The most comforting interpretation of the disturbing new tone from Moscow circles around legacy and elections. Vladimir Putin is in his last year as Russian President and wants to be remembered as the man who stood up to goliath. The fresh attack on the U.S. and NATO can be seen as the first salvo in the upcoming presidential campaign. Putin, acting in the interest of his yet to be handpicked successor, plays his friend Gerhard Schröder's game: when in doubt, go against America. It will win you an election. This weekend a high-ranking Russian official put it this way: "America-bashing is just as popular in Russia as Russia-bashing is in America." He concludes that we are not witnessing a sea change in Russian foreign policy.
If only that were true. Listening to Russian officials these days, one comes away with a sense of deep alienation. They recite a long laundry list of grievances going back to the fall of the wall. The common thread is humiliation. They feel Russia has been mistreated and not been taken seriously. Asked whether Russia is back on the world stage now, one Russian official answered: "It has never left the stage." In his view, the West needs a reminder. Russia seems to be asking for respect. It wants to be treated as an equal by the United States. Flush in oil money, it has used a period of relative strength to make that point very effectively.
And it is true. Little can be done in the world without Russia’s consent. After all, Russia has veto power in the UN Security Council. There is the issue of energy that Moscow is using as a weapon. There is proliferation to Iran and elsewhere. And there is missile defense. Don't forget the most important item on the agenda, one that gets little play in America: Kosovo. What if Russia does not consent to independence as envisioned by the West? What if Russia obstructs the proposed final status agreement? How many more years should Europe be forced to deploy peacekeepers in that area? And to what end?
Putin tries to play America and Europe against each other, especially on missile defense. He builds on engrained mistrust of missile deployments. He reminds Europeans of their own anxiety about the Pershings in the 1980s. But he overplays his hand when he openly disparages perceived European weakness. He wants Russia to be seen as an equal by America, not by Europe. He sees Europe as not playing in the same league. Europeans, of course, feel Putins disrespect for them even as calls for respect -- hardly a strategy to win hearts and minds.
Of course, mistakes have been made. Missile defense is the latest case. The question is: why now? It is now that the West needs Russia to cooperate on the Iranian nuclear issue. It is now that the West needs Russia on Kosovo. However, Iranian long-range missiles exist on the drawing board only. Whether Tehran will ever be able to build an atomic warhead is still unclear. The aim of the nuclear negotiations is precisely to discourage the Iranians from continuing to pursue that end. If the West does not succeed, there will be plenty of time to build up a defensive capability against the Iranian threat. And it is a serious threat, especially for Europe. But why deal with it now?
Like it or not, we will need Russia. The West will have to negotiate with Russia and will have to accept Russian interests at times. Dealing with a wounded authoritarian bully will not be fun. Talk about a "strategic partnership" is nothing but German social democratic romanticism. Try to be a strategic partner of someone who wants to turn off your heat in the winter! On the other hand, an unsentimental and interest-driven relationship with Russia is better than another Cold War.
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