Recent events show that the EU-Russia-U.S. strategic triangle has drastically changed. Both the Samara Summit and the G-8 were overshadowed by disagreements between the West and a newly-invigorated and suspicious Russia. The relationship is devoid of trust, and will most likely remain that way through 2008: Putin will likely take a hard-line stance against the U.S. to enhance his domestic control in the lead up to succession, and it is likely that U.S. presidential candidates will stoop to Russia bashing. To improve relations, policy makers must eschew parochial visions of relations (the Cold War is over) and studiously come to terms with the architecture of the current system.
The new architecture of the U.S.-Russia-EU triangle comprises three distinct and changing views from each of it corners. Russia has left the West and no longer is striving for western integration. It has abandoned domestic reform and has sought to secure its role as a world leader, joining those clubs that will enhance it status and promote its national interest. Russia is seeking a “soft revenge” for the embarrassment it endured in the 1990s and using that revenge to justify its domestic politics.
Meanwhile, the strategic situations of both the U.S. and the EU have changed. The EU is still in search of itself after the rejection of the last EU constitution and the addition of new member states to bring its total to 27. This enlargement has impaired the EU’s its ability to make decisions, and hurt its relations with its two largest neighbors Russia and Turkey. The change of leadership in France and Great Britain, however, brings with it a new hope that the EU will correct its strategic meandering. The US, meanwhile, is suffering the consequences of its unilateral approach and adventurism in the Middle East. Anti-American sentiment has washed over the globe with Putin surfing on it. The U.S. has taken a more pragmatic and less ideological approach since 2005, but it still hasn’t decided on an approach toward Russia.
The U.S. and Russia seem to be in conflict with Europe stuck in the middle, unwilling to take a geopolitical view of either player. Russia sees the obvious weakness in transatlantic relations and is seeking to take advantage of it, but in doing so, it does not wish to destroy the West. So what does this new architecture mean practically?
The center of gravity in the triangular relationship hasn’t shifted; it is simply confusing right now as all three sides are trying to find a balance between ideology and pragmatism in their politics and policy making. The EU-Russian relationship will remain the anchor of the triangle, while both the U.S. and EU will be forced to take a more realist approach to Russia, albeit with more willingness to take such an approach on the part of the Europeans. That said, Russia will continue to react more strongly to the U.S. and posture itself against the U.S.. It is important, however, that EU and U.S. officials realize that the risks of disengaging Russia outweigh the benefits.
Thomas’ presentation and the current strategic environment can be summed up in the following phrase: Russia is up; American is down, and Europe is out. He was right when he pointed beyond the surface of oil and gas to broader trends; for what appears to be an angry Russia on the surface is really a revisionist Russia, unbound from the duties and obligations of agreements it signed when it was weak. The European Union meanwhile is still in search of itself. There question of how solidarity and its incumbent cost remains open. Meanwhile the U.S. is embroiled in its own debate about foreign policy in the wake of its crisis in Iraq.
The center of gravity that people had in mind during the post Cold War period has shifted. Russia is openly challenging the United States and is playing hard ball in Europe—but not without risk: Putin is placing his bets on the strength of Russia’s economic relations with the West, in the face of bad political relations. It is a bad gamble; bad political relations will inevitably lead to bad economic relations.
Despite this triumphalism, Russia’s foreign policy is really at a crossroads. It faces a number of fundamental strategic choices that require more than just demagoguery and yelling. Rather it needs to have a serious dialogue about its strategic future. The West also needs to review its strategy vis-à-vis Russia. In the run up to the 2008 elections, there will be a temptation to complain about the lack of free and fair elections in Russia. Everybody knows what the elections will look like, and should come as now surprise. The West desperately needs find a way to describe elections without hurting its relationship with Russia. It needs to take a more pragmatic tact.
Some ask if we are reentering the Cold War. The answer to that is no, but the post-Cold War era, when superpower (especially the US) rested easy in their unchallenged positions of dominance, is over. Russia is openly and China covertly is challenging US dominance. It means that people will have to return to thinking about both issues and powers in international relations.
Q: Is the present crisis surrounding the CFE part of this revisionism? How would Europe react to a Russian withdrawal from the CFE?
Prince Gorchakov, the foreign minister that vindicated Russia after its defeat in it foreign war, has served as the role model for modern Russian foreign ministers. It took Gorchakov 14 years to withdrawal from the Paris Treaty, and it took Putin a little more to start the process of withdrawal from the CFE. It is not because Russia is angry that it is pursing this course. Rather, Russia wants to rid itself of limitation that were imposed on it when it was weak
The CFE was important when it was first created, but now serves very little purpose. The Russian attitude towards the CFE is related to its position on the OSCE, which it views as a worthless body.
Q: Western media has paid much more attention to the CFE crisis, but not much attention paid to Russian threats to withdrawal from the INF, but it seems to me that the INF treaty has real strategic comparison. Are statements about the CFE and INF treaties real strategic statements or simply rhetorical tools? If Russia did withdrawal from the INF and deployed nuclear missiles, what would the response of the Russian be?
It is a serious strategic statement, but it isn’t aimed at Europe. Putin, however, foolishly is using this rhetoric to scare the Europeans, hurting whatever credibility he has in European capitals. The INF has a lot to do with the overall strategic assessment of Russian experts, who see a very threatening world. They are world about the trends down south (in Iran) and out East. Russians feel that they need the capability to take care of threats that are closer to Russia than to the United States. On another level it is symbolic: Russia is using the same language toward the INF and CFE that Bush used toward the ABM.
Putin was surfing high on the anti-American wave, but naming targets in Europe was a big mistake that damaged his image in Europe. There are very different perceptions of the threat posed by Russia in different member states. This makes it difficult for the EU to form a coherent Russia policy.
Q: How do you explain the sudden change in Russia rhetoric? It seemed that there had been positive developments in the nuclear relations, but then it swiftly deteriorated.
There was a lot of hope in the lead up to Secretary Gate’s visit to Moscow that some sort of compromise could be reach and some sort of cooperation on nuclear weapons would emerge. But that did not happen mostly because of disappointment about the plans that the U.S. offered. Now obviously, it seems that Russian officials are highly skeptical about the prospects of improving relations. I think the problem is that we were too optimistic.