Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Russian Winter Offensive

It has been a while since I wrote an article about Russia, but with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent visit to Damascus and Russia’s veto at the UN Security Council to block a resolution on Syria, the Eurasian giant deserves our attention.

Many analysts question why Moscow is acting so strongly against the United States when the Obama Administration appears to have done so much to achieve a "Reset" with the Kremlin. Most prominently, Daniel Drezner compares Russia and China in his Foreign Policy article and points out how Beijing's rhetoric towards Washington is more reserved than Moscow's despite China facing more direct challenges from the United States.

But objectively speaking, the baseline presumption that there actually had been a "Reset" between the United States and the Russian Federation may be a fallacy. With Putin at the helm, the Kremlin has seen the foreign policies of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, which invariably produces a long term perspective on US behavior towards Russia and actions in Russia's key areas of interest. Taking this view into account helps better explain why Moscow may not feel that Obama is all that different from Bush.

What the Russian leadership expected the “Reset” was for the United States to break from the policy of unilateralism and show “commitment to the notion that Russia can be a viable and trustworthy partner to the United States regardless of the state of Russia’s domestic affairs.” The Libya issue provides a good example of where the "Reset" failed to manifest - Russia abstained from the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 without totally rejecting it in deference to US leadership. Despite the silent understanding that the resolution should not be viewed as a green light for military intervention, NATO began air strikes on Libya. Therefore, in debating the crisis in Syria, it is only natural for Lavrov to give a firm warning to the "West" and use Russia's veto power to reject the resolution against the Assad regime. Furthermore, the criticism against Russian elections by the US State Department was not well received by the Kremlin, especially during a sensitive time for semi-democratic/semi-authoritarian regimes around the world.

What is more, Washington has nothing to bargain for. It has opted out of being an assertive negotiator or a stabilizer on the Korean Peninsula where Russia seeks stability in order to begin constructing new gas pipelines that will open way for the development of the Russian Far East. The US has not and cannot fulfill Japan's security needs, which is forcing Tokyo to reorient its military position from north against Russia to south against China (exchanging land based forces in Hokkaido for air and naval forces in the South China Sea) and leaving Russia in good position to conclude a favorable resolution on its island dispute with Japan.

Before, Russia saw the United States as a vital partner in engaging Asian countries - but with Washington forcing South Korea and Japan to reconsider their dependency on oil imports from the Middle East, Russians  can expect the East Asian economic powers to come to the Kremlin. In fact, South Korean entities have been in negotiation since 2003 to develop means to deliver gas to South Korea through North Korea - now Pyongyang has given a nod of approval and things will move along, with or without Washington.

The US-Russian friction is a reflection of Washington's massive loss of leverage over a country that had at one point desperately desired closer relations. Internal weaknesses of the Russian Federation may play a peripheral role, but obsessing over Putin's authority over the country misses the wider implications of current events.

Russia is a big country. It spans over vast territories and borders several regions where major world players have staked out their interests - Kremlin is challenged to produce a cohesive and coherent foreign policy to maximize Russia's gains. Naturally, the resulting policies are both reactive and pragmatic.

Looking at Eurasia from the perspective of those who rule over a significant portion of it seems like a good place to start for Washington if it seeks to better assert its leadership role there.

Read my full article on Asia Times.

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