Dealing with Russia

On Aug. 8, Russia decided to rewrite the rules of post-World War II European security. It repudiated the Helsinki Pact of 1975, which recognized the sanctity of borders in Europe, and violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of NATO aspirant Georgia, whose troops had attacked South Ossetia the day before. In the process, Russia also tore up its own peacekeeping mandate in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Moscow desires to become a hegemonic power in the former Soviet space. The Georgian war brought Russia back to the Southern Caucasus in force, outflanking oil-rich Azerbaijan, and affecting control over the principal energy and rail arteries bringing natural resources from the Caspian Sea and Central Asia to the West and consumer and industrial goods to the East. The Russian military practically destroyed the Georgian military, which protected the pipelines and the Georgian port of Poti, the important Black Sea terminal of the East-West corridor.

The war in the Caucasus, however, surpasses the regional agenda. In fact, Russia’s war aims are far-reaching and include:

  • Expulsion of Georgian troops and termination of Georgian sovereignty in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, something that was accomplished.
  • “Regime change” by bringing down President Mikheil Saakashvili and installing a more pro-Russian leadership in Tbilisi.
  • Preventing Georgia from joining NATO and sending a strong message to Ukraine that its insistence on NATO membership may lead to a civil unrest in the Crimea, where many Russian citizens reside, and potentially, to the country’s dismemberment.
  • Shifting control of the Caucasus, and especially over strategic energy pipelines and the transportation corridor from the Caspian to the Black Sea, by controlling Georgia.
  • Re-creating a 19th-century style sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, by the use of force if necessary.

Such anti-status quo revisionism is the stuff of which world wars are made. Think the Balkan wars that preceded World War I or Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1938 – with Europe’s acquiescence.

Russia proclaims that it wants to shift the global balance of power away from the United States; “Finlandize” Europe; revise global economic institutions; and return to highly competitive and often confrontational great power politics, reminiscent of the 19th century. Realists: 1, Fukuyama: 0.

In his recent nationally televised statement, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced as much. He rejected “unipolarity” – the code word for U.S. global leadership, calling such a world “unstable and conflict-ridden.”

Mr. Medvedev declared that while Russia does not want to isolate itself, it would defend “the life and dignity of its citizens wherever they are,” as well as its business interests. Most important, the Russian leader declared that his country has regions of “privileged interests,” which are not limited to Russia’s borderlands. One could include Iran, Syria, Cuba and even Venezuela in such a list.

Beyond that, Russia went into a diplomatic high gear, receiving the support of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes China and the five Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) as members, and Iran, Mongolia, India and Pakistan as associate members. SCO expressed support for Russian action in Georgia but stopped short of recognizing independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia also significantly shored up the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Comprising, besides Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Mr. Medvedev has announced that CSTO is going to build up its military muscle and its foreign policy will strongly support Moscow. Russia openly announced that CSTO is becoming a military bloc, similar to – and opposing – NATO.

The next U.S. administration and its allies need to design a comprehensive policy countering Moscow’s bid to shift the global balance of power away from liberal democracies and in favor of the oil-rich Authoritarian International. China and India will be the most important swing states in this struggle.

At this point, the U.S. and its European allies should not emphasize military power to confront Russian revanchism. There is too much unfinished business in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the global war on terror. Nor are there troop and military hardware levels present for a massive military buildup along Russia’s perimeter. Europe has no appetite for a new confrontation with the Kremlin, while the U.S. economy suffers from the record deficit and debt levels.

Yet, the U.S. should take a leadership role in building a global coalition against Russian revisionist policies, expanding a strategic dialogue with European capitals, New Delhi and Beijing. Ukrainian and Georgian membership in NATO and the EU should be given serious consideration. Washington should communicate to Moscow that Russia has much to lose, including its unrestricted financial and economic ties to the advanced market economies.

Russian state-owned energy companies – the cash cows of the Russian budget – trade their American Depository Receipts (ADRs) in New York and London. Russia is dependent on Western market and cutting edge technologies both for its military buildup and for its increasingly expensive hydrocarbon development.

Russia has also pursued policies of restricting access to its “strategic” commodities for the West. If it continues to do so, the U.S. and Europe can reciprocate by cutting access for Russian state-owned companies to investment in companies vital to our national security.

Hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, 20 kilometers from the Georgian border may be a non-starter, and so may be the membership in the Group of Eight. Finally, since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has neglected its capabilities to wage the war of ideas, a key battlefield in which it defeated the Soviets. These capabilities are also crucial to win the war against radical Islamist ideology. In this century, the West needs to use its creativity and technological prowess to reach the post-Soviet and Muslim audiences despite increasing TV censorship and vitriolic anti-American brainwashing.

History has not ended, neither did geopolitics. The next administration has its work cut out for it from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific.

First  appeared in the Washington Times.