The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Russia-US relations: Russia as spoiler?

August 22, 2008

Peter Baker contributes a rather odd story to The New York Times about all the ways Russia can make life difficult for the United States.

Baker’s central discussion, which chronicles how a revisionist Russia can really mess with US interests, is excellent. For example:

f Russia’s invasion of Georgia ushers in a sustained period of renewed animosity with the West, Washington fears that a newly emboldened but estranged Moscow could use its influence, money, energy resources, United Nations Security Council veto and, yes, its arms industry to undermine American interests around the world.

Although Russia has long supplied arms to Syria, it has held back until now on providing the next generation of surface-to-surface missiles. But the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, made clear that he was hoping to capitalize on rising tensions between Moscow and the West when he rushed to the resort city of Sochi to meet with his Russian counterpart, Dmitri A. Medvedev.

The list of ways a more hostile Russia could cause problems for the United States extends far beyond Syria and the mountains of Georgia. In addition to escalated arms sales to other anti-American states like Iran and Venezuela, policy makers and specialists in Washington envision a freeze on counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation cooperation, manipulation of oil and natural gas supplies, pressure against United States military bases in Central Asia and the collapse of efforts to extend cold war-era arms control treaties.

“It’s Iran, it’s the U.N., it’s all the counterterrorism and counternarcotics programs, Syria, Venezuela, Hamas — there are any number of issues over which they can be less cooperative than they’ve been,” said Angela E. Stent, who served as the top Russia officer at the United States government’s National Intelligence Council until 2006 and now directs Russian studies at Georgetown University. “And of course, energy.”

What I find strange, rather, is Baker’s summary of his conversation with Michael McFaul:

Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor and the chief Russia adviser for Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said Russia appeared intent on trying to “disrupt the international order” and had the capacity to succeed. “The potential is big because at the end of the day, they are the hegemon in that region and we are not and that’s a fact,” Professor McFaul said.

McFaul’s conditional point is rather sensible: if the Russians want to disrupt the international order, they can do a lot of damage to US interests and goals.

But before the August Russo-Georgia War, Russia was going out of its way not to push the United States too far. Recall Chavez’s anti-US rhetoric in Moscow, and the ways that the Kremlin distanced themselves from it.

This isn’t a matter of Russia suddenly deciding to play the spoiler, but of a combination of Russian assertiveness and US inflexibility. I see no grounds for concluding that Russia seems “intent on trying to ‘disrupt the international order,'” and it isn’t even clear to me that McFaul said so.

Indeed, the ultimate direction of US-Russian relations remains in flux, and how it plays out is up to both Washington and Moscow. And there are signs that the United States is starting to take a more even line on the Georgia crisis, which is all for the good:

The former US Ambassador to Bulgaria John Beyrle, who is already in charge of the American Embassy in Moscow, said Russia was justified in responding to the Georgian attacks on the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia.

In an interview for the Russian newspaper Komersant, Beyrle points out the United States repeatedly tried to persuade the Georgian leadership not to make any offensive steps.

In his words both Russia and America had been trying to resolve the frozen conflicts on Georgia’s territory for a long time.

The Russian response to the shelling of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali by the Georgian forces was justified, according to Beyrle.

Yet, he makes it clear that after the initial stage of the conflict the Russian troops had penetrated deep into Georgia, and had threatened the territorial integrity of the country.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.