Russia as the Rising Phoenix

Alexandros Petersen of ISS and CSIS has a short op/ed in the Boston Globe today pondering the “risks and rewards” or Russia’s resurgence. I often feel increasingly isolated when I insist that Russia’s return to the global power brokers’ table can be good for the international community, so long as they are held accountable for their decisions and policies and drawn into the same rule-based systems of international law just like everyone else. So far, this is not what is happening, but more attention should be given to the “Vancouver to Vladivostok” security alliance proposal.

This is the new Russia talking – a phoenix that has risen from the ashes of the 1990s, when the former Soviet empire was plunged into chaos by robber-baron capitalism and shamed by an ineffectual (and often drunk) President Boris Yeltsin. The Russia rebuilt by former KGB operative Vladimir Putin in the past eight years has relied on its vast territory’s immense energy wealth and on the export of arms.

Newly confident and increasingly assertive, the Kremlin has recently sought to decrease Western influence in its Eurasian neighborhood. But, it has also exerted influence of its own further afield – such as claiming the North Pole and beginning Cold War-style nuclear bomber patrols to Guam and Scotland.Since claiming that he gazed into Putin’s soul and found it not to be threatening, President Bush has largely chosen to ignore Moscow’s provocations, or attempted to counter them without much fanfare. John McCain, however, has said he would push for Russia to be kicked out of the G-8. And Barack Obama has hinted on more than one occasion that he would take a harder line on the country’s human rights and foreign policy problems. Either way, the growing trouble spots in US-Russia relations – from Moscow’s sale of antiaircraft units to Iran to the Kremlin’s growing grip on Europe’s energy supplies – will necessitate a new approach by a new administration.That said, we may be on the cusp of a breakthrough. Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to NATO, usually spends his time lambasting the Alliance for seeking to surround Russia. Earlier this month, however, he quietly mentioned that in September, Medvedev will suggest a joint security framework “from Vancouver to Vladivostok.”While he gave few details, it seems that Moscow will attempt to elicit a grand bargain from the West: transcontinental security cooperation in exchange for a Russian sphere of influence in former Soviet Eurasia.This could mean that the United States would have to abandon democratic Georgia, reforming Ukraine, and the energy-rich countries of the Caspian region to Russian dominance. Both NATO and the EU would have to halt their expansion, along with the peace, prosperity, and good governance they bring. If that is Russia’s aim, then there is little to be gained from such an ambitious pact.But, if US and European negotiators can hammer out an agreement with Moscow that serves the interests of both sides, then the dividends would be significant. Having Russia on side to tackle Iran, North Korea, transnational terrorism, climate change, and energy security would make life a lot easier for a new administration that is certain to have its hands too full elsewhere to engage in a new Cold War.