Since President Obama launched his detente with Moscow, Washington has bent over backward to accommodate Russia and gain its support in pressing security challenges. The Kremlin now views itself as indispensable and is intent on extracting maximum advantage from its hallowed position. Above all, Russia seeks to neutralize NATO and minimize the U.S. global reach.
For the Kremlin, NATO remains a threat not because it destabilizes Russia but because it thwarts its imperial aspirations. President Dmitry Medvedev blackmails the alliance by asserting that NATO's eastward growth would terminate all collaboration with the West. Despite lofty declarations at the recent Lisbon Summit, NATO growth has been stymied indefinitely along Poland's eastern border.
Moscow also seeks veto powers over troop deployments among new NATO members. It wants NATO to commit to stationing a maximum of 3,000 soldiers; if reinforcements were needed during a crisis, NATO would require Russia's consent. In effect, the alliance would depend on Moscow's permission to intervene if Russia invaded a NATO member.
Moscow also has been invited to participate in NATO's missile-defense program and exploits that opportunity to divide the continent. Mr. Medvedev has proposed that Europe be split into two sectors of "military responsibility" to protect it from missile attack - one controlled by NATO, the other by Russia, encompassing all ex-Soviet states. In this context, cooperation over Afghanistan, Iran and nuclear proliferation remains contingent upon Western strategic concessions acknowledging Russia's zone of influence across Eurasia.
However, in the midst of Moscow's efforts to neutralize NATO, Republican gains in U.S. midterm elections have thrown a spanner in the machinery. With or without ratification by the outgoing Senate of the new START treaty on reducing nuclear weapons, the U.S.-Russia detente has been exposed as an unequal partnership based on flimsy foundations.
Although START is supposed to symbolize the transformation of Russia into a responsible global player, Republicans charge that the treaty will hamper U.S. missile defense and nuclear modernization. Russia's leaders have not helped their cause by threatening "significant consequences" and a new arms race if START is not ratified. In a clear admission that Moscow is blackmailing the White House, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates revealed that Russia could curtail supplies across Russian territory to NATO forces in Afghanistan if the treaty is not approved. Russia also may retaliate by reneging on sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear ambitions.
A strategic partnership cannot be based on blackmail and bluster. The wider debate sparked by the START treaty will shed new light on Kremlin ambitions. Clearly, the U.S.-Russia detente has been used by Moscow to gain strategic concessions from Washington, including the downgrading of U.S. involvement in areas where Russia claims "privileged interests," such as the Black Sea, the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
Mr. Medvedev's "imperialism with a human face" envisions improved relations with the West in order to gain technology transfers and investments to promote modernization and economic development. Russia would then become more capable in pursuing its transregional ambitions. Western misconceptions beget acquiescence. Moscow manipulates the Islamic terrorist stereotype to claim it is combating jihadism in the North Caucasus and around Russia's borders. As a result, widespread human rights abuses by Russia's security forces are largely ignored by Western governments and the Kremlin is given a free hand to combat independence movements inside the Russian federation.
In the case of Iran, Moscow does not welcome a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement as this would diminish Russia's role in the Middle East. For Russia, Iran is both a tactical ally vis-a-vis the United States and a potential rival if there was an American-Iranian accord. Russia's use of energy as a political weapon against neighboring states would also be undermined if sanctions on Iranian energy exports were lifted by the West.
In the case of Afghanistan, Russia does not want the United States to prevail. NATO success would enhance U.S. influence throughout Central Asia. The deeper Washington becomes mired in Afghanistan, the fewer resources it will have to deploy in Russia's neighborhood and the more pertinent will be Mr. Medvedev's proposal for a new Eurasian security structure that gives the Kremlin veto powers over NATO decision-making.
We must also reconsider the conventional wisdom that improved U.S.-Russian relations benefit all post-Soviet states. Indeed, the current detente may precipitate two negatives. First, it can generate profound anxieties that Washington has abandoned the national interests of Russia's vulnerable neighbors. That could either worsen their relations with Russia as fears of domination escalate or it could encourage greater official acquiescence to Moscow that will polarize and radicalize domestic politics in countries such as Ukraine.
Second, Moscow may feel emboldened by perceptions that Washington disregards the security interests of allies and partners in pursuit of Russian cooperation. The Kremlin has tested Washington's response to a range of assertive moves, such as constructing military bases in occupied Georgian territory, extending the presence of Russia's fleet in Ukraine and pressurizing Belarus and Azerbaijan to subordinate their economic interests to Russia. Instead of more "resets," it may be time to upgrade the computer to better understand Moscow's motives.
Janusz Bugajski holds the Lavrentiadis Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and has just published "Georgian Lessons: Conflicting Russian and Western Interests in the Wider Europe" (CSIS Press, 2010).
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