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The West’s dilemna over relations with Russia

This is a mighty strange situation for the West to be in. Ever since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, there has been the feeling in the Western Countries that Russia could be a strategic partner, one that shares the democratic values of the West and will be an effective partner. Initially, things seemed to be going in a different way. Under Boris Yeltsin, Russia started going through political and social turmoil, and it seemed to be a decaying country (with high inflation, potential leakage of arms and nuclear material, negative to zero growth, corruption, mafia, and so on). And then came in this former KGB man, Vladimir Putin, a person who saw the death of the Soviet Union as a disaster, and who bemoaned the loss of status of Russia. By himself, he could not have invented a new powerful Russia, but he got the benefit of Russia’s growth as an oil and gas producer, coupled with increasing prices.
This growth of Russia was not in the way that the US and other countries thought. Russia would go the way that Vladimir Putin wanted it to, and he managed to sell his vision of a resurgent Russia to the population as well, thus diminishing the possibility of any successful internal opposition. The same support also allowed him to stamp away any perceived opposition, including independent media, and other opponents (an example was the trial and imprisonment of the oil tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky who was starting to stand upto Mr. Putin). The net result was a system where only support to Valdimir Putin was allowed.


At the same time, Russia’s external environment was changing. The former republics of the USSR (except for a few) were all moving off into independent trajectories, and worryingly for the Kremlin, closer to the West and to NATO. Russia has always considered these republics to be the sort of buffer zone for the motherland, and is not likely to easily accept the borders of NATO extending to these territories. In addition, the former Communist countries outside the USSR have also moved closer to NATO, putting more pressure on the Kremlin. The proposed measure of the US to have missile defense establishments of many of these countries (currently a deal signed with Poland) is making Russia see totally red. In this context, the provocation of the Georgian first step and the all out Russian response shook the US and European countries; further, Russia is not easily giving in, only hesitatingly accepting a ceasefire, and on its terms. All this now leads to a debate in the West about how should they deal with Russia:

What do you do with an angry bear? Growl back at him, face him down or threaten to take away his honey? It is a debate the NATO countries are patently having trouble resolving. The 26 member nations of NATO agree that the Russian invasion of Georgia in response to Tbilisi’s military action in South Ossetia, whatever the provocation, seriously overstepped the mark. But the meeting of NATO’s foreign ministers to discuss what to do about an increasingly assertive, not to say belligerent, Moscow has served only to demonstrate the inability of the alliance to come to firm conclusions and to take decisive action.
The NATO nations remain divided between those who ache to take a swipe at Vladimir Putin and Dimitri Medvedev and the pragmatists who say that NATO, the EU and the U.S. simply have to find a way of doing business with a new-style Russia that has not, as the West had hoped, come to share their values and which has been emboldened by its new energy riches to demand a controlling influence on the countries close to its borders. But what sign was there of a slap over the wrist for Russia, let alone a “concrete step” that deprived Moscow of its easy-odds victory? If the toughest warning Europe can offer in the present situation is to threaten a meeting of EU heads of government to review relations with Russia, then Messrs. Putin and Medvedev will hardly be phoning their medics to ask for pills to help them get their beauty sleep.

Russia has drawn a line in the sand with its current campaign in Georgia. Further, it has totally opposed the US-Poland missile defense deal, and is in the position of making international cooperation that the US desires much more difficult. It will also suffer, but can make things much more difficult for the West overall. Threatening Russia is not going to get the West anywhere, unless it is prepared to suffer the consequences.

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