While it is understandable in the current global turmoil that policy makers and analysts in both Europe and North America wish to see Russia transformed from a strategic adversary to a strategic partner, it is important to base such an approach on a realistic appraisal of Moscow's geopolitical objectives.
Strategic partners not only share particular policies but they are also bound by common interests and joint goals. While Russia can be a partner with the trans-Atlantic alliance in dealing with specific threats such as nuclear proliferation, climate change, or counter-terrorism, the current government in Moscow does not share the long-term strategic targets of either NATO or the EU.
Despite periodic trans-Atlantic disagreements, NATO partners are committed to respecting the will of sovereign states to enter multinational institutions of their choice. They also favor the expansion of democratic systems and legitimate governments that combine stability with respect for human and civil rights. The same foreign policy principles do not apply for the Russian authorities.
Contrary to Western interests, the Kremlin's goals and strategies revolve around a form of "pragmatic reimperialization" in which zero-sum calculations prevail. Russia's administration seeks to be a global player, but in order to achieve this goal it remains intent on rolling back American influence, neutralizing the EU by focusing on bilateral ties with selected states, re-establishing zones of "privileged influence" around its long borders, and curtailing the expansion of Western institutions.
Russia's neo-imperial project no longer relies on Soviet-era instruments such as ideological allegiance, military force, or the implanting of proxy governments. Instead, the primary goal is to exert predominant influence over the foreign and security policies of disparate states that will either remain neutral or support Russia's reimperialization. Moscow has not embarked on a new Cold War but pursues alliances with an assortment of states to undercut U.S. and NATO interests.
While its goals are imperial, Kremlin strategies are pragmatic. It employs elastic and eclectic methods involving a mixture of enticements, threats, incentives, and pressures where Russia's national interests are seen as predominating over those of its neighbors and individual European capitals.
The Russian administration aims to discredit Western institutional enlargement, postures as the defender of the international legal order, seeks to neutralize democracy promoting institutions such as the OSCE, pursues dependency relations with neighboring governments, manufactures security disputes with NATO to gain advantages in other arenas, and promotes its diplomatic indispensability in resolving conflicts that it has contributed to creating.
Russia's brewing domestic problems precipitated by the global financial crisis will not ensure that its expansionist ambitions are aborted. On the contrary, in order to deflect attention from mounting social and regional disquiet, the Kremlin may further cultivate the sense of besiegement to threaten and destabilize various neighbors in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus and test Western reactions. It is therefore important for the Allies to work more closely with a range of countries along Russia's borders, from Ukraine to Kazakhstan, to ensure their independence and stability during a time of uncertainty and economic crisis. States such as Kazakhstan remain key for the Alliance in its mission to ensure security in Central and South Asia and prevent the spread of terrorism, WMD, and narcotics trafficking.
While President Obama has symbolically pushed the "reset" button in relations with Moscow, some of Russia's neighbors fear that instead of a "soft reset," in which avenues of cooperation are pursued where there are genuine common interests, Washington may push a "hard reset" in which Russia's imperial impulses are overlooked or accommodated. Indeed, the Putin-Medvedev "tandem" may view reset buttons as opportunities to expand and consolidate Russia's influences and will drive hard bargains to gain far-reaching advantages from Washington.
Despite this inauspicious setting, President Obama through the prestige and support he has generated has a unique opportunity to rebuild trans-Atlantic relations by basing them on three core principles: common security provided by the NATO alliance; openness to new members that meet the standards necessary for accession; and a cooperative approach toward all other powers including Russia but one that does not sacrifice the first two principles.
Janusz Bugajski is Director of the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Jeffrey Mankoff: Limited Strategic Partnership with Russia is Possible
- Constanze Stelzenmüller: Germany's Russia Question
- Andreas Umland: NATO-Russia War: A Possible Scenario