Bismarck in the Kremlin
- By Alexander Golts
- Jun. 17 2008 00:00
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Foreign diplomats and analysts have spent a lot of time scrutinizing President Dmitry Medvedev's comments on Russia's foreign policy. They all want to know the answer to the most important question on their minds: Will Medvedev continue the exaggerated and ridiculous "Cold War" with the West that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin so skillfully orchestrated when he was president?
Medvedev inherited a rather convoluted foreign policy legacy from his predecessor. A key element of this legacy was codified in Putin's Munich speech in February 2007, in which he concluded that the heightened U.S.-Soviet standoff during the 1980s had actually been one of the more stable periods in East-West relations. Putin made it clear in Munich that he sought to return U.S.-Russian relations to the "stability" of the '80s. He put many of the old, dusty Cold War issues back on the negotiating table -- missile defense, the balance of conventional arms in Europe and strategic nuclear forces -- while repeatedly accusing the United States and NATO countries of attempting to achieve military superiority over Russia.
Medvedev has two clear options for dealing with Putin's foreign policy legacy -- either continue to play this risky game of provoking confrontation or adopt a more conciliatory approach.
Medvedev's most important foreign policy statement so far was his call for an all-European summit to sign a legally binding pact on European security, which he made in his Berlin speech on June 5. In formulating his security model, Medvedev said the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, a multilateral agreement condemning war as an instrument of national policy, "has a better hope of success" in today's world.
It is obvious that the current system of international security was created during an era of Cold War confrontation and is based on the concept of mutual deterrence of two superpowers. Putin was able to exploit that skillfully to his own advantage. During his two presidential terms, Putin effectively turned the clock back to the 1980s. To add a little sizzle to his Cold War fire, Putin has shown a fondness for quoting 19th-century German leader Otto von Bismarck, including, most recently, "It's more important to assess a country's military potential than its intentions." Using this reasoning, in any conflict with the West -- from the poisoning of former Federal Security Service agent Alexander Litvinenko to Russia's provocative actions against Georgia and its harsh crackdown on the Dissenters' Marches -- the Kremlin could always portray Russia as a besieged fortress.
Like his predecessor, Medvedev is trying to dissuade NATO from expanding into the former Soviet republics by speaking about the serious consequences of this policy. In his Berlin speech, Medvedev said that if NATO continues its expansion, he was "convinced that our relations with the alliance will be undermined and radically spoiled for a long time to come. There will be no confrontation, of course, but the price will be high. That will inflict very serious damage."
But Medvedev does not plan to raise the stakes too high. Whereas Putin threatened to target missiles at Ukraine should that country join NATO, Medvedev limited himself to suggesting that Russia's cooperation with the alliance on operations in Afghanistan could suffer. Nonetheless, at a recent meeting of the Russia-NATO Council, both sides announced their intention to continue working on an agreement for using Russian military transport airlifts in joint operations.
Medvedev's proposed European security pact could evolve in two different directions. If Medvedev does not continue Putin's charade about NATO's supposed military threat to Russia, the pact could diffuse the confrontation. His 21st-century version of Kellogg-Briand would necessarily mean that the issues that have until now been pillars of the Kremlin's foreign policy -- namely, missile defense and NATO expansion -- will become less important.
But Medvedev's foreign policy could easily take a completely different direction. One indication of this was his appeal for all European states to participate in his new European-security pact as individual nations without being tied to any particular bloc (that is, NATO) or ideological motive.
Medvedev and his team have not decided on their foreign policy strategy. But this decision is not completely his to make, of course. The country's foreign policy will ultimately be determined by the faction that is able to gain the upper hand in the battle for power between the White House and the Kremlin.
Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.