A Little Respect for Medvedev

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There are hopes in the United States and Europe that President-elect Dmitry Medvedev could foreshadow a fresh start. After the West's wearying clashes with President Vladimir Putin, the impulse is understandable. No one has gained from the cold peace.

The U.S. and European response to the changing of the Kremlin guard should be positive without being naive. Both sides would profit from a thaw, but an important line separates sensible conciliation from capitulation.

As Medvedev suggested in his interview last week with the Financial Times, Ukraine and Georgia should be denied route maps to eventual membership in the NATO alliance; they must remain in Russia's sphere of influence. The response to this must be unequivocal: Moscow cannot have a veto over the choices made by the democracies that have emerged from the former Soviet Union.

Medvedev's remarks were unsurprising. By recent standards, they were also quite temperate. Not so long ago, after all, Putin was threatening to put Ukraine in Russia's nuclear sights should it move closer to NATO. Medvedev, we should not forget, is Putin's chosen successor.

At home, his experience as chairman of Gazprom suggests that he may be wedded to the fusion of state power and personal enrichment, which has been a hallmark of Putin's rule. Abroad, an assertive, not to say belligerent, posture has provided the second pillar for the revival of Russian nationalism.

For all of that, there may be something to be gained by giving Medvedev the benefit of the doubt. It is hard to imagine this lawyer in the bare-chested, gun-toting poses of his predecessor. And whatever Putin's intentions, we cannot predict precisely the political dynamics once Medvedev assumes the presidency. He may speak his own mind.

Russia, he will discover, is not as strong as it looks. As two interesting assessments of Putin's legacy underscore, the boast of reclaimed superpower status has not changed Moscow's strategic dilemmas.

Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski points out that Russia's presence in the international arena is essentially negative. It can impede and spoil, but it lacks natural allies. Its neighbors may make common cause from time to time, but China and Iran are unreliable friends. Russia's present course promises geopolitical isolation.

James Sherr, a lecturer at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, echoes the analysis. Putin's bombast, fuelled by Russia's energy riches, has been a cover for the country's demographic, social and economic weaknesses. The Kremlin, Sherr observes, has underestimated both its own shortcomings and its need for help in addressing them. Europe, he admonishes, should not make the same mistake.

It does make sense for the West to seek a less fractious relationship. Washington has already moved in that direction. In an effort to defuse tensions over Kosovo's independence and plans to site U.S. missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, President George W. Bush has suggested a broad compact to revive strategic cooperation between Washington and Moscow. Bush and Putin will meet for bilateral talks after the NATO summit in Bucharest, which starts on Wednesday.

The Kremlin -- whether it is Putin or Medvedev -- will probably get a better deal from Bush than from his successor in the White House. John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have all sounded sharper notes about Moscow's retreat from democracy.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government has likewise signaled that it wants an end to the freeze in British-Russian relations. Brown hopes for bilateral talks when Medvedev makes his first appearance on the global stage during this summer's Group of Eight summit in Japan.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has struck an admirable balance between principled resolve and engagement in her relationship with Putin. Those who have watched the two leaders at close quarters say Merkel has the knack of being tough without being offensive. But her coalition partner from the Social Democratic Party is drifting toward appeasement. Many in the SDP yearn for the "good old days" of Ostpolitik. Merkel's supporters call it "Ostalgia."

The word that most often falls from the lips of Russian diplomats is "respect." Putin's nationalist narrative rests on the myth that the 1990s saw his country's deliberate humiliation by the West. The offer then of a European future was merely a cloak for a U.S.-led plot to encircle and enfeeble Russia. Now, the story continues, Russia is back. Its energy resources and newly found economic strength is sufficient to demand the respect of the West.

There is more delusion here than substance. That is no reason not to show respect to Medvedev. Russia's acquiescence in the remaking of Europe's geopolitical map has sometimes been taken for granted. I have heard senior U.S. officials freely admit that their original plans for missile defense were indeed insensitive to Moscow's legitimate concerns.

Russia could be more closely consulted on other issues of common interest -- though no one could accuse the European Union of neglecting it in the failed effort to secure a negotiated settlement in Kosovo. There are other obvious mutual interests. If Europe depends on Russian gas, Gazprom has nowhere else to sell it. Its pipelines all run westward. In addition, Moscow needs expertise and finance to develop its reserves.

Respect, though, must flow in both directions. If the West has learned anything in recent years, it is that a newly assertive Russia is scornful of weakness. It has gleefully exploited divisions within NATO.

The message from Bucharest must be that, yes, the United States and Europe want a better relationship, but no, they are not about to concede the restoration of Russian primacy in the former Soviet sphere. To do otherwise would be to sacrifice Europe's security to Russian pride, and this would not earn Medvedev's respect, but his contempt.

Philip Stephens is a columnist for the Financial Times, where this comment appeared.