Responding to the change of approach in Washington, policy makers appear to be beginning to acknowledge that continually isolating Russia is a counterproductive strategy. In addition, the conduct of President Saakashvili has emphasised that rabidly nationalist post Soviet demagogues do not, by virtue of being pro American, become perfect, predictable partners. Neither does their countries’ proximity to Russia automatically transform them into the most sanguine, sensible analysts of that state’s geo-political role.

A surge of goodwill towards countries formerly within the Soviet orbit was to be expected after the Berlin Wall fell. But, as the subsequent years have elapsed and western backing has appeared to become more concentrated on states which most forcefully assert their independence from Moscow, rather than dependent on genuine commitment to democracy and human rights, it is hardly bewildering that Russia views American and EU strategy in its geographical vicinity, as not simply antithetical to its interests, but aimed directly and aggressively towards Russia.

In extracts from a paper published by the Centre for European Reform, carried by Open Democracy, Bobo Lo is sceptical about Medvedev’s mooted ‘security architecture’. However, he is forced to recognise that the prospects of modifying current international structures, dating from the Cold War, are not good. And he acknowledges that the Russian head of state has been flexible. Medvedev has moderated his initial comments, in order to envisage an ‘Atlantic’ dimension to suggestions initially focussed on Europe, and talks which would include existing organisations (unconvivial to Russia or not), as well as sovereign states.

The key is inclusion, and a genuine resolve to treat Russia as a partner, rather than the enemy. It is naïve to believe that national interests will not inform future conduct by either of the current ‘sides’, but in order to meet common problems with a truly multi-polar approach, there should at least be an allusion to partnership and integration. A will must be demonstrated to address Russia’s concerns about NATO in particular, given its Cold War origins and rapid eastward progress. Although Georgia and Ukraine remain putatively on the road to membership, the fatal blow which expansion would deliver to building confidence in Moscow is now widely, if not openly, acknowledged.

Medvedev believes there should be discussions aimed at superseding the treaty organisation altogether. He has a point, but he is unlikely to be granted such a dramatic concession. The best he can expect (in the medium term) is a more sensitive attitude to Russian sensibilities, pending discussions about common security concerns.

Russia’s oil wealth not withstanding, it has suffered grievously during the present crisis. Its new weakness has been joyfully greeted by some commentators. The Federation, it is said, needs to integrate, if its economy is to diversify and its potential is to be realised. Western institutions should ignore the Kremlin’s bluster, this line of argument maintains, and call Russia’s bluff, exploiting the lamentable current state of its finances and military. It is a far cry from analysis, often offered by the same sources, which two years ago called for a new Cold War, aimed at a regime which was using vast resources to manipulate the EU into economic dependence.

Whichever short term propositions frame the wisdom ‘de jour’ as regards this enormous country, they do not reflect the enduring rewards which could be achieved by building partnership, underpinned by mutual respect. A good starting point in fostering such partnership would be to treat Moscow’s security propositions seriously, whilst not, of course, necessarily accepting them in their entirety. That is the moderate, cautious, sensible course of policy towards Russia and it is superior to its rasher alternatives.

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