must re-focus with post-imperial eyes
By Zbigniew Brzezinski
Published: July 1 2009 20:04
President Barack Obama should have three central
goals in mind when he meets Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev
and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin next week: first, to advance US-Russian
co-operation in areas where our interests coincide; second, to emphasise the mutual benefits in handling disagreements
between the two countries within internationally respected “rules of the game”;
and third, to help shape a geopolitical context in which Russia becomes
increasingly conscious of its own interest in eventually becoming a genuinely
post-imperial partner of the Euro-Atlantic community.
Of the three, the first is the easiest; the
second is sensitive but needs to be faced, lest there be repetitions of what
happened last August, when Russian troops invaded Georgia ;
and the third can only be sought indirectly – but the effort has to be
strategically deliberate. In any case, it is evident that both countries would
benefit from better relations. Fortunately, the financial crisis has made the
Russian elite aware that, for the first time in its history, Russia’s well-being depends on the well-being of
the outside world and especially of America. That reality of
inter-dependence creates a felicitous setting for the summit.
Moreover, on some important issues collaboration
is not only possible, but mutually beneficial. That is especially true with
reciprocal reductions in nuclear weaponry, a compromise on US plans for an anti-ballistic-missile
shield and joint efforts to enhance the nuclear non-proliferation
treaty , among other security arrangements.
Unfortunately, on Iran,
it is uncertain that the conventional wisdom – which asserts that Russia
genuinely wants to be helpful – is correct. To the Russian leadership, the two
long-term challenges to its power come from the US
Both countries would suffer grievously, while Russia would greatly benefit, if a
US-Iranian crisis triggered a surge in energy prices. Hence Russian willingness
to be helpful may be more formal than real.
Nor should one ignore the reality that there are
serious – though not war-threatening – geopolitical conflicts of interest
between the US and the Russian Federation.
The bottom line is that Mr Putin resents and wants in
some fashion to reverse the disintegration of the Soviet
Union. Gaining control over Ukraine
would restore in effect an imperial Russia,
with the potential to ignite conflicts in Central Europe.
Subduing Georgia would cut
the west’s vital energy connection (the Baku-Çeyhan
pipeline) to the Caspian Sea and to Central Asia.
Azerbaijan then would have
no choice but to submit to Moscow’s
Indeed, in the summit meetings, Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev will be looking for signs that the new US administration disowns the charters on
partnership with Ukraine and
signed by former President George W. Bush. Even an unintentional signal to that
effect would be seen as a green light for more muscular Russian actions against
these two countries.
Hence a frank discussion is needed to lay down
some mutually accepted “rules of the game”. The US
can indicate that Nato membership is not
imminent for either country, but that the US and Russia
have to respect Ukraine’s or
right to make that choice. In the meantime, Russia
must understand that the use of force or promotion of ethnic conflicts to destabilise Ukraine
would poison American-Russian relations.
Clarity on these matters, achieved through
respectful but realistic discussions, would reduce the risks of Russia trying to restore an imperial system in
the space previously occupied by the Tsarist empire
and then the Soviet Union. Gradual
consolidation of the existing national pluralism in that space would accelerate
the fading of historically futile imperial ambitions.
Using the Moscow
visit to identify America’s
vision of the future with Russia’s
own but still partially repressed democratic aspirations should be part of the
summit ritual. Presumably there will be some chance to convey that message,
either through a speech or gesture to honour the many
(and currently in Russia ignored) victims of Leninism-Stalinism. That would
also help shape a political context for Russia’s evolution towards a
genuine partnership with the world of democracy.
A final point: the previous US administration favoured trivial personalisation
of its relationship with Russia (such as references to Mr
Putin’s “eyes” or “soul”) and highly over-stated claims of breakthroughs (“the
best relationship ever” between the two countries). A more serious strategic
approach that produces Russia’s
acceptance of its new post-imperial realities and encourages its democratic
evolution is more likely to yield enduring results, while not unleashing
unrealistic public expectations.
The writer was US National Security Adviser 1977-1981. He is co-author
with Brent Scowcroft of the recently published ‘America and the World’