The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Super is as super does

September 21, 2007

A friend forwarded me this interesting article by Dennis Ross in the New Republic on why we should be paying more attention to Russia. I have to say, that I certainly agree that we should be paying more attention to Russia. And I think that he gets some stuff very right: (continued below the fold)

Russia tends to pale in comparison to these other concerns [unrest in the Middle East, the rise of China, climate change, etc.], and the tendency will be to pay it little heed. That would be a mistake. The less attention we pay to Russia, the more incentive we give Vladimir Putin and his successors to demonstrate that they are a power to be reckoned with and to act in ways that will be increasingly problematic. Already we see Russia staking out claims to the Arctic and its riches; manipulating its oil and gas supplies for political purposes; supporting separatist movements in neighboring states or what it calls the “near abroad”; and selling arms to rogue regimes like Iran and Syria. (The Russians are in the process of upgrading significantly Iran’s air defense and have also been providing Syria large numbers advanced anti-air and anti-tank missiles; when the Syrians turned over some of these weapons to Hezbollah, the Russians looked the other way.)

To understand Russia’s behavior and develop the right strategies for dealing with it, we need to appreciate the impact that lost status has had on the Russian psyche and the imperative it has created to restore the country’s standing as a world power. Few non-Russians mourned the passing of the Soviet Union, but within the country, there is deep resentment of the United States for winning the cold war. Putin has called the collapse of the USSR one of the greatest geopolitical “tragedies of the twentieth century.”

Today, the perception in Russia is not only that the United States sought to exploit Russian weakness but also to keep it weak. Expanding NATO into Eastern Europe might have been one thing but to extend it to include the Baltic states was something else. And President Bush’s decision to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty at the beginning of his administration was one final crushing blow. Here was a pillar that had established the Russians as the strategic equal of the United States, and we dismissed it–and the Russians were powerless to do anything about it.

But I’m disappointed at the easy reliance on the caricature of Russia as an “energy super-power”. This notion that Russia is an “energy superpower” really needs to be unpacked–it’s a facile and deceptive formulation that plays into fear-mongering about a resurgent Russia. We’ve seen Russia attempt to wield its energy reserves as a political tool against its neighbors in the near-abroad–usually in the form of convenient unscheduled maintenance or a sudden shortage of coal cars or the like. But how effectively can Russia use this power elsewhere? Pipelines are funny things–they only go to where they are built. Most of Russia’s energy exports travel through pipelines–the seller is locked into a limited set of buyers. And western Europeans may be better positioned to diversify their energy imports than Russia is to diversify its customer base (former Soviet bloc countries, though, are much more over the barrel, so to speak). Russia needs its energy buyers as much, if not more, than the western Europeans need the energy. The energy sector represents about 20 percent of Russia’s GDP, while energy products make up over 60 percent of exports. If it weren’t for the constant influx of oil and gas revenue, the federal budget would be in deficit. Russia needs to sell oil and gas. If the EU members can ever act in concert on this issue, they could have the upper hand (yes, I know that’s a big “if”).

I’m not saying that this should make us feel all warm and fuzzy about Russia’s intentions–rather, we should recall that at some base level, this is a bluff that they can’t afford to have called. But loudly and publicly trying to prick the bubble of Russia’s perceived power probably isn’t the ideal strategy either [see above: resentment, festering]. Instead, we should avoid falling for the panicky hype and treat Russia as a important world player rather than the afterthought of a past era’s failure. Constructive engagement reduces the incentive to act out–from the perspectives of both domestic and international posturing.

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