For a long time I had been hoping against hope that somehow relations with Russia would finally earn a spot on the list of debate topics for U.S. politics (it is quite difficult to contend with Iraq and Afghanistan in the exceptionally narrow bandwidth American media reserves for foreign policy). But now that the question of how Washington should respond to the “resurgence of Russia,” or whichever narrative we want to use here, is most certainly going to be the foreign policy topic du jour in the presidential debates, I am reminded that I should always be careful what I wish for. Case in point, this ruminative column by James Traub in the New York Times reminds us of all the Cold War hangovers, memories of passive vs. active anti-communism, and basically of how Russia continues to have the unique ability to be nearly incomprehensible in the context of left vs. right U.S. partisan politics. Traub writes about experiencing the déjà vu effect of his one-time position on U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, both in periods of harmless decline and other moments of renewed aggression (Afghanistan). Having once been an anti-anti-communist myself in my previous life, I understand why so many liberal-leaning people in the West are having trouble reconciling and understanding the Russia problem in the context of the invasion of Georgia.
Certainly they would naively prefer to just let Russia be Russia (meaning that the spheres of influence argument should be accepted without concern) and hope that everything turns out for the best – even if that position poses a fundamental contradiction to some core beliefs in liberty and the rights of states. But Georgia poses a real pickle of a problem to any easy assumptions about relations with Russia, and it must be a very discomforting feeling to suddenly find yourself agreeing with hard line arguments from the other end of the ideological spectrum.Right now I am bracing myself for underwhelming frustration and disappointment when the Senators exchange barbs during the debates over the Russia policy question … even if one of them just picked up a proclaimed “Russia expert” from Alaska.The article is well worth checking out, even if there are two considerable flaws. One, like many other discussions about this current challenge with Moscow, Traub can’t help but just see all this through a Cold War lens, failing to consider what it means that there is no longer any factor of competing ideologies. Russia is relatively integrated into the global financial system, practicing illiberal capitalism (and doing quite a hell of a job of it), with their elites deeply invested in foreign markets and society. Moscow has no national project or vision, and is not proposing any kind of different operating system for the world, but rather seems to childishly bent on proving a point that they have some power again – even if they have no idea what they want to do with it.Many may reasonably disagree with that last thought, and perhaps I am the only one who asks “so what?” when I read that Medvedev is saying “Russia is a nation to be reckoned with from now on.” But isn’t that just what’s happening now? Just like me, Russia’s leaders should be careful what they wish for.The second flaw is this idea that this new Russia is not containable. That’s simply not true, and there is a long menu of various options and levers that can be employed and mobilized by both the United States and Europe to produce dramatic changes in Russia’s conduct, and remind some of these siloviki that it is much more in their interests to be a responsible and mature member of the international community (Anders Aslund outlines some of the economic levers here). Unfortunately the Putinist revolution has robbed Russia’s citizens of any ability to hold their current leaders accountable for acting so far outside the concerns of their own national interests.