Can Russia And The West Ever Be Friends?

Business Monitor Online
February 29, 2012 Wednesday

BMI View: Even 20 years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia and the West continue to view each other with suspicion. We see no fundamental change to this relationship, although we also do not anticipate strains rising beyond manageable levels.

Even though more than 20 years have passed since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and the West continue to view each other with suspicion. In particular, Moscow and Washington seem unable to abandon a Cold War mentality in the way they view one another. Although Russia-West relations are unlikely to revert back to Cold War chills, geopolitical competition between them will remain a dominant feature in Eurasia for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s imminent return to the presidency is likely to ensure a tough position by Moscow in its dealings with the West, and this could negatively affect relations in 2012. This will be more likely if Putin feels the need to rebuild his flagging popular support by championing nationalist causes.

Factors Dividing Russia And The West

Imbalance of power: Russia resents its loss of geopolitical power after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although the USSR was never on a par with the West in economic and technological terms, Russia at least felt powerful in relation to NATO and its allies in the Cold War, and the Kremlin wielded considerable influence worldwide. In the initial 10 years (1991-2001) following the Soviet collapse, and for some years thereafter, the US generally increased its global influence, often at Russia’s expense. Overall, the relationship between Russia and the West is still seen as a ‘zero-sum game’. The widespread perception in Russia that the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991), and the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999), made too many geopolitical concessions to the West without receiving much in return eventually led to a much tougher foreign policy stance when Putin rose to power in 1999. This was arguably inevitable, because in 1998 Russia reached a post-Soviet nadir, defaulting on its debt. After almost a decade of Western-advised economic ‘shock therapy’, during which Russia’s GDP dropped by 40% and lawlessness increased substantially, the country was ready for a strong leader.

Western strategic advance: When the Cold War ended, the US gave informal assurances to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand into Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). However, the West reneged on this, taking in new members in separate waves starting in 1999. In 2004, NATO admitted three former Soviet republics – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – into its ranks, against Russian objections. After the ‘9/11’ terror attacks in the United States, the US also moved troops into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan for the purposes of invading Afghanistan, and even Georgia in 2002. Meanwhile, the US supported ‘coloured revolutions’ against relatively pro-Russian leaders in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004), and led military campaigns against traditional Russian allies such as Serbia (1999), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011), all of which led to regime change. Russia views most of the former Soviet Union as its exclusive sphere of influence, and feels threatened by the deployment of US military personnel or assets close to its borders.

Although Western leaders justify their wars against Serbia and Libya on humanitarian grounds and support for ‘coloured revolutions’ as a means of promoting democratisation, Russia – with considerable justification – sees geopolitical machinations as the main drivers behind these initiatives.

Distrust of Russia in CEE states: CEE states continue to harbour a strong distrust of Russia, which dominated their political systems during the Cold War. The USSR invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to prevent their liberalisation (which might well have taken them out of the Soviet bloc) and supported Poland’s declaration of martial law in 1981 to prevent an anti-Communist counter-revolution there. Suspicion of Russia predates the Cold War in Poland and the Baltic states, which were invaded by the USSR in 1939 and 1940, respectively, and in Georgia, which was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 19th century. Although the USSR and Russia withdrew hundreds of thousands of troops from CEE states in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many countries in the region fear a Russian resurgence. Russia’s brutal wars in Chechnya in the 1990s reinforced these concerns, as did its war against Georgia in August 2008 – which was the first time since 1979 that Russia invaded a sovereign state. Therefore, after the USSR collapsed, virtually every CEE state sought membership of NATO, and most subsequently received it. The presence of sizeable CEE émigré communities in the US and Western Europe have also promoted anti-Russian feeling amongst Western politicians.

US missile defence plans: Perhaps the biggest source of contention between Russia and the West is the United States’ plans to build a missile ‘shield’ aimed at countering a potential attack by Iran or even North Korea. The US unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, and has pressed ahead with developing a modest missile shield, with related military facilities in Poland and Romania. The system is expected to become operational by 2020. Russia interprets America’s ballistic missile defence project as being the first step in a larger scheme that could eventually neutralise its own nuclear arsenal. This reflects Cold War fears that the then-US President Ronald Reagan’s proposed space-based missile interceptors (dubbed ‘Star Wars’) could be used to shoot down Soviet missiles, thus making the US immune to a Soviet strike. In reality, the missile shield planned by the US is relatively minor. However, given the extreme unlikelihood of an Iranian – let alone a North Korean – missile attack on eastern Europe, Russia’s suspicions that the shield is aimed against itself are not entirely unreasonable. The fact that NATO in late 2011 rebuffed the notion that the two sides develop joint missile defences adds to Moscow’s distrust. Even a sincere NATO offer of missile defence cooperation would be problematic for Russia, for it would be forced to decide between allying with the West or remaining on an independent path.

Mutual perceptions of hypocrisy: Russia and the West both view each other as highly hypocritical. For example, US and other Western officials and opinion makers have often criticised Russia’s democratic credentials under Putin, while overlooking far greater abuses against democracy in Western-friendly countries such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, not to mention long-established American allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Meanwhile, Russia bemoans US power politics worldwide, while using its own natural gas resources as a political tool in eastern Europe, and even invaded Georgia briefly in 2008. Furthermore, Moscow accuses Washington of double standards for supporting the independence of Kosovo from Russian ally Serbia in 2008, while the US argued against the independence of pro-Russian regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia from American ally Georgia in the same year. Although most policy-makers recognise that these hypocritical stances are reflective of the ‘realities of power’, the high-handed rhetoric by both sides often spoils the atmosphere for dialogue.

Historical issues: None of the above fully explains why Russia fears the advance of the West into Eurasia. In order to understand this more deeply, it is necessary to look further into the past. Although Russia’s elites have long been divided between ‘Westernisers’ and ‘Slavophiles’ (those that favour a uniquely Russian model of development), and although Russian leaders have long sought to modernise their country with Western technology, Russia has never been culturally part of the ‘West’ by most definitions of the term. Russia fought wars against France and Britain in the 19th century, and several Western countries sent troops to fight against Russia’s Communists in the civil war (1918-1921). Although the US and several Western European states fought alongside the Soviet Union against Germany in both World Wars, this was mainly an alliance of convenience rather than one based on shared values.

Russia’s And The West’s Mutual Fears Exaggerated

Despite a myriad of outstanding differences, we believe that Russia’s and the West’s fears of one another are exaggerated.

Russia: Russia’s fears of NATO’s expansion are overdone, in our view. As the alliance has become bigger, its sense of shared threats has diminished, and the organisation has found it harder to reach agreement on key security issues. NATO has arguably become more of a political organisation than a military alliance. Although NATO managed to wage war against Libya in 2011, this was mainly through a ‘coalition of the willing’, and the conflict took far longer than many expected to oust Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, who had a very small army at his disposal. The war also exposed major shortcomings in the alliance, with the US taking a backseat role, and Germany opting out. Going forward, with most European states reducing military spending as a result of their weak fiscal positions, they will have very little appetite for fighting another war (eg against Syria). The then-US Defense Secretary Robert Gates even warned in 2011 that NATO risked becoming irrelevant.

Russia’s fears of a US/Western strategic advance into former Soviet space are also overblown. The US’s muted response to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 demonstrated the limits to which the West can support its new allies. In addition, most of the Central Asian republics remain firmly within Russia’s orbit, with the main challenger to Moscow being China rather than the US and NATO.

Although Russia vigorously opposed the US invasion of Iraq, a permanent US military presence in Afghanistan, and the NATO war against Libya, the truth is that Russia has benefited enormously from these events and could also benefit from an Iranian war. Firstly, the US invasion of Iraq resulted in Washington becoming bogged down in a costly nine-year long quagmire, which left it less willing and able to challenge Russia elsewhere. The same is true of the US presence in Afghanistan. Secondly, instability in Iraq, Libya, and potentially Iran, all places a premium on oil prices, to the advantage of the Russian economy.

As regards the US’ planned missile shield, it is unlikely to be effective enough to neutralise Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and in any case, it is difficult to imagine circumstances in which Western states would initiate military action against Russia that would lead to even a limited nuclear exchange.

The West: The West’s fears of Russia are also exaggerated. Although Russia successfully invaded Georgia in 2008, that conflict exposed many shortcomings in the Russian military, even by the Russian Chief of General Staff’s own admission. The Russian armed forces are a shadow of their former Soviet self, having been weakened by a decade-long war in Chechnya, high levels of corruption (resulting in funds being siphoned off rather than spent on new equipment), and endemic bullying (which has weakened the quality of recruits). Although the Kremlin has repeatedly emphasised the need for military reform and has raised the defence budget, generals have resisted changes to the force structure, and Russia still lacks the means for substantial force projection. Furthermore, it is difficult to envisage Russia invading nearby countries – Georgia appears to have been an exception rather than the new norm. Although the Baltic states may harbour greater insecurities after the Georgian War of 2008, they are all members of NATO, meaning that Russia would be highly unlikely to make incursions there.

Western nations’ concerns about Russia’s democratic credentials are not without foundation, but the fact remains that Vladimir Putin is the country’s most popular politician. Furthermore, Russia’s main opposition parties consist of Communists and ultra-nationalists – hardly groups that would make Russia friendlier to the West or more democratic, if they were to come to power.

Factors That Could Improve Russia-West Relations

In time, a generational shift in Russia and the West could improve relations. The eventual ascent – in the next 10 or 20 years – to power of a Russian political class with more distant memories of Communism and Soviet superpower status, backed by a solid middle class, could make Moscow less suspicious towards the West. The same is true of a new generation of Western political leaders, who would perceive Russia as a major emerging economy rather than a Cold War hangover threat. Already, Germany and France, the eurozone’s most powerful countries, are pursuing stronger relations with Russia. Germany and Russia have inaugurated the Nord Stream gas pipeline directly connecting themselves and bypassing eastern European states. France, meanwhile, is selling Russia amphibious Mistral warships in a landmark arms deal. However, we caution against expecting that a more liberal Russia would be less willing to defend its interests abroad. Most Western countries are liberal, but do not hesitate to protect their foreign interests, using military force if necessary. In fact, Western military interventions abroad have far outnumbered Russia’s actions outside its borders over the last 20 years.

Russia and the West are both threatened by radical Islamist terror groups, and if these organisations show signs of increasing their influence in Central Asia after Western forces withdraw from Afghanistan in 2015, then the two sides will have an interest in containing this threat.

The emergence of a more assertive or aggressive China could also bring Russia and the West closer together. At present, Russia is loosely allied with China in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which some observers perceive as a potential Eurasian version of NATO. However, China is likely to emerge as Russia’s main competitor for influence in Central Asia over the coming years. In addition, some Russian officials worry that China could eventually challenge Russia for control of the latter’s Far Eastern region, where Chinese demographic and economic influence has been increasing for some years. If Russia eventually deems China more threatening than the West, this could substantially transform Russia-West relations.

Ultimately, bringing Russia into NATO would certainly reduce Russia-West tensions. In early 2009, the then-Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski stated that Russia could one day join the alliance, if it becomes fully democratic and brings its military fully under civilian control. However, the West will probably be reluctant to invite Russia, because Moscow would be able to veto the alliance’s actions, thereby neutralising it. NATO’s CEE members will also oppose Russia’s accession, fearing that it would give Moscow undue influence over their security policies.

Factors That Could Worsen Russia-West Relations

Any concerted effort by Western countries to interfere in Russia’s domestic political scene will raise tensions. The Kremlin has accused the US and its allies of supporting Russian opposition activists, and even on occasion separatist insurgents in the North Caucasus in the past. Meanwhile, attempts by Moscow to silence Russian dissidents or political opponents abroad (eg the late Alexander Litvinenko, who was mysteriously poisoned by a radioactive substance in 2006) will undermine relations. So too will new ‘revelations’ of spying, and the expulsion of alleged spies and diplomats.

Any eventual Western intervention in Syria to oust President Bashar al-Assad – a Russian ally – would increase strains between Russia and the West, as would a US or Israeli attack on Iran (Tehran and Moscow maintain cordial relations). Russia will also be watching carefully to see if Western nations seek to dilute its influence in Ukraine and Belarus, or strengthen their ties with Georgia with a view to bringing the country into the NATO alliance. Moscow will also be wary of any US attempt to establish a permanent military presence in Central Asia (other than in Kyrgyzstan, where Russia also has a base) after it ends combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014.

The US’ planned missile shield will remain a bone of contention, and could cause more problems if Washington shows signs of expanding it (qualitatively or by including more countries) beyond its current scope. In addition, growing competition for the Arctic’s natural resources could strain Russo-American relations. In recent years, Moscow has identified the Arctic Circle as a potential future conflict zone.

The weakening of the US or EU, paradoxically, could also strain Russia-West relations. This is because Russian perceptions of a more isolationist US or inward-looking EU (as a result of the eurozone debt crisis) could embolden Moscow to become more assertive towards CEE states. Also problematic would be a severe weakening of the Russian economy as a result of sharply lower oil prices. Economic malaise in Russia would initially force the Kremlin to focus its attention on the home front, but it could simultaneously make Moscow feel more insecure. In such circumstances, Russia’s leadership could seek to harness nationalism to divert public attention away from its economic failings, resulting in a more hawkish foreign policy.

No Cold War, But No Alliance Either

Overall, we do not see Russia-West relations returning to a Cold War-style chill, but we also do not expect Russia to become a close ally of the West. We certainly see scope for a mild cooling of relations under a third Putin term (2012-2018), especially over the issue of the US missile shield, but Putin cannot afford to alienate the West entirely, for Russia needs Western investment and technology to modernise its economy. However, even if Putin were replaced by a more ‘liberal’ figure, Russia is unlikely to moderate its foreign policy substantially, because its core interest of maintaining an exclusive sphere of influence in Eurasia will remain.


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