- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

In rebuilding the trans-Atlantic alliance President Barack Obama will need to confront Moscow’s ambitions to divide Europe into permanent “spheres of influence.” Facing a belligerent Russia and a fractured European Union, Mr. Obama must combine practical engagement with the Kremlin on issues of mutual concern, such as anti-proliferation and counterterrorism, with a strategic assertiveness that strengthens the Atlantic community.

Mr. Obama’s election has been perceived by the Kremlin as an opportunity to undermine America’s global reach. In his “state of the union” address after Mr. Obama’s election, President Dmitry Medvedev asserted Russia’s global interests, threatened to position nuclear weapons along Poland’s borders, and accused Washington of provoking conflicts in the Caucasus. In effect, Mr. Medvedev challenged Mr. Obama to make strategic compromises by withdrawing from the planned Missile Defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic and acquiescing to Moscow’s goal to establish more clearly demarcated “spheres of influence” in Eastern Europe.

Behind the Kremlin’s rhetoric lurks a fear that the Obama administration may be a potentially grave threat to Russia’s objectives to rebuild its superpower status and diminish U.S. leadership. The new president’s evident popularity could raise America’s global stature, reduce anti-Americanism, increase criticisms of Kremlin authoritarianism, and provide impetus for a renewed Western strategy that could undercut Russia’s expansive ambitions.

Since Russia’s de facto partition of Georgia last August, two broad strategic approaches toward Moscow have been germinating in the European Union - the passive and the active. The passive “spheres of influence” position accommodates Moscow’s goals to delineate Western and Russian zones of predominant influence within Europe, while the active “Wider Europe” approach seeks an expanded Euro-Atlantic community. Moscow is anxious that President Obama may embrace the activist position.

Acceptance of geopolitical divisions with Russia may not be explicit in any European Union capital. However, it is evident in calls to forestall further NATO and EU enlargement and the general acceptance of Russia’s claims that its national interests are more important than those of its immediate neighbors, including staunch U.S. allies such as Poland and the three Baltic States.

Such neo-appeasement by Western powers will have far-reaching implications for the security orientations and foreign policies of countries in either sphere. It would signal a Yalta-like acceptance of Russia’s aggrandizement by assigning the post-Soviet states - including Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Belarus - to Moscow’s indefinite suzerainty while undermining the security of NATO’s eastern flank.

In marked contrast, the Wider Europe position dismisses Russia’s zero-sum calculations with respect to Continental security. It recognizes the sovereign decisions of all states to accede to multinational institutions such as NATO and the EU that do not threaten the security of any neighboring power. Although the “wider Europeanists” do not seek confrontation with Moscow, they are willing to challenge Russia’s empire-building objectives.

There is urgency in Central Europe to devise effective forms of protection against Russia’s advances. Doubts about the practical validity of NATO’s Article Five security guarantees have escalated in recent months given the accommodationist approach toward Russia exhibited by several older Alliance members such as Germany and France.

The apprehensions and aspirations of America’s newest European allies as well as those states that seek NATO and EU membership will require a concerted and activist U.S. and Allied approach. Europe’s new democracies need to have their security ensured through concrete NATO defense plans combined with military modernization and the procurement of effective weaponry.

Russia remains a serious threat to its weaker neighbors, irrespective of its structural and fiscal weaknesses and overdependence on hydrocarbon revenues. Moscow continues to engage in a policy of subversion and destabilization across the former Soviet empire especially through its control of vital energy resources. The current dispute with Ukraine over energy prices and the cutoff in Russia’s gas supplies contributes to weakening the Ukrainian state and limits Kiev’s advances toward Western institutions.

Russia’s internal problems during the deepening global recession could actually magnify its external threat. Moscow traditionally manipulates the sense of besiegement to mobilize the populace and applies pressures on neighbors to deflect attention from domestic unrest. The financial crisis is precipitating even tighter state control over the economy and further concentrating power in the Kremlin, which may engineer crises in neighboring states to raise Russia’s stature.

As a result, President Obama will face two stiff challenges - rebuilding the Atlantic alliance and dealing with a neo-imperialist Russia. Above all, Washington must reject any moves toward redividing Europe into Cold War zones or sacrificing the security of any European state. This can be accomplished by intensifying links with all of Europe’s new democracies and offering NATO aspirants a clearer road map toward inclusion.

If handled adroitly by a united West, Moscow’s internal problems and its inability to construct a durable sphere of dominance will provide an important boost for the reanimation of democratic and pro-Western developments along Russia’s long borders.

Janusz Bugajski is director of the New European Democracies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His newly published book is titled “Expanding Eurasia: Russia’s European Ambitions” (CSIS Press).

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