Skip navigation

Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world

Articles and Briefings

The need to be open-minded about Russia's approaches

By Pavel Miller.

The past year has seen more disputes between Russia and the West than at any other time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. From the Kosovo crisis to Iran's nuclear ambitions, it has been extremely difficult to achieve a consensus over the most pressing global challenges. In recent months, tension increased over NATO expansion into former Soviet territory, failure to agree on sanctions directed at Zimbabwe and U.S. plans for anti-missile defence bases in Eastern Europe. Despite disappointment over the failure of both sides to see eye-to-eye regarding these matters, the frustrations over Russia's apparent 'assertiveness' should not translate into a rejection of her role in global affairs. In order to overcome the disagreements, negotiation must prevail through comprehension of Russia's perspective, as opposed to the confrontational rhetoric and calls for punitive measures endorsed by Senator John McCain.

The Republican presidential candidate recently repeated his threat to eject Russia from the G8, claiming "We want better Russian behaviour internationally, and we have every right to expect it". This condescending language from McCain is particularly alarming as it reflects a belief that the U.S. 'lost' Russia at the end of the 1990s and that the only way to regain her compliance is through punishment. If this line is pursued by the international community, it will merely push Russia into a stronger strategic partnership with China, or worse still – isolation from European security and cooperation entirely. Furthermore, confrontation will play into the hands of those Russian hawks that portray the West's every move as a threat and encourage the nation to assert itself through tit-for-tat political manoeuvring and economic protectionism.

Russia's use of a UN Security Council veto on the vote for Zimbabwean sanctions may well indicate that the country will continue its assertiveness in global affairs, even when the issue bears no direct relation to Russia's geostrategic interests. At the turn of the millennium Russia would have simply abstained from the Zimbabwe vote, whereas now it wants to make the case clear, along with China, that interference in another state's affairs will not be tolerated. In the short term this will frustrate attempts by the E.U. and the U.S. to legitimise and promote humanitarian intervention through the U.N. However, cooperation with Russia on global security and economic challenges should not be sacrificed in order to make a stand over a difference in political values. Russia's importance in implementing nuclear weapon non-proliferation agreements is a case in hand.

The recent Russian proposal for a Euro-Atlantic Security Treaty has been unfairly dismissed by some analysts as merely an attempt to undermine NATO. Undoubtedly, Russian political elites would like the Cold War era security treaty to be dismantled and thrown into the dustbin of history, but this should not discredit the idea entirely. NATO has attempted to rebrand itself several times since 1991 in order to justify a) a heavy U.S. military presence in Europe, and b) enlargement eastwards. Despite statements that the organisation's mandate is now to face 21st century global threats such as terrorism and transnational crime, there has been a failure to convince the Kremlin that its long term aim is not in fact to confront the Russian threat in some distant future.

Although the proposal for an EATO may not be a viable in its current form, in principle it should be considered, as it demonstrates an attempt by the new president, Dmitry Medvedev, to provide a constructive solution for the "21st century realities" confronting all countries in the "Euro-Atlantic space from Vancouver to Vladivostok". There is a demand for a security pact which can both ensure the independence of states in Central and Eastern Europe, while also assuaging Russian insecurities. Such an organisation should also address the failures of the Conventional Armed Forces Treaty, which was made redundant not only through Russia's failure to remove troops from Transnistria and Georgia, but also by the potential for an unbalanced build up of armed forces along Russia's border in favour of NATO member states based on Cold War calculations.

The critics of Russia's new foreign policy concept argue that the country's political elite merely seek to create new organisations to avoid compliance with what they see as Western-imposed values of political freedom, human rights and the rule of law. Although there is some truth in this view, if there is anything that we have learned from the past 17 years of relations with Russia, it is that the West has little direct influence over her political system and path of development. These pretensions must be abandoned in favour of partnerships on the economic and security front. Engagement in these areas will engender further openness from Russia and subject her to diverse political influences from across the globe.

Dmitri Trenin, commentator on Russian affairs, posits that "America and Europe need to look at Russia as an emerging capitalist society, rather than failed democratic polity"(1). The positive sign is that Russia is pursuing its national interests primarily through the instruments of the globalised world currently in place. Locking Russia into economic and security interdependence will foster the strongest links. In order to ensure that Russia will abide by international law, particularly in relations with her 'near abroad' and within global energy markets, time must not be lost in signing Russia up to the WTO and a new European Partnership Agreement. These will set in stone a mutually beneficial, rules-based mechanism for future engagement. The longer Europe and the U.S. deliberate on the matter, the louder the voices questioning engagement with the West will become in Russian politics. Isolation of Russia will simply compel a more aggressive pursuit of her interests, including the use of energy as a political weapon.

Russia must also play its part, starting with a change in its paranoid Cold War-era perceptions of America's role in European security. Nevertheless, the early signs of Medvedev's foreign policy are of a strong desire to build a business-like relationship with Europe and the U.S. He has demonstrated more tact than his predecessor in business-related matters as foreign investment and expertise are vital to the country's development. However, NATO enlargement and missile defence will continue to be vehemently opposed by the Kremlin and wider Russian public.

Europe and the U.S. should welcome Russia's desire to play a constructive role on the world stage by listening, negotiating and show a willingness to commit, along with Russia, to a new framework for a stable, multi-polar world order. This could kick start a more positive era of relations with Russia. If the West simply rejects Russia's advances, like in the early 1990s, we may kill President Medvedev's chances of shaping a new foreign policy before it can make an impact on the country's self-image and perceptions of the outside world.

(1) Dmitri Trenin, Getting Russia Right' (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington D.C., 2007), pg. 112.