Russia’s riseFrom the Newspaper | A.G Noorani |
OBSESSED as it is by “the rise of China”, the United States has been rather indifferent to the steady deterioration of its relations with Russia.
Come to think of it, the main battleground of the Cold War was Europe. While its relations with the US have declined, Russia’s power and clout have increased in recent years under President Vladimir Putin.
Its assertive Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced on Jan 23 an end to the “reset” in Russia-America relations. The metaphor was coined by the former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to indicate a break from the policies of president George W. Bush. But in this matter, as much else, President Barack Obama has not been much different.
Lavrov’s amplification of the metaphor reveals the depth of the problem. “If you use this computer term, everyone should realise that an ongoing ‘reset’ means failure of the system. The system does not respond.”
He acknowledged some gains of the “reset”: namely, a new nuclear arms control treaty, an agreement on civil nuclear cooperation and simplified visa rules. But the core issues remain. They are the US missile defence plan, its building of a global missile shield without paying any consideration to Russian objections, not to forget the differences over Syria and Iran.
Thomas E. Graham, senior director of the Kissinger Associates, and Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, touch the heart of the problem when they write of the conflicting perceptions of the US and Russia since the end of the Cold War.
“On the US side, this oversight grows in part out of the discomfort America has with the very idea of Russian power, grounded in the long Cold War struggle. Having confronted malevolent Soviet power for so long, America resists the idea that Russia could ever have a positive role in American strategic interests. On the Russian side, there is still great resentment over the way the United States treated Russia after the end of the Cold War, and a fair amount of suspicion that US policy is aimed at weakening Russia today.”
This, despite the fact that Russia is no longer a strategic rival of the US. It is precisely this fact, and memories of vanished power which make Russia bristle at American indifference to its concerns.
Truth to tell, Moscow feels cheated.
In 1989, president George H.W. Bush agreed with president Mikhail Gorbachev that Nato would not expand eastwards if Gorbachev agreed to let a united Germany be a member of Nato. Overruling his generals, visibly upset at the conference, Gorbachev agreed. Nato expanded to the frontiers of Russia. In 1990, Gorbachev cooperated fully on Iraq as Putin did on Afghanistan after 9/11. Nato soldiers in Afghanistan rely for food, fuel and ammunition in a supply route that runs through Russia. But all to no avail. Angus Roxburg rightly avers in a recent biography of Putin entitled The Strongman: “The West’s handling of post-Soviet Russia has been just about as insensitive as it could have been.”
It is hard to imagine a solution to the problems of Iran’s nuclear programme and to the Syrian conflict without Russia’s active help. On both it has shown considerable flexibility; only, it will not be privy to the surrender terms which the US lays down for Iran and Syria; and not to them alone, either.
The “reset” neglected Russia’s security concerns in Central Europe, in the Caucasus and in the Middle East. It has some 30,000 nationals in Syria. Besides, it has indicated very clearly that it is not committed to buttressing the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. At the Munich Conference on Security, in the second week of February, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov not only met a Syrian dissident but invited him to Moscow.
On Iran also, Moscow has consistently opposed its enrichment activities. But it is opposed to the sanctions and to the threats of military force. Russia’s assertiveness must be viewed in the context of the remarkable change which President Putin brought about ever since he assumed power from Boris Yeltsin. The GDP has doubled; foreign loans were repaid nearly four years ahead of time. Profits from rising oil and gas prices have injected confidence.
Putin has not hesitated to use strong tactics against his critics and opponents. His prestige never recovered from his announcement in September 2011, that he, rather than Medvedev, would stand for election to the presidency. Many expected that but it appeared a devious stratagem. Parliamentary elections in December 2011 were marred by malpractice. His party, United Russia, is none too popular as was revealed when 100,000 protesters filled the centre of Moscow to protest against electoral malpractices.
A new middle class, committed to consumerism, has come to the fore. Putin encourages it by allowing freedom to travel and leaving it well alone; so long as it does not raise its voice. Professionals are happy. But for how long will this apparent acquiescence last? It will not be long before this very class begins to demand a voice in running the country’s affairs.
The US had not reckoned with the quick revival of Russia’s power under Putin. What the latter seeks is an equilibrium of power that existed in the days of the Soviet Union whose collapse he publicly characterised as a disaster. “There was an equilibrium and a fear of mutual destruction. And in those days one party was afraid to make an extra step without consulting the other. And this was certainly a fragile peace and a frightening one, but as we see today, it was reliable enough. Today it seems that the peace is not so reliable.”
The writer is an author and a lawyer.