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Managing Russia's Decline

Monday, July 27, 2009

Vice President Joe Biden's comments on Russia represent a clear-eyed take on Russia's fundamental long-term vulnerabilities. Coming from a think tank Russia analyst, they would be noticed mainly for being accurate, if not very remarkable or original. Coming from the U.S. vice president, and in the midst of the U.S.-Russia reset, the reaction is a bit more prickly, from commentators both Russian and Stateside. I suspect that the online excerpts are a bit more provocative than the remarks taken as a whole are, although I don't have the print edition to know for sure.

Setting aside the questions of protocol and coherent policy pronouncements, though, the major problem with Biden's remarks are the disconnect between the analysis and the expectations. That in turn reveals the major shortcoming of the Russia reset as currently formulated. Essentially, the Obama administration has changed the tone of its Russia rhetoric (up until Biden's remarks, that is), but not necessarily the substance. Which leaves the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, dependent on Russia's leadership eventually "coming to its senses," and acting upon its common interests with the U.S. as perceived in Washington, as opposed to Russia's unilateral interests as perceived in Moscow.

But Russia's long-term vulnerabilities have been apparent for some time. That didn't prevent Russia from very aggressively asserting itself as an obstructionist influence in Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and the Caucasus over the past few years. In the meantime, those vulnerabilities have been exacerbated. Russian markets took a major hit in terms of capital flight in the aftermath of the Georgia War. And this winter's gas wars only heightened the sense of an aggressive and unpredictable Russian political leadership, leading to renewed European momentum on diversifying its energy sources. In between, the global downturn and its impact on energy prices further accentuated the structural weaknesses of the Russian economy.

But energy prices seem to have found their floor, and will go back up once the global economy returns to growth. In the meantime, Russia is rationalizing its defense procurement and professionalizing its military. The Nabucco pipeline will have only a nominal impact on Europe's gas equation. And regardless of statements by President Barack Obama as well as Biden to the contrary, the status quo in Ukraine, Georgia and Central Asia favors the assertion of a de facto Russian sphere of influence -- albeit one balanced by Western contestation and rivalry, and therefore not hegemonic.

So while the Obama administration appears to be preparing to manage Russia's decline, Moscow is still intent on managing its resurgence. There are reasons to believe both are possible potential outcomes. But to begin with the assumption of a necessary partner's imminent demise, and to base policy on that partner's acceptance of that premise and cooperation in affirming it, seems like a poor way to reset relations.

Russia's situation has not changed in irrevocable ways from two years ago, when then-President Vladimir Putin's speech at the Munich Conference signaled its noisy re-entrance to the international arena. Which means that unless it is offered a visible difference in terms of opportunities for cooperation, its behavior is unlikely to change either.