Russia: The Missing Debate

Russia: The Missing Debate
May 3rd, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Russia: The Missing Debate

Russia: The Missing Debate
International Herald Tribune
May 3, 2008 By Stephen F. Cohen
None of the U.S. presidential candidates has seriously addressed, or seems fully aware of, what should be America's greatest foreign-policy concern - Russia's unique capacity to endanger or enhance U.S. national security.
Despite its diminished status following the Soviet breakup in 1991, Russia alone possesses weapons that can destroy the United States, a military complex nearly America's equal in exporting arms, vast quantities of questionably secured nuclear materials sought by terrorists, and the planet's largest oil and natural gas reserves.
It also remains the world's largest territorial country, pivotally situated in the West and the East, at the crossroads of colliding civilizations, with strategic capabilities from Europe, Iran and other Middle East nations to North Korea, China, India, Afghanistan and even Latin America. All things considered, U.S. national security may depend more on Russia than Russia's does on the United States.
Yet U.S.-Russian relations are worse today than they have been in 20 years. The relationship includes almost as many serious conflicts as it did during the Cold War - among them Kosovo, Iran, the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia, Venezuela, NATO expansion, missile defense, access to oil, and the Kremlin's internal politics - and less actual cooperation, particularly in essential matters involving nuclear weapons.
Indeed, a growing number of observers on both sides think the relationship is verging on a new cold war, including another arms race. Even a chilly war, or the current cold peace, could be more dangerous than its predecessor, for three reasons:
First, its front line will not be in Berlin or the Third World, but on Russia's own borders, where U.S. and NATO military power is increasingly ensconced.
Second, lethal dangers inherent in Moscow's impaired controls over its vast stockpiles of materials of mass destruction and thousands of missiles on hair-trigger alert, a legacy of the state's disintegration in the 1990s, exceed any such threats in the past.
And third, also unlike before, there is no effective opposition to hawkish policies in Washington or Moscow - only influential proponents and cheerleaders.
How did it come to this? Less than 20 years ago, the Soviet and American leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev and George H. W. Bush, completing a process begun by Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan, agreed to end the Cold War "with no winners and no losers" and to open a new era of "genuine cooperation."
In the U.S. policy elite and media, the nearly unanimous view is that President Vladimir Putin's anti-democratic domestic policies and "neo-imperialism" destroyed that historic opportunity. But you don't have to be a Putin apologist to understand that it is not an adequate explanation.
Over the past eight years, Putin's foreign policies have been largely a reaction to Washington's winner-take-all approach to Moscow, which resulted from a revised U.S. view of how the Cold War ended. In this triumphalist narrative, America "won" the 40-year conflict and post-Soviet Russia was a defeated nation analogous to post-World War II Germany and Japan - a nation without full sovereignty at home or autonomous national interests abroad.
The policy implications of that bipartisan triumphalism, which persists today, have been clear - certainly to Moscow.
It meant the United States had the right to oversee Russia's post-Communist political and economic development, as it tried to do in the 1990s, while demanding that Moscow yield to U.S. international interests.
It meant Washington could break strategic promises to Russia, as when the Clinton administration began NATO's eastward expansion, and disregard extraordinary Kremlin overtures, as when the Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty and moved NATO even closer to Russia despite Putin's crucial assistance to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan after Sept. 11.
It even meant America was entitled to Russia's traditional sphere of security and energy supplies, from the Baltics, Ukraine and Georgia to Central Asia and the Caspian.
Such U.S. behavior was bound to produce a Russian backlash. It came under Putin, but it would have been the reaction of any strong Kremlin leader, regardless of world oil prices.
And it can no longer be otherwise. Those U.S. policies, now widely viewed in Moscow as an "encirclement" designed to keep Russia weak and control its resources, have helped revive an assertive Russian nationalism, destroy the once strong pro-American lobby and inspire widespread charges that concessions to Washington are "appeasement," even "capitulationism." The Kremlin may have overreacted, but the cause and effect threatening a new cold war are clear.
Because the first steps in this direction were taken in Washington, so must be the initiatives to reverse it.
Three are essential and urgent: a diplomacy that treats Russia as a sovereign great power with commensurate national interests; an end to NATO expansion before it reaches Ukraine, risking something worse than cold war, and a full resumption of negotiations to sharply reduce and fully secure all nuclear stockpiles and to prevent the impending arms race, which requires ending or agreeing on missile defense in Europe.
Recent discussions with members of Moscow's policy elite suggest there may still be time.
American presidential campaigns are supposed to discuss such vital issues, but Senators John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama have not done so. Instead, each has pledged to be less "soft" on the Kremlin, to continue the encirclement of Russia and the hectoring "democracy promotion" policy, both of which have only undermined U.S. security and Russian democracy since the 1990s.
To be fair, no influential actors in American politics, including the media, have asked more of the candidates. They should do so now before another chance is lost - in Washington and in Moscow.
Stephen F. Cohen is professor of Russian studies at New York University. This article appears in the current edition of The Nation.

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