Ausgabe 36/2008

Russia and the West The Cold Peace

By , and Gabor Steingart

Part 3: Russia's Geopolitical Levers

Moscow could also create difficulties when it comes to Iran. Initial drafts of a new UN resolution by the Security Council are already circulating in Western capitals. If the Russians remain obstinate, years of diplomatic work would be wasted.

A swimmer welcoming a Russian cruiser back to port in Sevastopol as it returned from Georgia a week ago.

A swimmer welcoming a Russian cruiser back to port in Sevastopol as it returned from Georgia a week ago.

It is unlikely that Russia will stop all forms of cooperation from one day to the next. Moscow also has an interest in stabilizing Afghanistan and ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons. However, if the conflict escalates, these interests could be outweighed by the desire to trip up its opponents.

In short, Russia is brimming with bravado these days. Last week, the pro-government Izvestiya newspaper reported that the country had again achieved the “status of a superpower.” The “Strategy 2020” designed by Putin and Medvedev to modernize Russia, must now be urgently supplemented “by a military-political element,” says Vyacheslav Nikonov, a leading neo-imperial visionary who is highly respected in the Kremlin -- and also happens to be the grandson of Stalin’s former foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. In concrete terms, Nikonov has called for the arsenal of the Russian army -- which many military experts complain is obsolete -- to be upgraded to a level that matches its greater ambitions.

It is a suggestion that is likely to make many in the region nervous -- like the Ukrainians. Since 1954, the Crimea Peninsula, extending into the Black Sea, has been part of Ukraine. But over half of its population is Russian and the port city of Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based, is considered a key part of Moscow's sphere of influence.

'Popular Uprising'

This summer Duma foreign policy expert Konstantin Satulin boasted that the Russian fleet will remain in Sevastopol after the agreement under which the Kremlin currently maintains its military presence here runs out in 2017. Satulin, who is close to Putin, also threatened Ukraine with a "powerful popular movement for the unification of the Crimea and Sevastopol with Russia."

Ukraine's request for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) will come up for discussion again at the next NATO meeting in December. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, has prophesied that the Crimea "will not join NATO" and that a "popular uprising" cannot be ruled out. Speaking in Sevastopol on the 225th anniversary of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in May, Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzhkov announced that the future of the city would soon be decided -- "in Russia's favor."

Are these merely threats or are they serious declarations that could lead to a future war? A colonel in the FSB, Russia's domestic secret service and the successor organization to the KGB, expressed alarm last week. A violent conflict between Americans and Russians "on what is currently Ukrainian territory" is "highly probable," he said, adding that if followers of Ukraine's reformist president Viktor Yushchenko continue to insult the Russian inhabitants of the Crimea and defame the Russian Black Sea Fleet then it will be "time to come in and help the Russians living there."

Around 1,500 kilometers to the north of the Crimea, in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, belligerent statements of this kind evoke a distinct sense of fear. In 1939, these Baltic countries were deprived of their independence as a consequence of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Today they are firmly anchored in Western alliances, but continue to be dependent on Russia for raw materials.

In a joint declaration on the Georgia conflict three weeks ago, the four presidents of the Baltic republics and Poland spoke of a litmus test for the West. Estonian head of state Toomas Hendrik Ilves called for a redefinition of Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which obliges members to come to the aid of an ally that has come under attack. The Baltic countries are now on the front line and in need of solidarity, Ilves said. He reminded the alliance that NATO defended West Berlin against the Russians during the Cold War.

Guardian for Energy Suppliers

Close to 400,000 Russians live in Estonia, more than a quarter of the country's overall population. They were last in the headlines in 2007 when, with Moscow's help, they staged street riots after the Estonians moved a Soviet war memorial in Tallinn to a new location.

But indications of renewed Russian influence extend well beyond the borders of the former Soviet empire. More or less subtle intimidation of former Soviet republics is being accompanied by diplomatic efforts on the part of Moscow to forge new alliances around the world aimed at counteracting US dominance. The Kremlin sees control of strategic energy resources as a tool for achieving such an objective.

Just as NATO is putting a military choke-hold on Russia, from the point of view of Moscow, Russia wants to put a choke-hold on the energy-hungry rest of the world through its control of huge gas and oil reserves. It is seeking to open up a new front by forming an alliance with resource-rich countries, pitting energy producers against energy consumers. It is against this backdrop that recent offensives by Gazprom need to be seen -- for instance the offer it made to Moammar Gadhafi to sell Libyan oil and gas at world market prices. Russia currently supplies around a fourth of Europe's natural gas requirement. Every additional percent of the market would increase Moscow's ability to combine political subtext with prices and delivery conditions.

Russia, though, needs its Western customers just as those customers need Siberian oil and gas. Still, Moscow is trying to leverage its fossil fuel reserves by expanding its energy companies abroad and by offering its services as an alternative global gendarme, a kind of guardian for those countries who have not yet been able to fully profit from their resources. Russia is currently in the process of renewing its friendship with Cuba and intensifying its relationship with Venezuela. Iran is also welcome as an energy partner. It can't yet be seen as a new bloc, but it's an indication of how difficult it's going to be for the West to hold its own in the new world order.

Just how serious the relationship with Russia could become was a subject of discussion at the German Foreign Ministry a few months ago. The Russia experts from the planning staff and policy directorate submitted a new scenario paper on Russia to the foreign minister in December last year. Since then it has become a guideline for determining the direction of German policy on Russia.

The core element of the forty-page document is an outline of three possible scenarios for the way Russia could develop along with necessary and feasible responses to them. What this development could mean for relations with Georgia was taken into account in all three options.

The 'Cold Peace'

The best case scenario, referred to as "Russian Davos," would be an "efficient modernization of the country." This would be accompanied by Russia's integration in the global economy and "gradual adoption of European standards such as the rule of law." In an attempt to strengthen ties between Russia and the West "we should avoid putting too much pressure on a Russian reform government, for instance by putting Georgia on track for NATO membership." The EU could well imagine entering into a "strategic union" with a Russia of this kind, the diplomats say.

The second theoretical scenario would be a relationship based on "selective partnership." Ranging "from stability to stagnation," this scenario describes the decline of cooperation into a kind of "confrontational cherry picking" where the two sides cooperate only if and when they feel they stand to gain from it.

The paper emphatically warns against giving Russia the cold shoulder in such a situation. "For reform-minded forces in the Russian establishment, Germany and the EU would be natural partners in a time of need and not the United States or China," the document reads. This kind of partnership would include not pushing for Georgian membership in NATO, since this would weaken the position of reformers and strengthen the position of nationalists in Russia.

The third potential scenario was seen as being the emergence of "an authoritarian and imperialist Russia." It is felt that Europe "would not be able to maintain a strategic partnership with a country of this kind" in the long run. Under this scenario, Foreign Minister Steinmeier's planners felt Russia would be likely to "recognize the independence of or even annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia." The countermeasures considered for such a situation were far-reaching. "The creation of stronger ties between Georgia and Euro-Atlantic institutions would be on the agenda," the paper said, adding that the West would have to counteract "Russian foreign policy audacity" by strengthening the EU and NATO.

Still, Steinmeier's advisers warned against responding by taking measures aimed at further isolating Russia. Instead they recommended making use of limited forms of cooperation "so as to keep a foot in the door." Cooperation would continue, but it would be made clear that Moscow would have to make concessions were the West to continue supplying technology.

In short, the scenario developed by Steinmeier's experts was hardly a friendly one. Indeed, such an authoritarian Russia would see a rise in nationalism. Furthermore, together with China, such an authoritarian path to modernization would put Western-style democracy on the defensive.

Things haven't gotten that bad yet. But Steinmeier's diplomats found a new expression to describe their model. And it is one which fits perfectly in the current situation: "Cold Peace."


© DER SPIEGEL 36/2008
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