Last week, the Institute of Modern Development released a report that caught a few headlines because it called for radical reforms in the Russian government. Igor Yurgens, the group’s director, “has regularly called for liberal reforms, [though] is not considered to have particular sway over Mr. Medvedev, who serves as chairman of [the] board of trustees [of the Institute].”
I heard about this last week on Эхо Москвы and wondered what the specifics of the report were. Эхо described it as a clarion call to liberalization and “modernization.” My interests being foreign policy, here are some relevant highlights from “Twenty-first Century Russia: An Image of the Desired Future”:
(1) Russia and the United States should “develop a joint missile defense program.”
(2) Russia should join NATO, “stimulating its continued, positive transformation.”
(3) The report then goes on to encourage increased cooperation between Russia and NATO on Afghanistan.
(4) “One of the main conditions to overcoming the distrust in Russian-American relations is, at a minimum, postponing the expansion of NATO in the post-Soviet space in the near future.”
What to make of these recommendations?
The first thing to note is how marvelously vague they are. The “development” (разработка) of a joint missile defense program is something the Russians proposed years ago, but never had any real success implementing. Some American observers exonerate the U.S. in this failure by arguing that Russia never had the technology or wherewithal to effectively cooperate with Washington in this program. The more common excuse not to work together, however, was the paranoia that the Russians were out to undermine the work in the first place. For example, when Putin made the suggestion originally in 2007, the Heritage Foundation immediately released a memo asking “Is Russia seeking a veto over U.S. missile defense plans for Europe?”
That being the environment, I don’t see how a разработка could be possible without the Russian and American military postures changing significantly (i.e., a world where Moscow doesn’t fear American designs on post-Soviet spoils, and Washington doesn’t fear a resurgent Motherland). The problem is, of course, that the U.S. is indeed trying to expand its sphere of influence up to Russia’s borders, and Russia is indeed on the way to reclaiming a privileged buffer zone in its periphery.
It’s for all these reasons that “Russia joining NATO” is also a hopelessly unrealistic idea. NATO Secretary General Rasmussen was just in Moscow last December and he didn’t waste anybody’s time discussing membership for Russia. Unfortunately, the window for that possibility (open for a moment in the early 1990s) has shut forever.
What is indeed realistic (and, you’ll note, the only option actively being pursued by both the Obama administration and the Kremlin) is increased cooperation in Afghanistan. Moscow still fears American influence in Central Asia, but I think, after almost a decade of bungling around in the ‘graveyard of empires,’ it’s become gradually apparent that nobody needs to fear the region-wide success of G.I. Joe anytime soon. If things were to start going well in Afghanistan, however (I know, humor me), I’d anticipate a less helpful Russia.
The most surprising thing I found in the report was the declaration that NATO expansion needed to be halted immediately. Right after Rasmussen last visited Moscow, he went on the record and told Spiegel: “NATO has been clear on that: Georgia and Ukraine will become NATO members. We made that decision in Bucharest in 2008.” Both Medvedev and Putin have made identically obstinate declarations to the contrary. So, the report’s call for a suspension of NATO expansion is perhaps another wide-eyed attempt at walking the moderate line, though I think it signifies more than that.
The question of NATO expansion is the most important issue facing Russia’s relations with the West. Most analysts (Russian ‘liberals’ and American ‘neocons’) foolishly prioritize democracy and market values over geopolitics (indeed, the New York Times and Эхо Москвы both covered this story as a “liberal, democratic values” event), but even this “startling agenda” advises something that no American policy-maker could ever endorse openly: pulling NATO back from Russia’s doorstep.
While Obama might be trying to do just that, he still, after traveling to Moscow, has to send ‘Uncle Joe’ (Biden, not Stalin) to Georgia for a massive PR event to declare “we will stand with you.”
More bluster. More posturing. That’s what ideology will do to people.