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Our New Russian Opportunity

By Anton Fedyashin

True to his word, President Obama has launched a new era in American foreign policy. Signals from the U.S. have been positive and encouraging. Henry Kissinger quietly visited Moscow in December. Vice President Joseph Biden spoke optimistically about cooperating with Russia at the international security conference in Munich. In his first press conference, the President mentioned non-proliferation negotiations and Russia's role in preventing other regimes in acquiring nuclear capability. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to visit Moscow in March to lay the groundwork for reestablishing the U.S.-Russia partnership. And finally, President Obama and President Medvedev will meet at the G-20 summit in April. There is a veritable thaw in the air and spring looks promising.

Moscow has welcomed this change, but has taken a wait-and-see attitude. Moscow responded by canceling plans to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad in exchange for slowdown of the missile defense shield deployment in Eastern Europe. However, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov snubbed Hilary Clinton's phone call a few weeks ago; he was busy traveling with President Medvedev in Central Asia. The Russians are expanding their influence in this region by offering Kyrgyzstan financial support. Meanwhile, Moscow has opened its airspace for the U.S. to fly non-military supplies to Afghanistan. Given the emphasis that President Obama has placed on the military operation there, Russia's cooperation will become increasingly important. Where should the State Department start to repair its relationship with its Eurasian ally? It will have to reevaluate its policy towards Russia's neighbors.

Moscow has historically been very sensitive to its borderlands. Over the past millennium, Russia's geopolitical interests have changed at a much slower rate than her governments. The Bush administration targeted its two soft spots: the western borders and the "soft underbelly" in the Caucasus. Since 2003, the White House placed its bets on Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko at the expense of its relationship with Moscow. However, last summer's war with Georgia and the recent gas dispute between Moscow and Kiev have demonstrated how much more complicated the situation has become. It is not the black-and-white picture that the U.S. media paints of Russia's relations with its neighbors. Saakashvili and Yushchenko have proved to be not only embarrassments, but liabilities. The Obama administration now has the chance to choose better partners in the region.

The recent gas dispute has demonstrated the weakness of Ukraine's political system. President Yushchenko has repeatedly threatened to ignore the gas deal that Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko negotiated with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in mid-January. Now it is likely that Moscow will loan Kiev money to weather the financial crisis. The political and international dimensions of the row between Moscow and Kiev provided valuable insight into the Ukrainian presidential campaign that kicks off this year. Hailed by the Bush administration as a reformer and patriot, President Yushchenko went out of his way to lay all the responsibility for the gas dispute at Russia's doorstep, which was a bit too hasty. Ukraine's economy has been sliding towards catastrophe and the gas predicament was the latest installment in the standoff between Yushchenko and Timoshenko. The Ukrainian state gas company Naftogaz and the murky intermediary RosUkrEnergo threw their weight behind different parties. Although some see this as the natural birth-pangs of democracy, it has proven a dangerous handicap during the global financial crisis and an embarrassment to the Bush administration even in its last days. At times, neither Moscow nor the EU knew which of the two leaders spoke for Ukraine.

Unfortunately, Mr. Yushchenko has confused Ukrainian patriotism for an anti-Russian policy, which fit perfectly into the Bush administration's containment policy towards Russia. It is true that Moscow has used its natural energy resources as a political lever. However, since Russia has subsidized Ukraine's economy by selling it gas below market prices, it was well within its rights to expect cooperation in return. Unfortunately, President Yushchenko has equated "westernization" with NATO membership, which the Bush administration encouraged and Moscow opposed.

But preventing neighbors from joining military alliances hardly constitutes imperialism or bullying. Moreover, Russia has never objected to Ukraine's participation in the EU, the OECD, or any other non-military western institution. Mr. Saakashvili was also a Washington favorite for NATO membership. But his luck ran out when he recklessly attacked a breakaway region with internationally-approved Russian peacekeepers in it. It suits Moscow well that Georgia has two territories in what promises to be endless purgatory, because NATO will not accept a country without full territorial integrity.

Meanwhile, the gas dispute has played into Ms. Timoshenko's hands. Her shuttle diplomacy with Moscow has given her the appearance of a savior in the eyes of the Ukrainians and the Europeans. As long as Mr. Yushchenko tried to square Ukraine's geopolitical circle by "bringing the country into the West" via NATO--instead of via a functional and solvent economy--the gas problem persisted. Russia is willing to cooperate with a Ukraine integrated into European political and economic structures, but not with a government disdainful of its benefactor's geopolitical interests. By suspending its unequivocal support for Ukrainian (and Georgian) membership in NATO, the Obama administration will gain a more cooperative Russian ally.

Washington would do better to throw its support behind Ms. Timoshenko. She has used the gas dispute to position herself as a Ukrainian patriot, a European-minded politician, and someone able to negotiate with Moscow. She has eclipsed President Yushchenko and has come out the winner in Ukrainian politics for 2009. In addition to ensuring gas supplies to her western neighbors, she has, no doubt, also negotiated support for herself in the form of Moscow's non-interference in Ukraine's presidential race, which Russia tried to influence in 2004. This leaves Moscow's protégé Mr. Yanukovich out in the cold this time around. In exchange, Ms. Timoshenko will most likely soften her stance on Ukraine's bid to join NATO and restore a stable and lucrative relationship with Russia. Indeed, she has already been negotiating the Russian loan. The end of the gas crisis signals the beginning of the Ukrainian presidential campaign in which Ms. Timoshenko has a head start. One only hopes that Georgia will also produce as practical a politician.

This spring offers President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton a chance to restore Washington's relationship with Russia by supporting more reliable politicians in Georgia and Ukraine. Ms. Timoshenko is a tough negotiator, but she does not equate Ukrainian interests with anti-Russian policies that create more problems than they solve. With plans to increase U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the White House and the State Department would do well to restore cooperation with Moscow.

Anton Fedyashin is Assistant Professor of Russian History at American University.

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Comments (12)

jmcdavisum Author Profile Page:

Mr. Fedyashin would like us to give in to Russia's list of demands in return for what exactly? In return for ceding much of our influence in the Caucus and Eastern Europe we get a less combative and obstructionist Russia? In return for unwinding years of relationships with our allies on Russia's border, Russia will stop stone walling our efforts in Iran and provide our effort in Afghanistan with logistical support? Wow that sure sounds like a great deal to me. We do irreparable harm to many of our relationships for a bunch of carrots that Russia can easily take away at any time.

How about this. If Russia wants to turn what should be a mutually beneficial relationship into a zero sum game where we will both lose fine. They are by far and away the weaker party. They can threaten to cut off gas, but they need the money just as much as Europe needs the gas. Without petroleum exports there is no Russian economy. They are also in the midst of a demographic crisis with a quickly ageing population, and they never managed to really build a middle class after the failure of socialism. Russia is the fragile state, not America. A five year global recession would be painful here, but there is no worry about the stability of the American state. The same is not true for Russia. If they want to play hardball and turn the screws we need to call their bluff and twist back.

We should not subvert US interests to indulge the classic Russian paranoia and insecurity. We need to let it be known in no uncertain terms that we are the dominant party. We can work together towards our mutual benefit, or we can be adversaries to both our detriment. Russia has much more to lose and has no interest in a protracted bout with us. This is the time for backbone not sniveling hand wringing about a paper tiger.

Auster Author Profile Page:

Elections in Georgia are not an issue, Saakashvili is. More importantly, for the last six years, the US poured money into Georgia, blindly supporting Saakashvili who started the war in August. He knew that the Russian hawks were waiting for this opportunity. Why did he behave so recklessly and endanger so many people? I do not argue that the Kremlin should dictate to the Georgian people whom they ought to elect. Rather I am convinced that Dr. Fedyashin is right in arguing that Georgia needs a smart politician who would put diplomacy first. Of course, it is for the Georgian people to decide whom to elect. But if the US is pouring money into Georgia, they ought to think twice what politicians they support. I heard Saakashvili in DC on a few occasions in the summer 2006. His speeches were full of anger and unnecessary provocations of the Kremlin, which led to so much tension between Russia and Georgia.

The Cold War is over. However, Saakashvili and Yushchenko still behave as if it were not. We need to change the rhetoric because Russia is not an enemy. As for the August war, I disagree with the extent of the Russian reaction, but one cannot deny that Saakashvili provoked the Russians. For this not to happen again, we need to appraise the war critically. Saakashvili is a big problem. This is not to say that Putin is not. However, he did not start the war.

zviadksovreli Author Profile Page:

Anton Fedyashin as well as quite a few commentators repeat the Kremlin propaganda I hear and read in Russia. For example, "The Georgian people deserve a better leader". Georgian people democratically elected Saakashvili. But, I guess Georgians are not supposed to elect their president, instead Putin should decide who will be the Georgian president!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

Another comentator says that "South Ossetia is russian speaking and was a part of Russia. It is not Georgian and never was". This is another Kremlin lie, Kremlin lie, Kremlin lie, Kremlin lie.

Historic monuments in S. Ossetia and Abkhazia dating 4th and 5th century have Georgian scripts. Besides, if it comes to history, before 8th century Russia did not exist as a state at all. The Russian-Slavic nomadic tribes roamed steppes of modern European Russia around Moscow. None of them lived or roamed in the mountains of North or South Caucasus.

whistling Author Profile Page:


What a shame.

The zionists in America, aided and abetted by the Post and earlier the Times, have spent so much time trying to make Russia our enemy. Foment war even. (The Jews think Russia should be theirs again, as in the l917 communist revolution)...

and REALLY want Iran degraded so Israel can be the dominant state in the region, etc.

And HERE is Obama and company running all over making friends. Now, how are the zionists going to continue their great leap forward if America makes friends.

WE must hate everybody...including, newly, Venezuela, and cling only to the savage, failed
Israel. And keep funnenling them taxpayer money!!!

Thersites1 Author Profile Page:

"The devil you can ban with the cross, but a Russian you can never get rid of." A Ukrainian saying. Or the saying of a Russian infiltrator posing as a Ukrainian to prepare the local populace for future occupations. Anyway, the point is that Russia and Ukraine, (and for that matter, Russia and Georgia) are stuck, for better and usually worse, with one another. Now, Mr. Fedyashin advocates what amounts to a soft intervention in the internal politics of sovereign democratic nations. If I'm not mistaken, it was precisely this tactic (if you consider poisoning a presidential candidate as a "soft" intervention) which so abysmally backfired on the Russians back in the 2004 Ukrainian elections. Russia and the U.S. should, for their own good, avoid interfering in the internal politics of Ukraine and Georgia.

rahard Author Profile Page:

Over the years we have only heard negative opinions and comments about Russia. In essence we were waging a 'military' war with Russia, in addition to an economic one. But rest assured, it was our military that guided our foreign policies vis a vis Russia.
Who said that Russia should have a democratic government? We did. And so the push to get Russia to accept a 'democratic' type of government. Putin however was wise enough to understand that the old communist mentality still persisted in russia. It was imperative that he 'tame' that mentality. And he did. He restored Russia to possess a reasonable economy. Not perfect, neither is ours. Nonetheless Russia has a russian democracy.
Why can't we accept that? Today we can begin healthy dialogue with Russia. It is imperative that we reduce or hopefully ELIMINATE nuclear warheads. That race has cost both countries BILLIONS of dollars. We are now able to pursue peaceful co existence with Russia. Russians want to live in peace and have food on shelves and jobs and houses and cars , everything we have been fortunate to have.
In the past it has been a government to government relationship. Fundamentally its course was determined by the military or what had been labled neo cons on the civilian side. We see now that perhaps we can put that warring relations aside, hopefully bury it.
President Obama sees the wisdom of dialogue and cooperation with Russia. (God only knows why Henry Kissinger is going over there, I don't think Obama sent him. Must be to make money. )
The arms race needs to come to a halt. We focused on Russia in the past. One also needs to ask why we have Military Advisors in 85 countries? Supposedly training local military how to fight against Al Quada or terrorism. (How did we do in Uganda. Uganda of all places!)
Russian military might is no longer what we thought it to be. And it was not much even then, but we were never told so. Russia does not want to war with anyone. Let's get this straight and deal with them on a peaceful basis. Yes, and even TRUST them too. Something we NEVER EVER did, even when they made peaceful overtures to us.
Incidentally, all you Russian scholars, you know that South Ossetia is russian speaking and was a part of Russia. It is not Georgian and never was. Abkazia is now a forlorn place, as all the Russians left.

larussophobe Author Profile Page:

I am stunned by this sentence: "But his luck ran out when he recklessly attacked a breakaway region with internationally-approved Russian peacekeepers in it."

What kind of pseudo-scholarship is this? I am amazed that this writer can dare to suggest it is established fact that Georgia "attacked" Russia rather than the other way around as if no authority for such a proposition need be cited. The Post should be ashamed to publish such reckless propaganda! It was Ossetia which attacked Georgia first, and there is no significant evidence to the contrary.

And it is equally outrageous to suggest that the behavior of Russian forces in Ossetia were "internationally approved." In fact, they were condemned repeatedly for violating basic international norms and launching attacks on Georgian territory.

Is this author a Russian citizen? Why don't we have any information about his conflicts of interest? This piece reads like it was written by the Kremlin!

To read about what is actually going on in Russia today, you might try my blog:


Auster Author Profile Page:

Dear Zviadksovreli,

Freedom House reports only reflect the surface. What happened to Saakashvili's opposition in Georgia? Georgia's developed civil society finds itself confined. As for NATO expansion, it was a mistake. NATO is the product of the Cold War and by the 1990s it was over. Russia as an enemy is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Georgian people deserve a better leader who will carry out smart diplomatic policies.

zviadksovreli Author Profile Page:

Dear Auster:
When reading Putin-supporting articles you should verify any claims and analize their accusations. According to Putin, Georgia is anti-Russian because it wants to enter NATO. What about the right of an independent country to have its own foreign policy? How is Georgia's desire to defend itself from Russian invasion and occupation is anti-Russian? It was Russia that invaded Georgian territory, not the other way around.
1945: Nazi Germany is defeated by three powers - the US, UK, and Russia (then USSR). Western Germany is liberated by the US and UK, Estern Germany is liberated by Russia. Berlin is liberated the same way. From 1945 to 1961, Germans from East Berlin and East Germany "illegally" cross the border and enter West Germany. West Germany does not oppose that border crossing, Russia does. In 1961 Russia builds Berlin Wall to keep Germans within East Germany. Does that remind you of a prison? West Europe and North America create NATO. East Europe and Russia 'create' Warsaw pact. Poland, Chechoslovakia, Romania and many other East European countries are Russia's 'allies'. In nineteen nineties, however, all these 'allies' volunterily join NATO. WHY??? Because they fear Russia and they have hundreds of good reasons to stay away of Russia. They know what it is like to be Russia's 'allies'.
The same applies to Georgia and Ukraine. The phrase 'anti-Russian' is invented by Kremlin to label Georgia's and Ukraine's desire for freedom and actual independence from Russia.

Regarding democratic qualities of Saakashvili and Putin...
During 2008 Russia's presidential elections, foreign observers were not allowed into Russia.
By contrast, the last Georgian presidential elections were considered “in essence consistent with most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections.”
In 2006, 2007, and 2008, Freedom House evaluated Russia as NOT FREE
Political Rights Score: 6
Civil Liberties Score: 5
Status: Not Free

Auster Author Profile Page:

Unlike the first commentator, who incidentally completely missed the point of the op-ed piece, I do not think that Mr. Fedyashin advocates the beginning of the Cold War or toppling down the democracies in the Ukraine or Georgia. Rather his point is that Georgia’s and Ukraine’s recent anti-Russian policies (search for NATO membership, hasty accusations against Gazprom and Russia, and open provocations) aggravate Russia. Should the US continue supporting the leaders of these countries who fail to carry out smart diplomatic policies, take “Westernization” for an “anti-Russian” campaign, and destabilize the region? The answer is no. This course of action will only create unnecessary tensions in Europe and distract from the war in Afghanistan. As for working with Mr. Putin, well, Mr. Saakashvilli is not a democratic leader by any stretch of imagination. That he dealt with the oppositional forces ruthlessly and closed down independent media is no secret. The first commentator needs to get his/her Cold War history facts right instead of perusing “how to make democracy?” books. The last six years have demonstrated that the way the US operated differed drastically from any textbook’s knowledge of how to build democracy.

RPeacock Author Profile Page:

Hurrah, an editorial advocating the return of the cold war. Instead of the US supporting the democratically-elected leaders of Ukraine and Georgia, we have a guest lecturer at American University arguing that the US should "support" other candidates for President in the two countries that are approved by Russia.

Why not just have the US cooperate with Russia on a joint hit team to take out the two individuals and Russia and the US can negotiate their replacements between themselves!

Mr. Fedyashin, I don't know your qualifications as a Russian historian (though I have no doubts that you have come to understand Ivan the Terrible's true soul, but please take a few weeks this summer to read a few books on the development of western European and US democracies. I think this could serve you well in terms of understanding democratic values.

zviadksovreli Author Profile Page:

It is amazing how easily democracy can be abused by people like Putin and his supporters. I don't mean Russian democracy - under Putin it is nearly nonexistent. I mean than Putin and his supporters easily penetrate and abuse American democracy. Now Putin has as many spies in the USA as during the cold war. In addition Putin has journalists and even professors advocating for "collaboration with Russia." If you lived in Putin's Russia, you would know that you cannot advocate American policies in a major Russian newspaper.
Putin who is responsible for lives of tens of thousands civilian Chechens is supposed to be a better ally than Georgian or Ukrainian presidents. Putin is responsible for lives of 59 journalists killed in Russia since 1999 when he came to power.
Putin is supplying Iran with nuclear technology and is essentially blackmailing the West: "Let me abuse Georgia and Ukraine, if you don't want me to provide high-tech weapons to Iran."
Russia does not want Georgia to join NATO for the same reason Georgia wants to enter the alliance - Russia will not be able to abuse Georgia any more.
Russia opposing Georgia's entering NATO is the same as your gangster neighbor opposing your friendship with decent people. Putin's Russia essentially tells Georgia: "You cannot be friends with the US because own you. You have been and always will be my slave".
Putin's Russia is not honoring her own written commitments signed in August 2008 to deoccupy Georgia and allow international observers into S. Ossetia and Abkhazia. How can Putin be trusted??? How could anybody advocate for partnering with Putin???

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