Financial Times, 1/7/2010
Spies aside, Russia has come in from the Cold
This week’s spy scandal will open up a temporary rift across the Atlantic. But it is unlikely to undermine one of the most important trends in contemporary international relations: the combination of the West’s scaling back its ambitions in the former Soviet Union with Russia’s growing realisation that it needs a new partnership with its former US and EU rivals. This rapprochement is more solid than previous attempts because it is based not on dreams of friendship but on realistic calculations of national interests – interests that neither side is likely to risk for a return to the Cold War rivalries of old.
Despite stabilising its economy, the Russian administration has come to recognise its failure to foster the kind of economic transformation that would give it the chance of surviving as a major power when its energy exports finally run dry. It now sees working with the West as critical to its hopes of economic transformation, not just because of investment and skills but because of the mindsets that could help Russia to overcome its culture of corruption and waste.
Without such help Russia risks in the long run becoming little more than a provider of raw materials to the Chinese, and even a Chinese dependency – a picture that fills Russians with private dread. To prevent this, Russia must rebuild its high-technology industries on a non-military basis, and increase the productivity of its small business sector.
The mutual restraint that has followed the spying episode is therefore especially welcome. It would be both tragic and idiotic to allow such a routine affair to undermine the most promising improvement in relations between Russia and the West that we have seen since the Cold War.
In recent years both sides have signed up to radical reductions in their nuclear arsenals. Russia has supported more pressure on Iran and increased help for US and NATO communications to Afghanistan. Perhaps most importantly, Moscow has not taken advantage of the deep recessions in the Baltic States to stir up unrest among the Russian minorities there – as it easily might have done.
The Russian change of position has only been made possible by the suspension of western attempts to roll back Russian influence in its neighbourhood. The Obama administration has shelved missile defence plans for Central Europe and, much more importantly, given up the previous US push for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia in August 2008, and NATO’s failure to help Georgia, demonstrated both the risks of further NATO enlargement and the lack of Western will to defend new allies. This was followed by elections in which Ukrainians rejected candidates supporting NATO membership, and where the victorious government negotiated a new relationship with Moscow which, for the moment at least, has removed the indirect threat to Russian gas supplies to the EU.
The effective end of NATO and EU expansion to the former Soviet Union combined with plans for EU expansion effectively killed off by the economic crisis, has vastly reduced the existential fear that has gripped Russians for 15 years: that of Western alliances pushing up to Russia’s borders, backing hostile Russian neighbours and relegating Russia to a powerless outsider in European affairs.
This is the time to put our relationship on a more solid footing – one that can even survive the possible victory of a more anti-Russian Republican administration in the US in 2012. The first step should be to build on some of President Medvedev’s proposals for a new European security architecture. A system of institutionalised consultation and planning could damp down future instability in the countries of the former Soviet Union. A new security relationship with Russia could also help deepen economic relationship, while a new European security framework could help the West manage relations with another great power that cannot be a member of the EU and is increasingly alienated from the US: Turkey.
Chances of a good and stable relationship between the West and Russia have been blown twice, after the Cold War and after 9/11. We must not lose a third opportunity – least of all because of the comic-opera antics of our respective intelligence services. Someone needs to tell them that Cold War is over – for fear that otherwise, they may start a new one.
The writer is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.