Monday, November 10, 2008

The Russian Menace

The rhetoric towards our old apocalyptic running partner, Russia, is pretty acidic these days. Barack Obama and John McCain both hedged when asked if Russia were building a new "evil empire" in one of the presidential debates, with Obama saying they had certainly engaged in "evil behavior." Ever since the Russia - Georgia "war" (and earlier if you're an anti-Kremlin journalist/ dissaffected former Russian spy) we've swung strongly into anti-Russian sentiments here in the States.

President Bush, who would be Putin's golf buddy if not for the whole running the world thing, intends to move forward with a missile shield in Poland. Russia intends to counter by placing some warheads on the other side. While Obama seems less likely to bullrush Ukraine and Georgia into NATO (be glad Randy Scheuneman was on the losing side of the election), he has been otherwise pretty hawkish when addressing Russia and its leaders. Richard Holbrooke, too, a leading candidate for Secretary of State, has spoken harshly of Russia and its ambitions. This hard-line approach is a mistake and I hope that Obama's rhetoric was just that - rhetoric - and nothing more.

Killing journalists who oppose your regime and then killing the lawyers who were going to represent their case in trial is deplorable, of course. But expecting a vibrant democracy in a country that's always been partial to rule-by-one (there's a reason Vladimir Putin's approval ratings were so high) was a pipe dream willingly pursued by the United States and one whose best incarnation was the fantastically corrupt Boris Yeltsin - a man whose greatest success was out-eating Bill Clinton.

So we should begin by not acting so dismayed that the post-Soviet democracy we envisioned for Russia hasn't worked out so well. They want authoritarian rule, let them have it, it's not our decision. And while Russia was brutal in its suppression of Georgia - a point on which the Georgians had been warned by Condi Rice - it turns out their attack was not as unprovoked as the Georgians claimed.
So how to approach Russia? I think the tactic of isolating Russia is foolish. That's the path we're on now. If we want any meaningful progress on issues like Iran, we probably want Russia, if not on our side, then at least not whispering counter-offers to Iran for disobeying or ignoring American advances. Russia wants respect and it is run by a man (Putin) who, while I don't think he harbors the ambitions of 1950's level Soviet strength, wants a place in the spotlight. I say we give it to him.

Russia may be no friend to democracy, but I don't think they're a threat to it either. We risk far more by alienating them and giving them cause to fear their own security and re-extend their influence into the former Soviet states than forcing ourselves to work with them. Your friends close, your enemies closer... There is a way for us to simultaneously work with the Russians on issues like Iran while undermining their ability to project military force.

Russia's claims to a new era of global importance are directly linked to the rising cost of oil. As the New York Times reported a few weeks ago:

"On a winter day in 2006, Russia suddenly cut off the supply of natural gas to Ukraine, where a pro-Western government had come to power. The Kremlin cited a dispute over prices. But some Western officials said Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s president at the time and still its paramount leader, was sending a message: Russia was willing to use its vast energy reserves to try to reassert the dominance it lost with the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Two months ago, the muted reaction of some European nations to Russia’s invasion of Georgia seemed to indicate that Mr. Putin’s policy was working, some foreign policy analysts said. Europe had become dependent on Russia’s gas and could not afford to mount a strong challenge, they said."

But, in August, when Russia invaded Georgia, oil was trading at $130 per barrel. Today, it is trading around $60. Though the Russians have set aside about $200 billion in rainy day funds thanks to their oil windfall, their economic well-being is dependant on oil trading at least at $70 per barrel. If demand, and therefore prices, stay low, Russia will find itself in economic trouble and, therefore, limited in its ability to project force in the near future.

Here is where my hopes for Obama come in. If he can get those "green" car-building jobs up and running ASAP, while the economy is still troubled and demand for oil remains low, by the time the economy picks back up we may be able to put a few million very fuel-efficient cars on the road to offset the rising demand for oil. While this is a hypothetical best-case scenario - and plenty of external factors could throw this off - doing everything we can to get fuel-efficient "green" cars on the road and generally doing what we can to keep oil consumption low, will not only help the environment, but put the United States in a much better position when it comes to Russian foreign policy, as well.

1 comment:

Ike said...

I don't disagree that McCain knows what he's talking about when it comes to Russia, but how he handles them is a different story.