Thursday, January 17, 2013

What is up with Russia?

With the Syrian conflict deepening and becoming more and more brutal by the day, while the Central African Republic holds its breath hoping for political solution out of the rebellion and Mali, along with France, fights its Islamist, Al-Qaeda aligned insurgents that have carried retaliation strikes in Algeria, 2013 certainly opened up with a bang, quite literally.

If anything, the common thread in all three examples above is the very point made by Lord Paddy Ashdown in this blog’s previous post: that the state of peace and war are no longer decided by two warring nations alone. They are decided by an interlocked combination of the foreign policies of big powers, the attitudes of neighboring states, the economic resources at stake, the countries’ economic situations as well as the state and strength of the civil society, resistance and terrorist networks alike in the concerned states.

In short, no state can decide to act alone, whether it is an island or a behemoth. If it does, it is doomed to fail and pay a harsh price, making the world a less safe place for all nations.

Unsurprisingly, we saw the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency of Russia in 2012. While internally, the returning strongman forged himself a reputation for control in many aspects of his nation’s institutions, making him a target for reformer’s criticisms, externally he has promoted himself as a nostalgic of the Soviet superpower times. A lot of his foreign policy actions, just as well as non-actions since the year 2000 bore the stamp of this psyche, often acting as a counterweight to the United States, especially under the Bush presidency.

However, there has been a global power shift since the early days of the first Putin presidency which can be basically summed by two items: the waning of American power and the continual transfer of this said power to the East, where prosperity grows but uncertainty looms.  In this new universe, a Soviet-inspired foreign policy is not only inappropriate, it is inadequate, insufficient and above all, counterproductive.

Perhaps the best real life example is Russia’s reluctance to join other UN Security Council members in taking hard measures against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which is one of its long-standing partners. While initial reservations on Western or international meddling were understandable and even welcomed, Syria has since then turned from an autocratic regime violently repressing a rebellion to an outright murderous, war-crime committing, morally bankrupt state long past the point of no return. While the barbaric attacks continue on civilians to this day, Russia drags its feet.

Countries like the United States and Canada have expressed their frustration with Russia, begging them to come out of their shell and play a more constructive role on the international stage rather than isolating itself from the realities of the new multipolar world. In fact, Russia would likely benefit politically and economically from shifting its foreign policy towards rogue states from mild annoyance to true, multilateral engagement.

However, at this time, the former position seems to remain Putin’s preference, as there seems to be no plans for a follow-up meeting of the G20 Foreign Ministers in Russia this year. That is what the official program suggests. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped Putin will heed the call of Council of Councils, an initiative of the Council on Foreign Relations, whose own Stewart M. Patrick recommends the following in a memo to the Russian leadership:

[The G20] should create a permanent foreign ministers’ track to complement the finance ministers’ track. Here, Russia can build on the “informal” meeting of G20 foreign ministers hosted by Mexico in February 2012. Potential agenda items would include climate change, development cooperation, nuclear non-proliferation, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and efforts to combat transnational crime. (Read more here).

Permitting a broader, multilateral dialogue under its leadership in the G20 and engaging proactively in finding solutions to conflicts within its sphere of influence will not dilute Russia’s power. If anything it will make it stronger and more reliable partner for the world community. That is something that is desirable for all, even Russia’s old foes, no matter what they claim.

Cooperating with other nations to tackle the hard security challenges of our time is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of political maturity; for victories are no longer counted by the armies one nation may muster, but rather by the allies it can gather.

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