The Russian invasion of Georgia is the culmination of a years-long crisis that stems from different perceptions about Russian and U.S. interests and influence in the former Soviet lands around Russia‘s borders.
The newly independent nations that once were part of the Soviet Union are viewed by what is still the government of Vladimir Putin as part of a “common space.”
Mr. Putin’s domestic policies and his attitude toward the former Soviet republics all bespeak his inordinate fear of Russia’s disintegration. Unfortunately, he seems to think that Russian pre-eminence in what he calls the “post-Soviet area” is an indispensable element of the defense of the unity of the Russian Federation.
The Bush administration’s view has been that Russia will continue to have influence in neighboring states and that Russia will benefit from having prosperous, democratic nations in its neighborhood.
In theory, U.S. interests in good working relations with Russia and in encouraging democracy and freedom throughout Eurasia should not result in a conflicted U.S. foreign policy toward this region.
Pursuing these two sets of interests should be compatible within a policy framework designed to promote a Euro-Atlantic security community, including Russia, based on common values and a broad sense of a common identity.
But the reality is different; the international climate now is so charged, and hopes and fears have risen to such heights that Washington and Moscow must engage in a serious dialogue to reconcile their differing visions and create a modus vivendi.
This may not be an insuperable task. In fact, Mr. Putin’s policies damage Russia, as well as Russia’s neighbors, in several ways and may not be sustainable.
First, his belief that Russia must have acquiescent governments in charge of the former Soviet republics has contributed to the corruption of the political process in many of these countries. He has left no doubt that he prefers the status quo and will fight against change that he cannot control. He prefers to keep in power those leaders who are dependably loyal to Moscow, even though their governments may be fragile and undemocratic.
There is a line beyond which a special relationship between states becomes domination and a denial of freedom. Mr. Putin has crossed that line.
Second, Mr. Putin’s policies do not fit well with globalization and an undivided Europe. His rollback of the democratic institutions that his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, had encouraged is a strong signal that integration with the West is not one of Mr. Putin’s strategic objectives.
Third, Russia’s foreign policy is skewed in a way that damages its interests. An opportunistic “Eurasian” foreign policy is back in vogue in Moscow. The diplomacy of Mr. Putin and the “siloviki,” his former KGB colleagues, who occupy key positions in the Russian government, requires a confrontation with the West if it fails to recognize Moscow’s sphere of interest.
Fourth, Mr. Putin’s policies have damaged Russia’s struggle for self-identification in the period after the collapse of communism. His attitudes toward the West and Russia’s neighbors speak volumes about his view of Russia’s identity. He is positioning his nation so that it may never truly be part of Europe in the sense of shared values and shared self-identification.
A “Europe whole and free” seemed almost attainable when President George H.W. Bush articulated that in Mainz, Germany, on May 31, 1989. “The time is right,” he said then.
The time is still right, but that vision has been stifled and, after the war in Georgia, probably shelved.
Mr. Putin’s policies have turned back the clock - or at least substantially slowed the process of change. Washington faces conflicting policy requirements: for Russian support in the fight against terrorism and the effort to block the spread of nuclear weapons, for bases to support U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, for energy supplies from the Caspian and elsewhere.
On the side of accommodation, Washington should follow these guidelines:
c Strategy toward Russia should be based on a vision of Russia’s inclusion in a Euro-Atlantic community.
c Sharp dividing lines between Russia and its neighbors should be discouraged.
c Geopolitical competition, as in militarizing the U.S. relationship with Russia’s neighbors, should be avoided.
c The Euro-Atlantic community should be regarded as a single security space facing similar threats and working together to overcome them.
But realism requires an understanding that internal conditions in Russia and Moscow’s policies toward its former dominions are likely to stand in the way of Russia’s full inclusion in a Euro-Atlantic community for a long time to come. There will be sharp differences over Russia’s perceived sphere of interest and U.S. support for democratic development.
So why pursue a vision that the present Russian government does not share? Because it provides a magnetic north for a policy compass that easily could become confused and directionless in the face of conflicting interests. And because any American strategic goal other than Russia’s ultimate inclusion in a Euro-Atlantic security community would slow political change in the region, create new walls and result in a weakened common front against transnational threats.
The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall are history, not to be repeated. But Mr. Putin’s policies, if successful, would divide Russia from the Euro-Atlantic community by different means. This matters, both for Russia and America.
The 50-year Cold War shows what can happen when Russia is divided from the West. America and Russia must finally come together to ensure that the outcome of the war in Georgia is not yet another unhappy ending to a hopeful turning point in history.
James E. Goodby, a former U.S. ambassador to Finland and arms control negotiator, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.