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Analysis & Opinion
03.10.08 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Will Russia Be Isolated?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Ethan Burger, Vlad Ivanenko, Eugene Ivanov, Andrew Kuchins, Edward Lozansky

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a bizarre speech about Russia last week, in which she predicted that Moscow was taking a “dark turn” and that its assertive policies in the former Soviet Union are presenting a threat to international security that should be contained, repulsed and reversed.

Rice went on to say that Russia would be isolated internationally and find itself outside the tables of world politics were it to continue challenging the borders of neighboring states and threatening to use energy as a political weapon.
"Does Russia want to be seen as even more risky to do business in than it is now? What kind of a long-term relationship does Russia want to have with the world?" Daniel Fried, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, was reported by Reuters as asking.

This week, Rice discussed with European allies on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly how to handle what she sees as Russia's increasingly "dark turn" and aggression toward its neighbors.

"The problem with Russia's invasion of Georgia is that it is not just a little hiccup or bump on the road. It is a major problem because Russia has tried to change international borders by force and that is quite a sobering thought. Russia is going to have to choose how far outside the international community it wants to place itself," said Fried.
Almost at the same time, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave his own policy speech in London in which, while still critical of Russia’s actions in Georgia, he laid out a different approach to handling a resurgent Russia.
For example, Gates said that even authoritarian states have legitimate security interests that need to be recognized and respected by the United States to ensure stability. This is in stark contrast to the George Bush administration’s preoccupation with the promotion of democracy and “transformational diplomacy.”

He basically scolded new NATO members from Eastern Europe for seeking to impose their own petty anti-Russian agenda on the alliance. Gates urged NATO to undertake careful commitments, but be ready to make good on those already made. This was no doubt a warning to those who view Ukraine’s and Georgia’s admission to NATO as an ideological end in itself, with no heed for strategic consequences. Finally, Gates stressed that Russia’s actions posed no “existential and global threat.”

What Gates has been saying is the direct opposite of what Rice claims. Where Rice is talking about containing Russia and reversing Russia’s gains, Gates talks about the need to listen to Russia’s concerns more carefully and recognize legitimate Russian interests. Where Rice urges Russia’s international isolation, Gates calls for pragmatic cooperation on mutual strategic interests.

This dissonance in Washington is augmented by a clear reluctance by major European states to isolate Russia. This week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged the enlargement of the G8 by bringing in China, India, Brazil and South Africa, a proposal that is in clear contrast to increasingly frequent calls in the United States to exclude Russia from the group.

In Moscow itself, there is little fear of isolation. Dmitry Medvedev warned last week that Washington is trying to provoke Russia into turning inward and isolating itself in a Cold War style. He made it clear that Moscow sees through the U.S. ploy and will not succumb to “siren calls of isolationism.”

Will Washington’s calls to isolate Russia succeed? Which approach – Rice’s intention to punish and isolate Russia or Gate’s realpolitik that calls for careful engagement – is more likely to prevail in Washington, particularly with the new administration moving into the White House in less than four months? What should Moscow do now to avoid getting sucked into a replay of the Cold War and U.S. efforts to isolate Russia internationally? Could isolating Russia be a viable strategy for Washington at all, given the multitude of strategic security issues on which the United States needs Russia’s cooperation? Should Russia embark on a charm offensive toward the West now, to moderate some of its harsh statements and actions of the past couple of months?

Dr. Andrew C. Kuchins, Director and Senior Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC:

The answer is simple - if Barak Obama is elected, you will see Gates’ realist line, and if John McCain is elected, you are more likely to see the neo-conservative isolation line on Russia. It is strange that McCain is a realist on China but a neo-con on Russia.

I hope Russia understands that the outcome of this U.S. election could mean a really big difference for U.S.-Russian relations, and Russia is not powerless to influence that outcome. It has already contributed to the selection of both of the vice presidential candidates with outcomes not in Moscow's interests. This is the time for a "peace offensive," as we used to say back in the day, not photo ops with the likes of Hugo Chavez and new foreign policy doctrines including provision for "privileged relations with neighbors," sending the fleet and bombers to Venezuela.

This is really a time for strategic thinking and not emotionally gratifying posturing and policies. I understand that the Russian leadership is angry and frustrated, and has given up on the Bush administration. But Moscow should not underestimate how different the next administration could be. Usually I argue the opposite regarding presidential transitions and their impact on foreign policy, but this time it really feels different.

Eugene Ivanov, Innovation Program Manager at InnoCentive, Boston:

This morning, I checked president Medvedev’s website. In the middle of the opening page, there was a picture of Medvedev chatting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who is in Moscow for a three-day visit. The announcement section of the site told me that on October 1, Medvedev will meet Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain (whom Sen. John McCain recently confused with a petty Latin American despot). On October 2, Medvedev, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is expected to preside over the tenth round of Russian-German intergovernmental consultations in St. Petersburg. Oh, did I mention that Medvedev’s Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, is hosting his Ukrainian counterpart, Yulia Timoshenko, on the same day?

Isolation? What isolation? Why should Russia feel isolated if first-rate foreign leaders (and I don’t count Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as one) flock to Moscow for top-level talks?

It appears instead that “isolating Russia” is simply the White House’s latest virtual project, aimed at venting the Bush administration’s frustration with its inability to affect Russia’s behavior.

Condoleezza Rice, who is spearheading the effort, may have some personal interest in it. First of all, Rice is yet to give a clear account of her July visit to Tbilisi, one month before the beginning of the five-day war. Her attempt to “isolate” Russia looks like nothing more than a smokescreen to deflect attention from what exactly was said back then between her and the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Besides, Rice feels humiliated by the way she herself was “isolated” – by Bernard Kouchner of France -- from the post-war diplomatic resolution of the crisis.
Last week, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Rice was urging European leaders to put pressure on Russia and “to make clear that the transatlantic community is not going to accept Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.” In response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to attend a high-profile meeting to discuss a fourth round of sanctions against Iran. The net result of this tussle has been a meaningless, completely redundant UN Security Council resolution on Iran’s nuclear program.

Does anyone really believe that Rice’s sloppy activity has advanced American national interests?

Our host, Vladimir Frolov, is correct in pointing out that the Bush administration does not speak on Russia in a single voice. While Rice is taking a confrontational position vis-?-vis the Kremlin, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently advocated a more pragmatic approach to U.S.-Russian relations.

And here is the twist. Come January 21 next year, Rice will be gone, while Gates may stay, as a growing number of folks in Washington argue that the next administration, blue or red alike, should retain Gates for at least a transitional period.

Moreover, Gates is hardly alone in his views. Last week, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen was quoted as saying: “I believe we’ve got to have a relationship with Russia…because that relationship is going to be very important in the future.” Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff usually serve four-year terms, and Mullen has been on the job for only one year. So he will be around for a while, too.

It therefore appears that the idea of retaining at least “normal” relations with Russia will have its proponents in the next administration.

All of the above isn’t an attempt to say that Russia has a carte blanche for doing whatever it wants. It doesn’t, and the Kremlin seems to understand that. The decision to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has obviously been thought out well in advance. But here, the Kremlin has drawn a thick line, and so far it has been diligently shooting down all suggestions of incorporating South Ossetia into Russia. This message, along with Russia’s willingness to single-handedly foot the bill for post-war reconstruction of South Ossetia, is exactly what the power brokers in Europe want to hear.

I’m not dodging the question of Moscow’s relations with Washington. But in five short weeks, we will know the name of the next president of the United States, and the contour of these relations will, hopefully, begin to emerge.
Looking forward, the Russian leadership should realize that the major, if not the only, reason why “Old” Europe has so far parted ways with the United States in “isolation” games is Russia’s ?233 billion trade with the EU, the bulk of which is accounted for by Germany, Italy, and France. Given that, Russia's future European policy can be formulated in three short sentences: Reward Germany. Reward Italy. Reward France.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow:

It is pretty ironic that the Bush administration is taking a lead in trying to isolate Russia at a time when America desperately needs every friend it can get, especially ones with a lot of cash. The world's media, including America’s, is blaming Washington for the financial meltdown and, as one could see on CNN the other day, five former secretaries of state have spoken about engaging instead of isolating Russia. Condoleezza Rice should use her remaining few months in office to concentrate on trying to save the disastrous legacy of her boss, instead of on bitter and worthless rhetoric.

The United States is overextended militarily, economically, diplomatically, and, perhaps most critically, financially, as the events of the past few weeks have shown all too clearly.

America's image in the world is also far from attractive, as even countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, where the United States has made huge investments and where thousands of brave American soldiers have died, are in no rush to express their gratitude to the investor.

Moreover, some of their statements are pretty embarrassing for the White House.

For example, Pakistan's new President Asif Ali Zardari has turned down the FBI's offer of help in uncovering the plot that destroyed the Marriott Hotel, and warned that Pakistan would resist American military incursions. "We will not tolerate the violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity by any power in the name of combating terrorism," Zardari said, to the loud cheers of legislators.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai also often criticizes U.S. military operations in his country and makes overtures to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is dominated by China and Russia. Even in Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, is showing signs of breaking free from the U.S. stranglehold and moving closer to the coreligionist Iran.

However, nowhere are the signs of U.S. foreign policy failures more visible than on the Russian front. Instead of making every effort to bring Russia closer to the West, Washington chose the strategy of encircling it with new NATO members and weakening its position on the energy market. Such a policy is driving Russia into the camp hostile to America at a time when we badly need its cooperation on a wide range of issues, most importantly on Iran.
The foreign policy mess is enough to make one wonder if the heads of the Pentagon and the State Department had not mixed up their briefs.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, whose job is ostensibly to wield the big stick, sounds more conciliatory than the secretary of state. Gates cautions U.S. allies against hasty punitive actions against Russia and offers a nice humorous touch as he notes that both his and Rice’s Ph.D.s in Russian Studies are not doing America any good.
Conversely, Rice, whose position requires if not simple carrot waving then at least some diplomatic skills, is resorting to harsh rhetoric that goes far beyond what is acceptable in diplomacy. Curiously, it also sounds pretty pathetic.
Rice's message that the West must stand up to "bullying by Moscow, which is becoming increasingly authoritarian and aggressive," sounds rather hollow as Europe is preparing for a new round of talks on strategic partnership with Russia. But the most laughable, at least to my mind, was her assertion that the notion of "spheres of influence" in world affairs was obsolete. Try telling that to the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Guatemala, Nicaragua… shall we continue?

Interestingly, no one in Washington talks these days about the promotion of democracy anymore. Vice President Dick Cheney is ready to praise any dictator or autocrat who happens to rule in the Caspian region, as long as they agree to help build new oil pipelines that bypass Russia.

Overall, it looks like George Bush and his team are in a state of denial about Russia's resurgence and do not want to accept the reality that Washington can no longer ignore Russia's basic interests.

Of course, all these characters will soon recede into history. What really matters are the policies of the next master of the White House.

Frankly, so far we have not had too many encouraging signals from Obama, and even fewer from McCain. Judging from the array of foreign policy advisors in both camps, it would be naive to expect something breathtaking or even sensible.

The new American president should listen to people like James Baker, Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger, who have all admitted with different words that the United States' brief unipolar domination of the world is a thing of the past. Russian and American leaders need to talk on a broad cooperation agenda. A good starting point would be acceptance of the reality of the nonreversible independence of Kosovo, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This can be followed by a freeze on NATO expansion in exchange for Russia substantially increasing its assistance to the United States and NATO in Afghanistan and preventing Iran going nuclear. Russia could also help bring the Shanghai Cooperation Organization into this equation, for here we have a clear case where the interests of the West and the East coincide.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center and Scholar-in-Residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C.:

In what sense will Russia be isolated? Foreign policy operates in various spheres simultaneously. Similarly, international isolation takes numerous forms. Whereas recent "events" in Georgia will make many countries wary of Russia's geostrategic actions, Russia is not North Korea or Cuba, states that governments can hermetically seal off from international bodies or the global economy (to varying degrees).

The individuals who are presently most virulent in their criticism of Russian behavior are frequently those persons who were the most naive about their ability to "re-make" Russia into a country that it never was and may never be. Rice's official reaction reminds me of those idealist leftists, who upon seeing Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union became its most vocal critics (e.g. George Orwell) since their high hopes were forced to face reality. In contrast, Gates has been more pragmatic. He recognized that it would take generations for Russia to evolve economically and politically. Since he had lower expectations, when Russia (mistakenly) asserted itself, Gates was not surprised.

The Russian political leadership, whatever its make-up, will pursue its own interests. When the Russian political leadership coincides with the country's interest, its actions will be more cautious, informed, and willing to take into account the long-term repercussions of its actions. In the far future, Russian foreign policy will reflect a greater range of domestic interests and be more reflective of the needs and desires of its citizenry.

Russia is not a country that can be ignored. It plays a central role in the world's economy as a major exporter of energy and other natural resources. It remains a source of foreign investment and remains a large market. Even if it is led by persons that foreign governments would not want in power that does not mean that its population can be ignored, be they academics, politicians, scientists or simply human beings.

The fact that Taiwan and Israel are politically isolated does not mean that they are actually isolated. A lot occurs under the radar screen (the extent of Arab-Israeli trade would surprise many). Taiwan and Israel are not culturally or economically completely isolated. Somehow, they manage to buy and sell goods, including weapons. Their national sports teams find opponents. They participate in both international conferences as states or "observers." Their professionals are treated with respect by their peers. Taiwanese and Israeli students study abroad (winning numerous fellowships) and host foreign students at their educational institutions. Their citizens are welcomed as tourists in most countries and they receive a large number of tourists annually.

Nonetheless, it is harmful to Russia if it is seen as the spoiler of volatile situations. It should not export weapons that are subject to international embargoes. Russia should not surround itself primarily with "friends" like Belarus, Iran, Syria or Venezuela unless it is also engaged in humanitarian activities in those countries and serving to educate those pariah nations of steps they need to take in order to be welcome in the community of nations.

Unfortunately, Russia is not in a position to convince Hugo Chavez not to arm the FARC guerillas in Colombia or to show Alexander Lukashenko the benefits of permitting a vibrant political opposition and a non-state run press. The Kremlin is judged by the company it keeps. It cannot be overlooked that the Soviet Union's former "allies" are mostly EU and NATO members.

Vlad Ivanenko, Ottawa-based expert on Russian economy:

As the dust settles over the perturbed Caucasian landscape, the world tries to adjust to a new global environment. Unlike before, when only one power could operate beyond the bounds of international law, now Russia claims to have the same right of convenience. The composition of potential strategies that the two active players – the United States and Russia – can pursue indicates how the world will look in the near future.

Until recently, Washington could often preclude global developments detrimental to its national interests simply by indicating its displeasure. When oral notation did not work, several layers of sanctions were invoked one by one until the determined offender was relegated to the lowest rank of international “pariah.” Other countries were expected to do the same or face the danger of being sanctioned next.

After Russia destroyed the Georgian army last August, it sensed that the United States was prepared to launch the usual system of sanctions. To forestall this development the Kremlin made a number of pre-emptive strikes. With blistering speed Moscow announced that it would freeze cooperation with NATO, postpone negotiations on WTO accession, and express indifference to the proposal to replace the G8 group with another formation that excludes Russia.

In this respect, Russia behaved very similar to what a “mean and lean” economic entrant would do in anticipation of retaliation from the existing monopoly: it committed itself by raising its cost of exit. Judging by U.S. reactions, it took time for Washington to realize that a “strong warning” from its side would not do the trick because the Kremlin’s moves rendered it useless.

Now, Washington faces a stark choice between either hitting “hard” – that is officially demoting Russia to the group of global outcasts – or admitting, albeit informally, the existence of Russia’s “sphere of influence.” The first option is likely to be pursued by the next U.S. president, because by preserving the status quo Washington precludes the likelihood of other countries following in Russia’s footsteps. However, the odds are that this policy is not feasible.
To force Russia’s retreat, the United States needs to establish and maintain a “cordon sanitaire” and wait for the country to suffocate in isolation. That is a daunting task. First, it is necessary to convince Germany and France, countries which are visibly unenthusiastic about the prospect of joining a blockade. Second, the current structure of global markets favors the Russian side. Russia’s top export staples – energy products – are easy to sell while the structure of its imports shows relative competitiveness among suppliers, many of whom, like China and Latin American countries, would be happy to replace EU exports to Russia. In the aftermath of the conflict, Washington attempted to present Russia as a global threat, but Moscow maneuvered successfully and did not pick fights it was not certain of winning.

From the Russian point of view, the new situation carries early costs but delivers greater dividends down the road. So far, the costs were reasonably low. Operational requirements of the military conflict were funded from the existing budget. Investors pulled out of the Russian stock exchange in anticipation of U.S. sanctions, but the outflow of capital made hardly a dent in its national currency reserves. A couple of wealthy Russians were rumored to be selling assets at home, thus opening the way for their eventual desertion to the west, but most of the business elite expressed solidarity with the Kremlin. The talk that Russian assets in the West should be placed under greater public scrutiny has not led to real consequences.

Potential advantages are mostly of a long-term character and less visible today. Forceful Russian intervention is likely to lead to greater stability in the Caucasus. A higher international status may help Moscow to re-establish a regional union with Russia at the helm, and there are early indications that the Caucasian and Central Asian republics are warming to this idea. However, the actual added value associated with Russia’s new status is yet to be estimated.
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