Today we present a special paper by Ambassador James Goodby, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution. Amb. Goodby is speaking tonight (Sept. 11, 2008) at a special town hall at The Commonwealth Club on Russian relations and politics following the conflict with Georgia.
American Diplomacy in Russia’s Neighborhood
By James E. Goodby
The crisis that had been quietly simmering for the last several years finally boiled over in Georgia last month. It will not soon end. The stakes are very high and now quite visible. Very different perceptions of Russian and American interests and influence in the former Soviet lands around Russia’s borders drive the crisis.
The arc of newly independent nations that were once part of the Soviet Union are seen by the current Russian government as part of a “common space.” This has been Moscow’s publicly stated position for a long time. It was well known to everyone who has paid any attention to Russian official statements. In President Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly on May 16, 2003, he said “we see the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] area as the sphere of our strategic interests.” By April 2005, in his annual speech to the Federal Assembly, the President was urging unity within the CIS, pointing to the victory in World War II that unity had made possible. He spoke about the independence of the CIS nations and their “international authority.” But he also suggested that total independence was not quite what he had in mind when he said “we would like to achieve synchronization of the pace and parameters of reform processes underway in Russia and the other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States.” On its face, this means that Russia wants a say in how fast political change takes place in the neighboring states, and what form it takes.
Putin was quite clear in the April 2005 speech about how he views the world and Russia’s recent history: “. . . the collapse of the Soviet Union was the major geopolitical disaster of the century.” He added that “the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” Putin’s domestic policies, his policies in Chechnya, and his attitude toward the former republics of the Soviet Union around Russia’s borders all bespeak his inordinate fear of Russia’s disintegration. He believes that Russian preeminence in what he calls the “post-Soviet area” is an indispensable element of the defense of the unity of the Russian Federation. Georgia is the latest, but will not be the last manifestation of the Putin doctrine.
The American view throughout this period has been that Russia would continue to have influence in neighboring states and there would be close relations between Russia and these states. The United States would not seek to supplant Russian influence. Georgian and Ukrainian membership in NATO, for example, should not have to be at the expense of good relations with Russia. To the contrary, Russia would benefit from having prosperous, democratic nations in its neighborhood. This “21st century” point of view has been contrasted with the “zero sum” thinking of the 19th century. The argument is regarded with considerable skepticism in Moscow.
Great expectations were raised by the success of the opposition in Georgia in 2003 in toppling the corrupt leadership of that country, followed by Ukraine’s assertion in the very next year of its right to a government that respected its people’s wishes. Moldova felt this in the elections of March 2005. The mood reached Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia, shortly afterwards. The Bush administration chose to make democracy in Russia and elsewhere an issue in its conduct of foreign policy during its second term. The logic of its policies should have compelled it to give a higher priority to the “frozen conflicts” and frozen political regimes left over from the retreat of the Soviet empire. Georgia now requires it.
The Theory of “Permanent Revolution”
American interests in good working relations with Russia and American interests in encouraging democracy and freedom throughout Eurasia should not result in a conflicted U.S. foreign policy towards this region. It should be compatible within a policy framework designed to promote a Euroatlantic security community, including Russia, based on common values and a broad sense of a common identity. But the reality is that American activism in an area so sensitive to Russia strains the crucial relationship with Moscow. The political changes that have appeared in “post-Soviet space” might succeed in transforming the frozen political landscape; and the interrupted march toward a Europe that is peaceful, undivided, and democratic might be resumed, with Russia joining it. But this is not Putin’s vision of the future. He has left no doubt that he prefers the status quo and will fight against change that he cannot control. Three years ago, alluding to events in Georgia and Ukraine in public remarks on February 22, 2005, he asked why some “are doomed to permanent revolution . . . why should we introduce this in the post-Soviet space?” The answer is that Putin’s policies led to pent-up demands for changes and those demands were not being met. The result was predictable: a series of political explosions. Charitably, his later remarks about “synchronized” change might mean that he finally “got it,” but still wants predictability.
If things remain as they are in Russia, however, the reality of a continent divided will congeal, leaving Russia on the other side of the fence from a democratic Europe. Putin sees Russia as a major European power with a civilizing mission in Eurasia, as he put it in his 2005 speech to the Federal Assembly. He also seems to see Russia as the leader of a Eurasian bloc of nations, to some extent in opposition to the nations of the West. This vision is hard to square with being a member of a European or Euroatlantic community of nations.
Putin’s Strategic Vision
Putin’s roll-back of the democratic institutions that Yeltsin had encouraged is a strong signal that integration with the West is not one of Putin’s strategic objectives. His take on the Yeltsin phase of post-Soviet Russian history seems to be that Yeltsin gave Russians freedom but at the expense of the unity of the state. His distrust of pluralism is plain, and that extends to his attitude toward states on Russia’s periphery. Putin’s fear of Russia’s disintegration reinforces his determination that Russia must exercise a privileged position in all of the states that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. These two basic drivers of Putin’s policies link the conflict in Chechnya and the “frozen conflicts” in Moldova and the Caucasus. On September 7, 2004 Putin spoke of this after the tragedy in Beslan, North Ossetia, when terrorists killed nearly 400 people, many of them school children:
Some would like to tear from us a “juicy piece of pie”. Others help them. They help, reasoning that Russia still remains one of the world’s major nuclear powers, and as such still represents a threat to them.
This choice of words was only one of several interesting comments Putin made that day. In one respect, he sounded much like George W. Bush after 9/11:
. . . to allow ourselves to be blackmailed and succumb to panic would be to immediately condemn millions of people to an endless series of bloody conflicts like those in Nagorny Karabakh, Trans-Dniester and other similar tragedies
Also in his speech at Beslan, he remarked that “we are living through a time when internal conflicts and interethnic divisions that were once firmly suppressed by the ruling ideology have now flared up.” Putin added that Russia had not reacted adequately to new dangers: “We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten.” Moscow must show itself to be tough, he seems to think, even at the expense of its own best interests.
Putin’s linking of Chechnya with other disputes in the Caucasus and Moldova was indicative of a mind-set that sees Russian withdrawal from its dominating positions in the new nations of post-Soviet space as tantamount to encouraging the disintegration of the Russian Federation itself. It helps to explain why the conflicts in Moldova, the Caucasus, and Chechnya have been so hard to resolve. Putin sees compromise as a slippery slope leading to the disintegration of Russia, or at least to the first step toward that, through a serious weakening of Russia’s international position. His perception that Russian strength and unity can be served through supporting separatist entities around Russia’s periphery and propping up leaders who resist change is one of his most serious misjudgments.
Although this policy could be described as neo-imperialism, a longer view, and very likely a more accurate view, would see it as the process of managing an empire passing through its recessional stage, not unlike the way France maintained control over its former African colonies after granting them nominal independence.
A desire to have friendly neighbors on their borders is hardly unique to Russia’s current leaders. Nor is it unusual for a powerful state to expect that its opinions and interests will have some influence on the policies of neighboring states. But Russia, like other post-imperial powers, has trouble adjusting to its changed status, believing that it should have a privileged position in the nations that once were part of the Czarist and then Soviet empire. There is a line beyond which a special relationship becomes domination and a denial of freedom. To the extent that Putin’s actions succeed in propping up authoritarian leaders long past the time when they should have left the scene he crosses that line. Large powers within a Euroatlantic community will exercise some influence over others, and Russia is one of those powers. What is not acceptable in a community like this is to use that influence to control or seek domination over others or to hinder their progress toward democracy. This behavior disqualifies a nation from membership in a democratic security community.
In 2001, President Vladimir Putin found it useful to align Russia with the West in the war on terrorism. His post-9/11 statements were welcomed by many who saw it as a decision to define Russia’s identity as a “normal European nation.” The Westernizers had won the centuries-old struggle for Russia’s soul, so it was said. That assessment was premature. Putin’s decisions derived from another source, a desire for a freer hand in Chechnya and elsewhere in “post-Soviet space.” Putin’s internal policies suggest that his post-9/11 rapprochement with the United States carried with it no connotations about Russia’s integration with the West, despite his assertions that Russia can lay claim to being as European as any other European nation. Putin expected that Washington would support his view that the struggle in Chechnya was part of the war on terrorism and to a substantial degree that is what the Bush administration did.
The opportunistic, Eurasian foreign policy of Yevgeni Primakov, and other Russian statesmen before him, is back in vogue. The diplomacy of Putin and the “siloviki,” his former colleagues in the KGB who now occupy key positions in the Russian government, requires a confrontation with the United States if American activities seem to be encouraging too much, too fast in the newly independent states. Moscow made that clear a long time ago. President Putin’s ambassador in Washington, writing on February 22, 2005, said that “. . . many in Russia are expressing serious concern about American intentions in the post-Soviet space, including in Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.”
Putin’s attitudes toward the West and towards Russia’s neighbors do not necessarily bespeak aggressive tendencies or ill will. But they speak volumes about his view of Russia’s identity. Russia, he says, is a nation that created modern Europe together with the other European nations. Yet he is positioning his nation so that it may never truly be part of Europe in the sense of shared values and shared self-identification. Many great nations, the United States included, think of themselves as exceptional. And the Monroe Doctrine, after all, was devised to prevent European powers from gaining a foothold in America’s back yard. That backward-looking analogy captures the nature of the problem. Putin’s policies in Russia’s neighborhood harken back to earlier times which do not fit well with the idea of an undivided Europe. Putin has come very close to denying Russia’s neighbors the choice of any policies or leaders except those of which he approves. Even his “synchronization” policy could amount to that. If Putin thought Russia’s identity and vocation was to be a member of a Euroatlantic community of democracies he would not worry about Russia’s neighbors’ becoming democratic and joining in the same community. But, in fact, Putin does worry about this and sees it as hostile behavior—as a zero-sum game.
Russia’s old antagonist, the United States, is not blameless for this development. The Bush administration’s announcement in December 2001 of its intention to abrogate the 1972 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty, which Putin wanted to preserve, was one blow to the idea of integration. Another was NATO’s decision in November 2002 to invite seven new members to join NATO, including the three Baltic states. They became members in 2004. The Bush administration’s decision to deploy ballistic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic was another tweak to Russia’s sense of insecurity.
Putin’s internal policies—the practice of “managed democracy”—have drawn criticisms from Bush, but American “meddling” in the affairs of Russia’s neighbors seems to worry Putin more than that. He was clearly worried about the methods used by the opposition in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan and suspects that the United States incited them. He probably views U.S. support for building civil societies in those nations as the source of his problems, rather than corrupt governance by leaders who overstayed their welcome. On November 26, 2004, commenting at a press conference in The Hague on the situation in Ukraine, Putin remarked that “we have no moral right to incite mass disturbances in a major European state. We must not make solving disputes of this nature through street disturbances part of international practice”.
Challenges in Russia’s Neighborhood
It is wrong for anyone to think that Russia is the origin of all the problems in the enormously complex mix of ethnic groups that inhabit the regions around Russia’s borders and within Russia itself. Moscow is the enabler of separatist movements in Moldova and the Caucasus and seems to find that divide and conquer policies suit its needs. But it would be simplistic to think that if Moscow suddenly became cooperative, all would be well. The causes of separation are deep-rooted and will not be easily removed. They will have to be addressed by the central governments in affected countries and this process will take a long time. Ethnic identity is the origin of the separatist impulse, and a desire for self-determination flows from that.
The principle of self-determination does not carry with it the legal right to secession, but that is the way many ethnic communities interpret it. The justice, honesty, and competence of central governments are interests shared by all citizens. If there are doubts about those characteristics of a legitimately elected government, the adverse reactions are apt to be strongest among minorities that already are disaffected. It will not be enough, therefore, simply to bring the parties to a separatist dispute to the negotiating table to discuss logical and reasonable solutions. Because of the emotions and the long histories involved in all these disputes, it will take some time before trust takes root between central governments and those ethnic groups inclined towards independence. The complexities are no excuse for taking a pass but the implications for U.S. policy are often contradictory and usually boil down to the best of a series of bad choices.
Chechnya, terrorism, Caspian Sea oil, and the actions of Georgian President Saakashvili combined to make Georgia a sensitive problem. Moscow was troubled by the way political change in Georgia was forced on the old guard. The “Rose Revolution”, the name bestowed on the massive demonstrations by young Georgians, ousted Eduard Shevardnadze as president of Georgia on November 23, 2003. Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president in January 2004, reportedly with 96% of the vote. Shevardnadze, Gorbachev’s foreign minister and a key player in ending the Cold War, unfortunately presided over an increasingly corrupt and ineffective government. As happened later in Ukraine, young activists demanded a change and forced it to happen. Speaking of the change at the top in Georgia, President Putin remarked on February 22, 2005 that “the previous president and the current president are equally attractive partners, with whom we should find a common language . . . given that we really do have many centuries of special relations with Georgia.”
The disputes in Georgia flow in part from the Chechen war. And the conflicts here with Russia are “frozen” only in the sense that they have never been resolved. Russian-backed break-away regions defied Tbilisi’s authority—Abkhazia and South Ossetia received overt aid and support from Russia. An unsuccessful Georgian military campaign in South Ossetia in August 2004 failed to break South Ossetian resistance. In addition to these problems with Russia, Georgia had problems involving other ethnic groups, the Armenians and Azeris.
The Pankisi Gorge, in the north of Georgia near the border with Chechnya, was seriously embroiled in spill-over from the Chechen conflict. Russia believed that it was a transit route for terrorists and supplies fueling the armed conflict in Chechnya. Washington evidently had evidence that supported that. Because of that, Washington decided to send a military training team to Georgia in May 2002 to assist the Georgians in dealing with the terrorist problem in the Gorge. This, of course, generated adverse political comment in Moscow but it helped Georgia establish a greater degree of control over the Gorge. Under the aegis of the OSCE, at the request of Georgia, a Border Monitoring Operation also was established in early 2000. The United States encouraged Georgia to send troops to Iraq, which it did, and sent military advisors to Georgia to assist in training Georgia’s army.
Georgia has been the recipient of substantial U.S. economic assistance, in part because it is on the route of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that carries oil to the West. Russia, of course, wants to maintain the Northern Route, from Baku to Novorossiysk, but major Western oil companies, with encouragement from their governments, have worked to re-orient the pipeline infrastructure towards the West. Russian policies concerning the Caucasus must be influenced by these considerations.
There was a Russian military presence in Georgia left over from Soviet times and it was an irritant. Two Russian bases were dismantled, fairly expeditiously, as Yeltsin had agreed to do in November 1999. But two other Russian bases, one at Akhalkalaki and the other at Batumi took much longer to be evacuated. Most of the troops there were not ethnic Russians—Armenians formed the core of the contingent at Akhalkalaki and Georgians were in the majority at Batumi. President Saakashvili was cautious about pushing the Russians too hard on withdrawal, but as a form of protest he declined an invitation to join Putin in Moscow for the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2005. The two remaining bases were slowly relinquished over the next three years.
There had been direct discussions between senior Georgian leaders and the leaders of South Ossetia. With Russian support, this dispute probably could have been resolved, with Tbilisi regaining sovereignty, while South Ossetia would enjoy local autonomy, as in Soviet times. Abkhazia always has been a more difficult issue and the problem is in the hands of the UN, not the OSCE. But the 1999 Istanbul OSCE Summit Declaration stated that “we . . . are ready to work with the United Nations to prepare and submit a draft document addressing the distribution of constitutional competencies between the central authorities of Georgia and authorities of Abkhazia, Georgia.” The Abkhaz have a long history as a people and, like the Chechens, a fierce desire for independence. Many of them have acquired Russian passports as a way of resisting integration into Georgia. A form of ethnic cleansing of Georgians took place in Abkhazia, which was condemned by OSCE heads of states and governments in 1999.
Future U.S. Policies?
What specific policies could the next administration adopt that would help Russia with its long recessional from empire while easing the transition of nations on Russia’s periphery to more democratic forms of governance? First, a more high-level and proactive American involvement will be necessary. This means real U.S. investment in these issues in terms of political capital and political energy. Second, expediency, as in the tension between U.S. bases and human rights in Central Asia, must give way to principle. Military bases should not be bought at the price of condoning the suppression of freedom and democracy.. Third, Washington should work for a modus vivendi with Russia regarding Russia’s neighbors recognizing that it will not always be possible. This should not be a geopolitical zero-sum game, but if Moscow perceives political change in its neighborhood as a threat, it will play a spoiler role. Only when Moscow accepts change as inevitable and tries to accommodate to it can the barriers between Russia and the West be eliminated once and for all.
This is not the place to discuss the other pillar of the Euroatlantic community, the European Union and the other states of Western and Central Europe. It has to be underscored, however, that American diplomacy in Russia’s neighborhood is only part of the total picture. The attraction of the EU for all of Russia’s neighbors is hard to overstate. Reforms are the price for an association with the EU and so progress towards freedom and democracy is understood to be a price that must, to varying degrees, be paid. European negotiators are working on problems of the “frozen conflicts.” The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, more influenced by Western Europeans than by Americans, has been in the vanguard of institutions promoting democratic reforms in Russia and in its neighborhood. A more proactive U.S. policy in Russia’s neighborhood should involve close harmonization of U.S. and EU policies.
All too often the serious analysis of issues in the American-Russian relationship is hampered by an almost subconscious reaction that Russia does not matter very much any more. This was and is a strategic miscalculation. President Bush talked as though he respects Russia, but he never acted that way. He should have tried to get Washington thinking about the Euroatlantic community of nations as a “Single Security Space” and should have been encouraging Moscow to think that way too. Neither capital does, at this point. Realism, strength, and dialogue are the principles that underlay American policies towards the Soviet Union. They remain valid today in Washington’s dealings with Russia.
Realism requires the United States to appreciate the fact that the Russian government does indeed think of loosening the reins in post-Soviet space in zero-sum terms, assuming that more independence for their neighbors must mean power will flow away from Russia and be collected by some other rival. But American strength is not abetted by over-militarizing Washington’s relationships with these countries. And dialogue should make it possible to understand and accept Russian interests, like the Single Economic Space, to which Putin attached great importance.
Realism, strength, and dialogue, but also a vision to point the way and that vision should be inclusion. A Euroatlantic security community is the right goal for the United States and it should include Russia. There are likely to be three centers of gravity in such a community, the United States, the European Union, and Russia and no one of them is likely to dominate the other two. There will be differences between them but the essence of a community is that war has been excluded as a means of reconciling these problems. One of the main reasons that a stable peace would exist in such a community is because democratic values and institutions would have permeated every member state.
Finally, realism requires an understanding that internal conditions in Russia, and Moscow’s policies towards its former dominions, are likely to stand in the way of Russia’s full inclusion in a Euroatlantic community for a long time to come. Georgia has underlined this. Why pursue a vision that the present Russian government almost certainly does not share? Because it provides a magnetic North for a policy compass that easily could become confused and directionless in the face of conflicting interests. And because any other American strategic goal than Russia’s ultimate inclusion in a Euroatlantic security community would slow down political change in the region, create new walls, and result in a weakened common front against transnational threats.
The optimism of the first years following the end of the Cold War has given way to skepticism, even cynicism, about Russia’s place in Europe. To renew the interrupted march toward a Euroatlantic community of democracies will require a major act of statecraft. Failure to rise to the occasion will mean that the turning point in history that began with the Cold War’s end will become only another sad story of frustrated hopes.
The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall are history, not to be repeated, but Putin’s policies, if successful, would divide Russia from the Euroatlantic community by different means. This matters. The fifty-year confrontation of the Cold War shows what can happen when Russia is divided from the West. Even in the short term, Russia has a major role to play, for better or worse, in the political and economic development of its neighbors and in the marshalling of the full strength of the Euroatlantic community in fighting transnational threats.
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