Relations in time of crisis

Even a year ago it could have been predicted that Russia's relations with the USA and the European Union would slowly but steadily slide into a relatively long period of deterioration. There were self-evident circumstances driving this. In recent years there have been changes in the balance of power in the world at many levels - in economy, energy supplies, politics and even the social and cultural dimensions - running counter to the interests of the USA and Europe.

The USA got involved in its Iraq affair, while the old countries of the EU simply made a mistake by embarking on a crash programme of expansion which still further weakened its unity and its international political stance for the medium term at least.

Russia, which had grown much stronger thanks to the restoration of the state and some amazing luck, unwisely failed to conceal its sense of arrogant triumph with regard to the now weakened former victors in the Cold War, who until quite recently had almost made a show of ignoring it. It was predictable that those who had begun to find themselves on the losing side would launch a counterattack.

It was completely focused on the reaction to Georgia's attack on South Ossetia and Russia's response.

The farcical Cold War that flared up was damped down by France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, acting as an intermediary on behalf of the EU. But the underlying causes continued to apply.

There are also serious sources of increased tension in Russia. Part of the elite believes that by whipping up anti-Western and in particular anti-American feelings they can distract people's attention from the country's domestic problems. But even more important is the disillusionment with the results of the interaction with the West over the past two decades.

Western distrust of Russia is also strong. It is fed by disappointment that Russia did not accept the semi-colonial path of development that was offered. Many in the old West are also frightened, to put it mildly, by the boisterous nature of Russia's new system of state capitalism.

The outbreak of world economic crisis has overshadowed but not removed the tension between Russia and the old West. The crisis will be the dominant factor determining world politics for years to come. Russia's relations with the old West will not play a very big role in international arrangements. But for Russia these relations are important, and they are entering a new phase.

A new president has come to power in the USA and he is much more reasonable and popular around the world. The USA is evidently ready to open new dialogue with Moscow. Europe is in despair over its geopolitical weakness and is taking advantage of the switch to a more pleasant administration in Washington to do everything it can to move closer to the USA, in the hope that the Americans will rescue it. For the time being they've managed to stop the Atlantic partners drifting apart. This drift is very likely to pick up again in a few years, when the crisis ends and the movement resumes to create a new Central-Pacific axis for the world economy and politics instead of the old Atlantic one.

In terms of improving relations with Russia, therefore, the Europeans are again handing the initiative to the USA, at least temporarily - not least because relations between Russia and Europe are in the intellectual and political doldrums.

An opportunity to pull relations with the West out of crisis is looming. But a danger is looming too - that the methods proposed for getting out of this crisis may strengthen features of the Cold War in these relations. The USA will evidently offer to return to the process of negotiating an agreement to reduce strategic offensive weapons and of expanding these negotiations to include non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons. The deployment of missile defence systems will probably be shelved. The Americans and the Europeans will both insist on resumption of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which was frozen by the Russian side on the grounds that it obviously did not correspond with the new realities.

Our Western partners will agree to discuss the idea of a new European security treaty, but will get it bogged down in all the old structures inherited from the Cold War - Nato, the OSCE - so that nothing changes for the time being.

Our partners will try again to prop up the legitimacy of the North Atlantic bloc by pushing the Russia-Nato Council to the centre of the dialogue, even though it has already proved useless and even harmful. Russia is holding some powerful trump cards in this new bargaining game. Moscow holds the keys to the transit routes into Afghanistan, and we are in a strong position with regard to relations with Iran and a Middle East settlement. It's not worth being afraid of dialogue - it could actually be beneficial.

But we must remember: the danger of bringing military policy issues back to the centre of our dialogue is that both sides might again start to see each other as potential enemies, measuring balances of force that are mostly meaningless and finding imbalances whose significance will be inflated.

Sergey Karaganov is dean of the World Economics and International Affairs School of the Faculty of World Economics and Politics at Moscow's State University - Higher School of Economics, and chairman of the Presidium of the Public nongovernmental Council's Presidium on Foreign and Defense Policy.

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