European Affairs

The End of Happy Endings in the Post-Cold War     Print Email

Russia’s mauling of Georgia was a game-changing geopolitical development for Western democracies – above all, for Europe. For Russia, it is a conquest, and a diminished Georgia will need determined Western help to retain a fig leaf of viability. It is time to re-examine the assumption – left unexamined for too long – that time was working to bring about a happy ending to the cold war, with Russia moving along the lines that the West has been following since NATO enlargement a decade ago. Instead, Moscow has changed a national boundary by force of arms and will probably incorporate South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Russia. Some have described this action as a response to the West’s recognition of Kosovo. European Affairs published articles at the time warning that the Kremlin would someday claim Kosovo as a precedent. But the two situations are profoundly different. In Georgia, the Kremlin has thrown down the gauntlet about breaking what was still formally accepted as a joint approach to European security shared by Moscow and Western capitals.

The guiding principle of Moscow’s interest will no longer be cooperation with the West to promote security and integrate Russia into the international community. Instead, the Kremlin has redefined its commitment to its own, more traditional view of Russia’s national interest. By force of arms, Putin has shown how far he will go to resist what he sees as further encroachment on the old empire of the Tsars. (This should not be confused with the larger Soviet empire: It does not include the Baltics, but it does include Ukraine.)

Russian leaders have promulgated new principles that include their intention of protecting their citizens and businesses anywhere in the world – mainly countries bordering Europe. And Russia will demand recognition of its “sphere of interest” on its borders, including the Caspian where Europe is hoping to get more access to gas and oil in competition with Gazprom.

In the long run, this choice could backfire on Moscow by cutting off Russia from the wider world which can help it modernize and prosper. But for the foreseeable future, relations between the EU and Moscow seem bound to become more openly competitive and more zero-sum. It is not a new cold war; it is a subtler rivalry for influence. In this game, the EU does not hold many good cards. Take sanctions, for example. Certainly for the decade to come, the Kremlin seems confident that it can get along without anything that Europe and the West might try to withhold from Russia. This is not a cold war redux with the West mobilizing for all-out economic confrontation. And globalization has ushered in an era when Russia can supply many of its needs from newly industrialized countries that are breaking the West’s old monopoly on technology. It may be a long time before Russia again recognizes its need for the West.

Energy realities have changed the situation in Russia’s favor. (At least in foreign policy: domestically, Russia is developing the corruption and single-product economy of an oil-state.) For Europeans, it will be hard to mobilize their countries for a “cold peace,” especially in the light of their reliance on Russia for energy and amid the economic tensions aggravated by high energy costs. The Kremlin’s whip hand on energy (which may be used to lure individual EU states into support for Russia) has strengthened dramatically with Moscow’s action in Georgia. As things now stand, Western investors will hesitate to finance the expansion of pipeline networks to diversify Europe’s access to Central Asia. And there are signs that energy-rich but vulnerable Caspian states such as Kazakhstan may now become more reluctant to do business if Russia disapproves. Vladimir Putin has always immersed himself in oil-and-gas strategies with passionate intensity. (Unlike Western leaders, he does not have to spend too much time on electoral politics.)

A by-product of this crisis must certainly be a bigger role in EU foreign affairs for Germany, the traditional European partner of Russia. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Soviet-run East Germany, may prove to have more mettle against Moscow. Certainly, she seems unlikely to accept the recent Russian offer of a sweeping “security pact” that seems designed to divide the West. But she will have difficulty assembling a common front toward Moscow – especially after years when the West was over-sanguine about trends in Russia. Our authors, Hunter and Dettke, both stress that any recovery of Western footing will require transatlantic solidarity – in newly imaginative forms.

Meanwhile, the world is not standing still. Asia will read what happened in Georgia as Russia “snapping back at Western arrogance” – and similar reactions will emerge in Asia, according to Kishore Mahbubani, a strategist in Singapore. He believes that the West – especially Europe – has presumed too long that Asia is and will remain “dormant.” As our author Marmon explains, Mahbubani is perhaps the most articulate exponent of a widely-held view in Asia: that Westerners are dangerously behind the curve in reading the major trends of global change. The result is, Mahbubani said recently, “the West has gone from being the world’s problem-solver to being its biggest liability.” As Marmon explains, Europe and the U.S. could benefit from listening, together, to Asian suggestions for changes, starting in international institutions, that help usher in a more stable international order.

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 3 in the Fall of 2008.

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