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A Hot-Button Issue in the Cold War’s Wake

Since Sept. 11, Americans have become accustomed to news of a U.S. military presence in the far reaches of the former Soviet empire -- a base in Uzbekistan, a training team in Georgia, a cooperation program with Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s calm reaction to the growing American shadow in his neighborhood helped relieve U.S. anxiety about antagonizing Moscow. Still, Russia and the U.S. may be on a collision course in the former Soviet states, and the two countries have no choice but to agree on new road rules to avoid it.

Two major trends dictate the need for a new modus vivendi. The first is the growing U.S. presence on Russia’s periphery, coupled with the U.S. commitment to strengthen the security and stability of the former Soviet states by integrating them into the Euro-Atlantic framework.

The rise of this region to the top of the U.S. security agenda is relatively recent. Beginning with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and its aftermath, U.S. policy toward the former Soviet states was ambivalent and sometimes contradictory. American support for the republics’ independence in the face of Moscow’s heavy-handed policies toward them was tempered by Washington’s desire to maintain cooperative relations with Russia and protect U.S. strategic priorities.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks changed this calculus. The requirements of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan -- and in the war on terrorism generally -- dictated greater access to the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Terrorism, state failure and militant Islam -- not Russian encroachment -- challenged the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors. None of these young and weak states could cope with these forces, and Russia wasn’t up to the task of managing security either.

Enter the U.S., despite Russian sensitivities.

Extending the Euro-Atlantic security framework to the former Soviet colonies is now a pillar of America’s post-Cold War vision of Europe and Eurasia. This doesn’t entail their automatic membership in NATO, but it does envision the alliance’s active involvement in promoting the region’s security. At the June summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Istanbul, the opportunity will arise to invest greater resources and energy in its Partnership for Peace program, which has been the primary vehicle for reaching out to nonmembers.

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The second trend that could put the United States and Russia on a collision course is the emergence of a broad consensus within Russia to restore an exclusive Russian sphere of influence in its neighborhood. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian policy toward its neighbors has been marked by ambiguity. Although the Russian security and political establishment dreamed of restoring its hegemony over the former Soviet republics, successive Russian governments were too weak to realize this goal or even to keep the U.S. out of the neighborhood.

Healthy economic growth and the return of order and stability have boosted the confidence of the Russian security and political establishment. Russian voters, too, have shown their backing for a more assertive policy in the former Soviet states. December’s parliamentary elections, which were a more accurate indicator of the nation’s mood than last month’s presidential beauty contest between Putin and a handful of marginal contenders, underscored growing popular support for political parties calling for the restoration of a Russian sphere of influence along the country’s borders.

A clear-eyed understanding of each other’s interests and priorities, and agreement on the rules of co-existence, can help reduce the risk of a U.S.-Russia confrontation. The reasons for cooperation are many.

Russia retains considerable economic, military and political influence along its periphery, and thus a capacity for mischief. While it lacks the means to stabilize restive former colonies, its support for or acquiescence in the efforts of others to do so is a precondition for success.

At the same time, Moscow is hardly in a position, nor has it the appetite, to escalate tensions with Washington over the U.S. presence in its former territories. Though their pride may be wounded, Russian government officials and national security experts know that the United States is a stabilizing influence in a volatile region that Russia cannot pacify.

For Putin, increased tensions with the United States over Georgia, Moldova or other former Soviet states would seem undesirable. Against the advice of many of his foreign-policy advisors, Putin has staked much of his reputation on the idea of a U.S.-Russia partnership and a warm personal relationship with President Bush. A major setback in U.S.-Russian relations would thus have personal consequences for Putin.

As for the U.S., it must accept that Russia is not only protective of its legacy as a great power, but that it also has legitimate interests in the states bordering it. For example, Russia has a real concern about the security and stability of Georgia. But it must learn to live with the U.S. commitment to Georgia’s independence and, ultimately, its territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Russia’s continued military presence in Georgia, in violation of its vow to withdraw, is a particularly thorny issue. U.S. and international pressure for the withdrawal of Russian troops has been met by fierce resistance in Moscow. One possibility, drawing on the Baltic experience, would be to offer Russia financial assistance for redeploying its troops from Georgia to bases in Russia. Another option could be internationalizing the Russian military presence in Georgia under the aegis of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, which would put Russian troops under international oversight and give Georgia assurances that Russia’s military presence on its soil would not become a means to outright occupation or subversion.

Neither Russia nor the United States can afford a clash over the former Soviet republics. Collusion or any scheme to divide these lands into spheres of influence is out of the question. Compromise and candor about interests, motives and policies are the proper means to stability and security in the former Soviet states.


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