The Economist Debate on Russia

economistdebate091808.pngThis week the Economist is finishing off an online Oxford-style debate on Russia. The Proposal: The West must be bolder in response to the newly assertive Russia. The PRO position is argued by Anne-Marie Slaughter while the CON position is argued by Dmitri Trenin. I recommend my readers go on over, read the copious statements and arguments, and cast their vote. My take on all this? I suppose I feel like I have been debating this point on this blog for two years … even at the last Economist debate I participated in way back in 2006, I felt like I was going through the “chicken little” experience, facing great resistance to whatever warning or urgency I addressed to developments in Russia. Now that the sky is indeed falling, this topic of “the bold response” has entered the mainstream, but I can’t say that we are enjoying a more intelligent dialogue. On the one hand, a bold response from the West is absolutely necessary to prove to the siloviki that you can’t achieve your desired outcomes through confrontation, but rather cooperation and consensus. The response cannot just be bold, but must also be intelligent, focused on the specific divisions between key figures of the government, and not aimed at damaging the interests or well being or ordinary Russian citizens. On the other hand, myopic, Cold War-like confrontation very much serves the interests of the authoritarians in power, justifying their every seizure of institution, gagging of the press, and near complete erasure of rule of law in the name of protecting the security of the nation against a foreign enemy. We cannot presume that the Kremlin is a rational decision maker – they are not seeking long-term national interest, only short term personal survival and (oftentimes) wealth. After the cut, I have some excerpts of the closing statements from both Slaughter and Trenin. Go have some fun on the live chat, and make your voices heard … though you might find it hard to drown out the trolls.

Anne-Marie Slaughter (Pro) – Closing Statement

Mr Trenin accuses me of the “stale” view that Russia is just up to its old imperialist tricks. Not so. I did not argue that Russia was imperialist as in tsarist days, but rather that it is an old Russian habit, as with many authoritarian governments, to manufacture an external threat to whip up nationalist sentiment as a way of distracting the population from domestic problems. Many of the commentators, including a number of Russian participants in the debate, agree with this proposition, noting the miserable quality of life for many ordinary Russians—see Alice in Wonderland’s point that pensioners lived better in Soviet times than they do today—and Marek in Moscow’s point that even his very Westernised friends suddenly have a very nationalist reaction when talking about Russian honour and pride.That means that the West faces the following dilemma: How to respond to Russia’s very disproportionate response to Georgia’s military action in South Ossetia in a way that will deter further such military action in Ukraine or elsewhere in the “near abroad” but that will not inflame a nationalist reaction that would make it easier (or even create incentives) for the government to do just that? Here I return to my starting proposition: the West must have some response; it is not necessary to think that Putin is the reincarnation of Hitler to realise that the absence of any response is likely to be seen as a sign of weakness or an indication that no consequences will follow further similar action. Here again, I, like the moderator, would ask Mr Trenin whether he is really proposing that the West do nothing?So here let me be more specific, as our moderator requests. First, I would second Hillary Clinton’s proposal that we establish an international commission to determine the precise facts of what happened on October 8th and in the days before and after. We should not presume to know those facts and we should give the Russian account of what happened a fair hearing. Second, as I suggested before, the EU and America should jointly designate a high-level envoy to Moscow to find out what Russia wants directly, rather than simply speculating. Third, however, I would exercise every lever possible in the Russian business community, which very much wants to be integrated with the West, to make clear the costs of this kind of activity—freezing assets, curbing travel for family members, freezing invitations to international conferences like the World Economic Forum. No one has explained why these won’t work.

Dmitri V. Trenin (Con) – Closing Statement

So far, I have seen my job as discussing the likely effectiveness of bolder Western reaction to Moscow’s actions in the Caucasus. However, Mr Greene, the moderator, has urged me to discuss the Russian action itself. Let me be plain: I see it in terms broadly similar to the NATO action over then-Yugoslavia in 1999. With important new elements though: (a) while NATO troops went into action when Belgrade failed to respond to their governments’ ultimatum, Russia was responding massively to a deadly attack against its peacekeepers, which was part of the Georgian onslaught on South Ossetia, which started the war; (2) NATO was saved from having to launch a land invasion, which would have occupied Serbia and ended the rule of Milosevic, only by the Russian-European diplomatic action, while Russia’s invasion of Georgia proper has been limited; (3) whereas it took the West seven years to recognise Kosovo, Russia’s recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence followed within two weeks of the end of hostilities. That said, I sympathise with the Georgian civilians who lost life, limb or property as part of what NATO used to call “collateral damage”. I would not want to be in Gori in 2008, as I dreaded to be in Belgrade in 1999. The person for whom I had absolutely no sympathy in 1999 was Slobodan Milosevic. The person who bears the bulk of responsibility for what happened in 2008 is Mikheil Saakashvili.My central criticism of the Russian government is that they had not managed to resolve the conflicts on Russia’s borders. They probably thought that the “freeze” was offering them an instrument to put pressure on Georgia and make it impossible for it to join NATO or host American military bases. That was the only real interest that Russia had; it certainly felt no threat from the Rose revolution—other than the chance that roses would eventually be used for welcoming American military personnel to the Caucasus. However, my much bigger problem is with the sloppiness, or worse, of the current US administration, which failed to prevent Saakashvili’s fateful move on Tskhinval, or to cut it short once it started, and thus prevent the massive Russian counter-move. After the recent hearings in the US Senate and the House, one would hope that an investigation into the circumstances that led to the war would give an answer to the question whether this was, on behalf of the Bush administration, an act of omission (which I hope) or commission.Finally, I must confess I was very struck by the intense emotions evoked by the debate. I was also impressed by the reasonable closeness of the vote, which I take as a sign of the perceived seriousness of the issue, not the voters’ indecisiveness. More than a couple of times, however, I have been startled by the complete triumph of emotions over reason, and of prejudice over rational judgment. That Russia is often misunderstood, and worst-case scenarios are at the top of many people’s minds, is not particularly surprising, in view of the Soviet Union’s history, the cold war and more ancient prejudices. “The Hun” lives on, only now he is known as the Russian bear. (Has anyone noticed that newspaper cartoons usually depict Russia as an animal, while other nations are represented by humans? A minor but interesting point.) What is more revealing, and also sad, is the proliferation of newly-closed minds, too long steeped perhaps in the rites of political correctness.