The Unwillingness to Confront Russia

The lede paragraph from Marc Champion’s article on the Georgia-Russia missile story in today’s Wall Street Journal speaks volumes:

Georgia’s demand for a special United Nations Security Council session on Russian missiles dropped into Georgian territory this week reflects rising frustration with the West’s apparent unwillingness to confront Moscow over intimidation of its ex-Soviet neighbors.

Three years can be quite a long time, it seems, and the days of the color revolutions are all but a distant memory. As Georgia expresses its outrage over what it alleges to be an outright provocation (the current theory is that the missile was jettisoned from a Russian aircraft doing reconnaissance 75 kilometers inside the Georgian border), it finds itself increasingly isolated as one of the few remaining nations in the region that has continued to refuse to pay homage to Kremlin. Support from Europe could honestly never be counted on: following Yushchenko’s historic victory in the Orange Revolution, he was virtually ignored by Chirac and Schröder on their first meeting lest they anger their patron in Moscow. The United States, quite frankly, became a little too busy and distracted by the Iraq quagmire and ongoing political challenges at home to remember to finish what they started in helping the former satellite states establish their sovereignty. baluyevsky0810.jpg President Vladimir Putin, left, listens to Russia’s military chief of staff Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky during their meeting in Novo-Ogaryovo presidential residence outside Moscow, on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2007 (Photo: AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Presidential Press Service, Dmitry Astakhov) So far the U.S. response to the latest Georgian complaints has been rather soft – despite some media reporting otherwise. During the press briefing on August 8, State Dept. spokesman Sean McCormick was distinctly vague on the issue, talking about past conversations with both sides, the need to go through political channels, and finally admitting that if indeed the Russians violated the sovereign territory of Georgia, it “is something that, you know, we would condemn.” I would not characterize this statement as being very encouraging or supportive. However, it appears the statement was sufficient to provoke a very strong response from the Russian government, who thought it would be a great idea to remind Washington how serious they are about their foothold in Georgia by sending two Tu-95 bombers to buzz over nearby Guam where the U.S. military was conducting exercises. In announcing this unexpected flyby yesterday, the first incursion by Russian planes into the Pacific since the Cold War, Maj. Gen. Pavel Androsov proudly and giddily disclosed that the pilots exchanged smiles with the incepting jets from the United States. Once again, Washington is not concerned in the slightest. During yesterday’s press briefing, McCormick played it coy, actually joking with reporters as if he was trying to understand that Russia is still actually flying these antiquated propeller-driven “bear bombers.” He said: “Well, as I said, you know, they’re still flying those things? Look, if — you know, I’ll leave it to the military to ascribe any particular significance or non-significance to this event. Beyond that, I don’t think I have anything really to say.” Then today, Navy Adm. Robert F. Willard said that the Russian planes never even got within 500 kilometers of Guam. It all comes down to the entirely different perceptions that the United States and Russia have of each other. The U.S. apparently does not regard Russia as an enemy, and is not at all concerned with military containment. Russia most certainly feels like it is back in the Cold War, and identifies itself principally in opposition to the United States. Here Stratfor briefly addresses the gulf between these two perceptions:

Ultimately, the disparity between Androsov’s announcement and the Pentagon’s bureaucratic reply is symptomatic of the way each nation sees its old Cold War adversary. Pentagon planners do not talk about Russia like they used to. They do — and not without some cause — crack jokes, something that is actually rather easy to do when one considers that the propeller-driven Tu-95s, designed in the early 1950s, were “intruding” on the newest fighter jets in the world, zipping supersonically around Guam. But the simple truth of the matter is that Russia is one of only two countries in the world that can casually move strategic offensive weapons like the air-launched AS-15 cruise missiles across the face of the planet. The Tu-95 is certainly not a top-shelf plane these days — but when it’s carrying a highly accurate cruise missile with an 1,800-mile range and a nuclear warhead, it doesn’t have to be.

Certainly this is a problem. Peaceful and constructive relations between nations depend highly upon trust and rational decision making for mutual benefit, and Russia’s insistence in dragging the relationship back to the confrontation and suspicion of the Cold War is generating a lack of predictability. In my view, right now could be the ideal moment for the United States to engage with Russia. As the transfer of power approaches, many new alliances between influential forces in the Kremlin are taking place, and Washington should take action to see that the appropriate parties gain influence while the cabal of the siloviki gets marginalized. This of course is not to say that Russia somehow becomes weaker or more acquiescent to the West, only that those in power be more experienced in social and economic policy and less emphasis on the shrewd, cunning suspicion of those produced produced by security and espionage institutions. Russia can be strong, Russia can aggressively pursue its interests, and at the same time, Russia can take steps to increase liberties. Security, economic growth, and autocracy are not strictly mutually dependent qualities.