By Jochen Prantl
First published in Yale Online, 16 February 2016.
UN negotiations to end the five-year civil war in Syria and form a transitional government will resume at the end of this month. With 250,000 people dead and more than half of the 22 million pre-war population either internally displaced or refugees, the talks are a litmus test for the key external stakeholders, especially the United States and Russia, to negotiate shared principles underlying peace and order. Russia’s September military intervention in Syria, in support of President Bashar al-Assad, has turned Moscow into a pivotal player in the region. The agenda is currently being set by an alliance formed by Russia, Iran and Assad. The danger of a proxy US-Russian conflict is real. Also, should Iraq request help from Russia in fighting Islamic State, the proxy conflict may escalate into direct confrontation between Washington and Moscow. Russia needs to be convinced that an immediate ceasefire rather than the continuation of war serves its long-term interests.
A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, the crisis has raised serious concerns about global security, especially at a time when the balance of power is rapidly shifting to the East and South. According to a well-cited Harvard study by Graham Allison, 12 out of 16 cases of power transitions over the past 500 years indicate that war is the norm rather than the exception. Resetting political relations with post-Soviet Russia – beyond the selective engagement on Iran and Syria, by building a partnership based on equality and mutual respect – is a matter of priority. The Obama administration’s 2009 reset in US-Russia relations has fallen short of achieving that objective.
Russia has significant capacity to help or hinder global and regional peace. From a grand strategic perspective, three factors stand out:
- According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s 2015 Yearbook, Russia possesses 7,500 nuclear warheads of which 1,780 are deployed on missiles and on bases with operational forces. It also maintains 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons with lower yield munitions that can be used in the battlefield. Unlike China, Russia’s most recent nuclear doctrine – reaffirmed in December 2014 – permits the first use of nuclear weapons in response to conventional attacks that pose existential threats. At the same time, with the third-largest military budget in the world, Moscow has invested in nuclear and conventional modernization programs, recouping its power projection capabilities in the region and beyond.
- In 2010-14, the United States and Russia combined supplied 58 percent of all international transfers of major weapons. Almost two thirds of Russian arms exports went to three countries – India, China, and Algeria (SIPRI 2015).
- Russia has had its own pivot to Asia in the military, energy and trade realms. This has been driven by both the desire to become an integral part of the so-called Asian Century and deterioration of its relations with the West. This strategic realignment may well help Russia to become a force to be reckoned with in the East Asian security order. Notably, a major overhaul will be transforming Russia’s Pacific fleet from its smallest to its biggest naval asset, with implications for boosting regional power-projection capabilities.
Russia, by pursing a balanced foreign policy, could become a bridge between East and West – and profit.
In a nutshell, Russia is still strategically too significant to fail. It retains its permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Russia’s vast geography extends across Northern Asia and Eastern Europe – it is part of both East and West. This geographical position poses challenge and opportunity. It is a challenge since Russia may find itself between a rock and a hard place, excluded from both the West and the East, isolated and encircled. But geography can also be an opportunity, if Russia fully embraces its Eurasian roots and pursues a balanced foreign policy to profit from and become a bridge between East and West. This ought to be the strategic objective of Western and Eastern engagement.
For Moscow, but also for Russia’s neighbors in Europe and Asia, diplomacy needs to be put back on center stage. A strong focus on identifying areas of common interest – including counterterrorism, nuclear and conventional arms control – rather than a divisive exchange about a clash of values and worldviews should top of everyone’s policy agendas.
Failure to engage Russia is not an option. Low oil prices create good conditions for engagement.
Post-Cold War stability depends on the effective renegotiation of “the rules of the game” driving international cooperation in the long-term. Moscow’s military interventions in Syria – and eastern Ukraine – intended to send a strong signal to external parties: Russia acts on its own terms and does not follow rules superimposed by the West. In both cases, Moscow has modified the rules of the game in its favor, changing the status quo without negotiation. Whatever we make of Putin’s politics, failure to engage Russia is not an option. The collapse of global oil prices has created favorable conditions for engagement. With oil and gas accounting for 70 percent of Russian export incomes, its economy is under immense pressure.
The most reliable foundation for a sustainable partnership is to engage Russia on more equal terms within a greater Eurasian security community, to enfranchise Russia in such a way that it will play a constructive role because it has equal stakes and status. This is still unfinished post-Cold War business. Related proposals – similar in their intent but different in detail – have been discussed in Europe and Asia. Ideally, this security community would provide a catalyst for synergies between regional institutions and initiatives such as the European Union, NATO, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and China’s One Belt One Road Initiative.
At the societal level, recent high-level conferences inside and outside of Russia have highlighted the uneasiness of Russian scholars, practitioners and students with the status quo. Among the ones attended by the author: the 10th General Conference of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, Confidence Building in the Asia-Pacific: The Security Architecture of the 21st Century in October in Mongolia; Moscow State University International Congress, Globalistics-2015: Global Governance and Diplomacy in an Unstable World in October; and the Russian Association of Political Science and Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Political Science in the Face of Contemporary Political Challenges in November.
Russian scholars and practitioners, uneasy with the status quo, seek frank exchange and mutual respect.
Discussions reflect a widespread sense of isolation, a sense of betrayal by the United States and Europe, and a sense of detachment from the rest of the world. The breadth and depth of these anti-Western sentiments render them difficult to dismiss simply as a shared delusion of the Russian intelligentsia. These audiences display a worrying preoccupation with the prospect of a third world war, which could potentially erupt over regional flashpoints such as eastern Ukraine and Syria. On the positive side, there is a strong desire – probably exacerbated by the current Western sanctions – for frank exchange, mutual respect, equal partnership, recognition, and for being “a normal modern country.”
A recurrent theme emerging at such conferences is the vital importance of exposing the next generation of Russian scholars and practitioners to the contemporary world, and of exposing foreigners – students and scholars alike – to Russian ideas and thinking. This is the vital entry point for universities in Europe, the United States and the Asia-Pacific, foundations, and public policy institutions to step in and facilitate intellectual exchange centered on mutual understanding and confidence-building. Such initiatives existed even at the height of the Cold War.
As the 19th century Russian philosopher and historian Nikolai Danilevski put it, the essence of progress “is not going in one direction … but in walking all over the entire field of historical activity, and in every direction.” The double-headed eagle in Russia’s coat of arms, looking East and West, suggests just that.