The Self-Imposed Costs of Punishing Russia

A few weeks ago, it looked like the Rice-Gates faction was winning out in the Bush administration’s internal debate about how to respond to Russia’s invasion of Georgia. That view argued in favor of restraint and a collective response with our European allies instead of unilateral “punitive” measures. But according to this LA Times article (via Ilan Goldenbeerg at Democracy Arsenal), the Cheney hardliners might be carrying the day. This faction is advocating for “. . .the continuation of what they confirm has been a White House-imposed communications blackout on most dealings with Russia and a halt to nearly all bilateral initiatives on security matters,” and more broadly for:

. . .a wholesale recalibration of U.S. security policy, from an inclusive one that treats Moscow as an ally on global security matters to a sharply curtailed approach that considers it an untrustworthy potential enemy.

As both the Goldenberg and the article’s author, Josh Meyer, point out, this approach jeopardizes the many strategically essential areas — notably in arms control, counterterrorism, and nuclear non-proliferation — that depend on U.S.-Russian cooperation for success. Notice how I phrased that, because it is often formulated as “areas where we depend on Russian cooperation.” But all of these issues are mutual security concerns, so the decision to suspend bilateral initiatives demonstrates the self-imposed costs of isolation in this context.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t take a stand on principle, but we should recognize that unlike in the past, where the bipolar world was organized around ideology (ie. values and interests coinciding), today that will sometimes mean sacrificing both influence and security. (The same goes for the Russians, by the way, who have no strategic interest in Iran actually achieving a regionally-destabilizing nuclear weapons capability, outside of the context of a zero sum game with the U.S.)

This is one of the dangers of conceiving of hostile U.S.-Russian relations as a “new Cold War.” The other is in forgetting that the Cold War was not a game of one-on-one. It was a face-off between two blocs that, despite some internal differences of opinion, managed to maintain a united front for over forty years. But if you look at the response of the Eastern European countries (ie. those with the most visceral historical motivations for hardline containment), they all called for a tough stand against Russia’s aggression, but only after having fallen into line with an EU approach that was both firm (because unified) and non-punitive.

Similarly, and probably of more strategic significance, a recent CFR interview with Turkish foreign policy guru Ahmet Davutoglu (via Friday Lunch Spot) shows the anachronism of isolation as a policy both towards Russia, as well as in general:

Once, there were certain requests to isolate Syria and Iran at the same time. If we, Turkey, isolate Syria and Iran at the same time, it means we will be closing our borders. With Syria, we have 800 kilometers, then we have Iraq-where there’s a war-then if we are soon isolating Iran, then we were having problems with Armenia. The only opening border would be Georgia. . . If you isolate Russia, economically, can Turkey afford this?. . . Unfortunately, we have to admit this fact. Turkey is almost 75-80 percent dependent on Russia [for energy]. We don’t want to see a Russian-American or Russian-NATO confrontation. . . We don’t want to pay the bill of strategic mistakes or miscalculation by Russia, or by Georgia.

As if to illustrate the point, Turkey just announced a $70 million contract to buy 80 Russian anti-tank missile systems, the same ones used with deadly effectiveness by Hezbollah against Israeli forces in 2006.

Finally, while Russia’s demonstration of its willingness to use force in its periphery came as a strategic surprise, it’s important to remember that its lightning victory came at the expense of Georgian forces that were hardly a real test. And as this Defense Industry Daily report makes clear, despite significant increases in the Russian defense budget, there’s no guarantee that the Russian defense industry’s aging infrastructure will be capable of meeting demand. The point was brought home by recent fiascos involving the bungled refitting of an Indian aircraft carrier and Algeria’s unprecedented “return to sender” of an order of MiG fighters.

Russia’s defense industry, like both its energy sector that finances it and its economy in general, is dependent on both a liberalization of heavy handed government interference in the private sector as well as on international capital. In other words, there’s nothing fatalistic or preordained about a Russian resurgence. In many ways, by creating a zero sum game, we’re magnifying Russia’s strategic leverage, rather than forcing it to answer to the broader global concerns that will over the long run create incentives for responsible behavior.