Need More Soft Power

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Following the NATO summit in Bucharest and the Bush-Putin talks in Sochi, Russia's relations with the alliance and the United States remain about the same as they were prior to those meetings. It makes sense then that the most popular description of the summit has been: no breakthroughs, but some progress.

There definitely were no breakthroughs on the U.S. plans to install elements of a ­missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Nor was there any progress on Kosovo. Moreover, Russia is still opposed in principle to NATO's further expansion to the east.

But on the bright side, both sides are continuing negotiations on the ­missile-defense system in Europe, and NATO did not offer Membership Action Plans to Ukraine and Georgia -- at least, not this time around.

Even if NATO had agreed at the summit to offer membership plans to Ukraine and Georgia, I don't think Russia's relations with that organization would have worsened drastically. Of course, Moscow would have responded with some form of tit-for-tat retaliation, but even that probably would not have halted Moscow's cooperation with NATO. After all, remember when the Kremlin issued a demarche after the alliance bombed Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999. Although it froze relations with the alliance and expelled a couple of NATO representatives from Moscow, relations nevertheless were restored rather quickly, thus preserving the basic Russia-NATO cooperation agreement that was signed in 1997.

Unsurprisingly, Moscow was happy that Georgia and Ukraine were not given an invitation to join NATO, which would have shifted the balance of power in Europe and forced Moscow to strengthen its military balance on its western borders. But many countries in Europe do not always understand this reality.

Certain NATO members opposed membership for Georgia and Ukraine in part because of their desire to maintain healthy relations with Russia, their main oil and gas supplier. In addition, senior NATO member countries have other difficult issues to solve -- with Afghanistan leading the list. The alliance understands very well that if it brings Georgia and Ukraine on board, it will inevitably have had to deal with their complicated political and economic problems as well.

Ostensibly, Georgia was denied membership for its lack of clearly delineated borders, and Ukraine was turned down because a significant percentage of the population does not support NATO membership. I think that there is truth to these arguments. After all, Georgia really does have a problem with national unity, and Ukraine has yet to hold a national referendum on NATO membership.

Some observers have commented that NATO was just trying to save face by citing the candidates' weaknesses as the reason for turning down their membership request; in reality, the argument goes, they were simply taking Russia's interests into account.

It is a shame that NATO-Russian relations are often soured by the new East European members of NATO, many of which have so many axes to grind with Moscow. Not surprisingly, most of these countries fervently lobbied to include Georgia and Ukraine in the alliance.

Instead of dwelling on these tensions, however, Moscow should focus on strengthening its relations with the alliance, in part because NATO operations in Afghanistan have the collateral effect of protecting Russia's southern flank. Indeed, NATO countries were in full agreement at the Bucharest summit about cooperating with Russia in Afghanistan.

That said, Russia should think seriously about why it has so few allies along its borders. It seems as if the Kremlin sincerely believes that it can be a global leader all by itself. This approach is fundamentally flawed. When the Kremlin applies hard power to relations with its neighbors, it only increases tensions and conflicts. Moreover, Moscow rarely uses soft power as a foreign policy strategy.

This is unfortunate because this flawed attitude toward its partners and neighbors is preventing Russia from becoming a true regional power.

Mikhail Margelov is chairman of the International Affairs Committee in the Federation Council.