Wow, I Guess the Cold War is *Really* Over Now…

Upon first reading Charles Kupchan‘s article in the May-June 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs which proposed Russia’s entry into NATO, the Liberal Ironist was skeptical, to put it mildly.  While I agreed with the reasoning offered that Russia’s membership in NATO could be beneficial to for the United States, its European allies and Russia, it hardly seemed to be an essential security move for a Russia emboldened by its oil and natural gas endowments, former President George W. Bush’s costly war in Iraq, and the mistrust incurred by a tit-for-tat of expansionist foreign policies between our countries.  But now, according to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has accepted an invitation to attend a NATO security summit in Lisbon on November 19th-20th to discuss inclusion in our new missile defense system.  He also used the occasion, along with French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to affirm his commitment to maintain US-led sanctions against Iran for its unauthorized uranium-enrichment program.  While Medvedev said that any final agreement on Russian participation in the US missile umbrella would be contingent on specifics of the proposal to be discussed formally, this represents real receptivity by the Russians to a common defense deployment.  Though Russia’s undemocratic political system, aggressive covert political action in its near-abroad and conflict with US ally Georgia all remain significant political issues, Russian participation in the US missile defense system would almost make it an ally.  If NATO’s political doctrine didn’t make democracy a condition for membership, Russia’s embrace of the US security umbrella would probably be the penultimate step to its accession.

But considering Russia’s strategic importance, agreement on Russia’s participation in the missile defense makes some quality of NATO membership likely.

Remarkably, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed the Russian Federation’s accession to NATO over 10 years ago.  At the time the proposal wasn’t taken very seriously; the Russian Federation was in such morbid shape after 8 years of mismanagement and unpredictability by Boris Yeltsin that, in an Atlantic Monthly article, one author credibly proposed that Russia was in terminal decline and inevitably on its way to state failure and even fragmentation.  Putin’s opponents for his first election campaign in late-March 2000 alleged that his suggestion was simply an attempt to attract support from West-looking Russians, whom clearly aren’t an essential constituency there today.  In any event, with President George W. Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Bush’s all-absorbing policy responses to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and then the 2003 Iraq War and democracy-promotion efforts in the former Soviet Republics of Georgia and Ukraine in 2004 and in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, a pattern of actions emerged which agitated the already-intense sense of vulnerability within Putin’s government and among a supportive Russian public made prospects for long-term security cooperation between the countries appear dismal.  The Spring/Summer 2010 issue of the Journal of International Affairs was entirely themed on Russia, with one article characterizing Russia’s foreign-policy blowback, facilitated by its considerable oil wealth, American military and political commitments in other theaters and President Vladimir Putin’s recent and dramatic consolidation of power, as “the Return of Geopolitics.”

Then, in September 2009 President Obama scrapped former President W. Bush’s plan to base 10 missile defense interceptors in close NATO allies Poland and the Czech Republic.  The President maintained deployment plans for interceptors in California and Alaska and on a large number of Navy vessels.  The measure was clearly intended as the basis for rapproachment with Russia, but it promptly met with skepticism from conservative opinion-makers and even yours truly.  The Russians were euphoric but non-committal on the President’s primary goal, which was Russian cooperation on strengthened sanctions against Iran.  A New York Times article on the domestic political reaction characterized this concession as a potentially costly gamble.  The move was even seen as potentially-damaging to friendly governments in those Eastern European countries which had made controversial commitments to follow the US lead in foreign and defense policy.

But now, over a year after the President made this conciliatory shift in our defense posture, the prospect has emerged for a more-lasting benefit than we could reasonably have hoped for.  The idea of extending the US missile defense to include Russia is of course merely entering the exploratory phase, but this represents a dramatic turnaround for Russo-America relations from Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia, crafted to demonstrate the vulnerability of an informal ally and transit point for Caspian Sea oil.

Though President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, during his December 2009 acceptance speech he implied in more than one way that he himself didn’t believe he had earned it.  But if in just 2 years Obama could proceed from the near-total breakdown of relations with Russia under his predecessor to at least bring that state to the doorstep of the Transatlantic Alliance, that would be an affirmation of great power cooperation significant-enough to warrant it in its own right.


2 thoughts on “Wow, I Guess the Cold War is *Really* Over Now…

  1. Kukri

    It makes absolute sense for countries to work together in areas where agreement and cooperation are possible. The US and Russia disagree on w and x, but if we can agree and work together on y and z, by all means pursue it. This cooperation can possibly help us reach eventual agreement on w and x. (In a related example, Iran was invited to and is participating in an ongoing conference on Afghanistan, and the list of attendees consist of major players in and around Afghanistan. There was rather positive description in the media in recent days of the Iranian and US reps talking about what is to be done with the ongoing war. And who can forget the fact that Iran was helping the US against Al Qaeda and the Taliban government just 8-9 years ago?…)

    Back to Russia: if they can tango with us on a workable missile defense (whether it even works is another issue) sure, let’s pursue it. But will Russia become a NATO member? I don’t see it. NATO membership is not easy to attain, and it has certain criteria, such as various internal and political reforms, that make Russian membership currently impossible. And if Putin/Medvedev remain in power after the 2012 ersatz election, membership seems even less likely.

    One problem with the Kremlin is that they still view so much of foreign relations as zero-sum games, hence their desire for controlling the near abroad and obstructing Western goals of promoting democracy, good governance and transparency in the former Soviet Union. The other problem is their ongoing revisionist perspective of the Russian and Soviet empires and the captive peoples that were under the Kremlin’s yoke…

    1. liberalironist Post author

      I agree that there is no credible basis for Russia’s political liberalization. Prime Minister Putin seems to have a solid grip on power, and Russia’s economy is heavily based on its massive endowment of oil and natural gas. That endowment will only become more internationally-significant in coming decades. Meanwhile all indications suggest the Russian political discourse retains a xenophobic tinge, and I imagine the public remembers the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union more as a waking nightmare.

      However, Russia doesn’t have to be a formal NATO member to become a NATO associate. Russia’s relationship to the alliance could be something similar to that of Spain’s informal alliance during the Franco dictatorship. Actually, considering Russia’s strategic importance–and its security concerns vis-a-vis Central Asia and China–a *closer* relationship than that could be profitable. Provided we aren’t discussing full NATO membership (as Russia is certainly an unfree country), Russia’s authoritarian reversal doesn’t have to preclude an alliance.

      Russia’s revanchist activities in its near-abroad are a more-serious issue, of course. Incidents like the cyber-attacks in Estonia over the removal of a Red Army statue from a city square in Tallinn, the August 2008 Ossetian War and the spring 2010 second revolution in Kyrgyzstan are frightening but could be one-offs if Russia and NATO could establish better relations. Those actions occurred in the context of years of scrapped treaties, US-assisted or -endorsed democratic revolutions in former Soviet Republics, and the eastward expansion of NATO. That doesn’t condone all of Russia’s remarkable actions, or Putin’s long-term ideal political goals for that matter, but considering our country clearly has the superior strategic position, it does explain them.

      Ukraine, unlike Estonia, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, is not a one-off. I don’t know if our government and our major NATO allies (let-alone former Warsaw Pact countries which eagerly joined NATO to emerge from Russia’s shadow) will be able to ignore the 800-lb. gorilla in the room as we witness what may in retrospect turn out to be Russia’s amoeba-like re-absorption of Ukraine. It’s unpleasant to watch already–but geopolitics doesn’t wait for justice.

      Of course, they don’t even meet until November 19th.


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