Monday, November 10, 2008
To Engage or not to Engage
Several weeks ago, one of our presentations argued for liberal engagement with Russia. With the collapse of Russia’s stock market and plummeting oil prices, Russia was ripe for rapprochement. If we (the West) bring Russia into the international system, it will be more encouraged to “play by the rules”. In light of recent events in Russia, a call for engagement now seems laughable. Russian aggression must be curtailed before it is allowed to again sit at the international table.
On Wednesday, November 5th, Russia announced a plan to “neutralize” the U.S. missile defense shield by moving short-range Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad in Russia’s Baltic Sea enclave. This was clearly a direct response to the deals reached last summer with Poland and the Czech Republic by the U.S., but curious that such a hard-line response so quickly followed the election of Barack Obama. Could this be the “international crisis” so prophetically predicted by Joe the Vice-President-elect a few weeks ago?
Probably not, but Russia’s buffoonery cannot be ignored. Obama could hold direct talks with Russia’s president, Dimitri Medvedev, but is he the true power broker in Russia?Rhymenoceros argued in an earlier post that continuing to treat Putin as the “decider” would only serve to bring further foreign policy mishaps with Russia. However, regardless of who holds the title of President in Russia, Putin’s influence in the country. He will not simply retreat if the United States “ignores” him. Attempting to prop up Medvedev against Putin would also be a failure. Furthermore, we see that Mr. Medvedev called for the Russian presidential term to be extended to six years from the current four. Many see Medvedev as a mere puppet simply holding the presidency until Prime Minister Putin, who served the maximum two consecutive terms as President, can reclaim his throne. Ignoring Putin will do nothing to improve the situation in Russia. As long as he remains the true power-broker in Russia, the road to rapprochement with Russia will go continue to go through Mr. Putin.
President-elect Obama would be wise to ponder the Russian question while wearing his realist shoes. Clearly, Russia is a self-interested state acting in its own interests. Russia seems to be using its windfall energy profits to expand its power and influence in the world, particularly in its former backyard. Its deployment of missiles in the Baltic shows that its security remains a top priority. Mr. Obama cannot ignore recent Russian aggression. If he seeks to unconditionally engage Russia, he will only strengthen its hand in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, Obama must play a strong hand with Russia if he is to dispel the doubts of his foreign policy mettle. Caving into Russia is not the foreign policy or national security tone Obama would like to or should set.
Bullying its neighbors in the Caucasus or impetuously deploying missiles in the Baltic will not bring Russia further into the international system. Quite the contrary, as further Russian aggression will only serve to further isolate itself from the global economy. If energy prices continue to fall, Russia could pay a severe toll in foregone economic benefits that further integration into the international system (i.e. WTO membership) could bring. Russia needs to look no further than its large and increasingly more prosperous neighbor to the South, China. While certainly not a bastion of liberalism itself, China has adopted a decidedly less-bellicose strategy than Russia, and has reaped enormous economic benefits.