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US president George W. Bush on Friday warned Russia that ‘bullying and intimidation’ would not be tolerated as diplomatic efforts to resolve the week-old crisis in Georgia intensified.

The Georgian crisis is fast turning into an opportunity to engage into a large-scale diplomatic/political campaign against Russia. The question is - does this make any sense? If the goal is to make Russia change its behavior, what can the West do to actually make that happen? More generally, what do we want from Russia, and does it make sense?

Some attempts at answers below.

Given how this all started, the first goal would seem to be to keep Russia from interfering in the internal affairs of neighboring countries. This is a worthy and legitimate goal, and one that rightly preoccupies a number of countries near it.

A second goal, it would appear, seems also quite important (given how it is accused of interfering with the first one): to keep receiving energy supplies (oil & natural gas) from Russia. This is a goal which is said to preoccupy continental Europe (as the main buyers of Russian gas) and worries the UK and the US (apparently out of concern about the "energy weapon", and also precisely because of how it it is blamed for Old Europe's weakness towards Russia). A secondary goal linked to this one is the ability for Western energy companies to invest in the Russian oil&gas sector.

A third goal is to get Russian cooperation in the diplomatic battle with Iran about its nuclear programme, and more generally to be a friendly or neutral participant in various other diplomatic endeavors of the West around the world (one can mention North Korea, the Middle East, but also Afghanistan.

Another, often forgotten goal, is to continue with nuclear (as well as traditional) disarmament, and with efforts to limit the spread of nuclear  weapons and even nuclear material and technology around the world.

All of these goals are rational and worthy. Protecting democracy and freedom in countries that have long lived under direct or indirect Soviet domination is indeed something that we should care about; securing the supplies of oil & gas that we need also seems to be an important thing to worry about; and similarly, diplomatic manoeuvers towards countries like Iran, North Korea, Syria or others will certainly be more effective if Russia helps out rather than stands out or even actively intereferes by supporting the other side. And with nuclear, given that Russia is the main holder of nuclear weapons alongside the USA, and one of the few countries to fully control the technology, its participation seems indispensable.

So how can these goals be reached? In other words, what levers do we have against/with Russia? What carrots, and what sticks, can we use?

  • we can go to war, or threaten to go to war, with Russia (which is what is supposed to happen should Russia attack a NATO country); extending NATO can thus be seen about making that threat more credible - or giving it new "triggers" related to the countries brought in, thus supposedly protecting them from Russian interference;

  • we can shame Russia (by kicking it out of the G8, withholding  its WTO membership, and calling it out as a bully);

  • we can ignore its diplomatic presence by going round the UN (where its veto at the Security Council is one of the most obvious instruments of its diplomatic influence) or by simply not involving Russia in some of these international conflicts
  • conversely, we can make it more welcome it to the "international community" by involving it in more multilateral activities, getting (and recognising) its participation in international crises and taking its interests into account;
  • we can make its "energy weapon" less relevant by making ourselves less dependent on its resources, ie by threatening to withhold spending our money on Russian oil or gas, by finding alternative sources or using less altogether.

But let's look at these in turn:

  • the threat of war. This is the most potent argument, and it will certainly give pause to Russia if proffered. The question, if Russia is genuinely imperialistic, is how credible that threat is. While it seems rather clear that we'd go to war to support Poland or the Baltic countries, all EU countries, it is not quite clear how we'd be in any meaningful position to actually support Georgia or Ukraine should they become members. If Georgia had been a NATO member this time round, what would we have done? We have minimal military capacity in the region. Would we have declared war on Russia? As much as many seem to believe that NATO membership would have dissuaded Russia from attacking, it seems highly unlikely, given that nothing could actually have been done, beyond actually going for all-out war with Russia. This would  not have been a likely - nor indeed reasonable - choice given how the conflict broke out (ie Georgia trying to use force against an irredentist province, in the context of a long-running feud). And from the Russians' perspective, calling the West's bluff and decredibilising NATO would have been a great outcome, whereas gaining the West's hostility is not something they seem to care about much.

    Conversely, it should be noted here that we have actually used a war posture in the past 15 years, by bringing into NATO countries that were formerly in the Warsaw Pact and even former Soviet Republics, by putting military bases there, right on Russia's borders, by denouncing previous treaties like the ABM, by putting anti-missile bases in Central Europe on flimsy pretexts, by aggressively supporting vocally anti-Russian leaders in neighboring countries, and by adopting, over the past several years, a highly bellicose tone towards Russia on a wide range of topics. Just look up how often there has been talk of a "second cold war" in the past couple years - and it is NOT the Russians that started it. The results of that posture have been, logically, an increasingly hostile and assertive Russia, which has fed the tension (oand of course given pretext to Cheney at al. to further raise the stakes and use Russia's overreactions as legitimizing excuses for the initial aggressivity.

  • shaming, ignoring, welcoming Russia. Russia cares about its status on the world stage, and wants to be taken as a great power. Denying that to them can influence their behavior, and this is indeed what is threatened today by John McCain and others. But this is a much more effective policy when used as a carrot, than as a stick (of withdrawing the carrot). When the Russians cared about being integrated in the West, in the 90s, it was denied to them until much too late; now that they no longer need that recognition, denying it is just petty and hostile, but certainly not a very effective incentive.

    The threat of ignoring them and showing them that we simply don't care about what they think or do might make them reconsider, simply to be taken seriously. This is what we did for a good part of the last decade, Kosovo being the most blatant example: we did not get UN approval for the intervention because of Russian hostility, and we went in anyway, on the basis that NATO unanimity was good enough legitimacy) and, again, it worked only in so far as Russia could indeed be ignored. But that threat is now completely hollow.  In places like Georgia, or when discussing the Iranian nuclear programme, or talking about energy, we cannot ignore Russia, because it is able to (or chooses to) create facts on the ground whether we like it or not. That ship has sailed. Thanks to energy revenues and the re-centralisation of power driven by Putin, the Kremlin is able to deploy again its diplomats, army and technology exports to weigh in in various places around the world. We don't have to like it, but we have to deal with it.

    On the other hand, actually listen to Russia, and taking care not to necessarily provoke them might still work. It would certainly deny them a great excuse they have to go on with their own provocations or belligerance - while the West may ignore that this is a bilateral shouting match and blame Russia alone, others are certainly aware of it.

    The reality is that of a Russia both willing and able to make its presence felt and heard; we can choose to acknowledge it or not, and use it or not to our advantage, but ignoring it won't make it go away, and is likely to seriously annoy Russia

  • the energy weapon. There are really two debates here: one about the very existence of the energy weapon, and a second one about what we should do if we accept the notion that Russia has power over us from the fact that it exports oil&gas.

    Here are a few facts to ponder: (i) Russia sends 100% of its gas exports to Europe, whereas Europe gets only 25% of its gas imports from Russia; (ii) Russia has never cut its gas deliveries in 40 years to a customer paying market or contracted prices; (iii) Europe's current energy policies encourage the rapid development of gas consumption (because gas-fired power plants are the easiest to finance and the safest to build in a setting where prices of electricity are market driven); (iv) Russia cannot export its oil or its gas elsewhere than to Europe, because that's where the existing infrastructure goes - and it's busy trying to build more pipelines going to Europe; (v) Russia derives half of its hard currency income (and even three quarters if you count various metal exports for which the energy input is a major component, like steel or aluminum) from energy income, and probably 25% of both its GDP and its budget income.

    The reality is that there is a mutual dependency between Europe as a whole and Russia on the energy front: we want the energy, they want the cash, we share the pipelines. Now some countries are more dependent in that they can only get gas from Russia, but as it were, these are also the countries that sit on the pipelines going to the rest of Europe, which means that they cannot be cut off without the rest of Europe being cut off to, if they so choose - and, as Ukraine amply demonstrated, Russia has ALWAYS chosen to forego revenues from these transit countries rather than compromise its deliveries to the rest of Europe, and has always blinked first in these confrontations.

    Thus, talk by the West of looking for alternatives is both threatening to Russia (because it threatens to reduce the purchases by their only client) and stupid when underlying policies suggest that we really want to continue on burning gas without worrying where it comes from. If we actually worried about energy use, we'd start having policies that work to cut our use of oil& natural gas, instead of policies that let it grow. That would be threatening to Russia, as noted above, but at least it would make the mutual dependency smaller.

    In the meantime, policies that seem to focus only on BP or Shell getting more Russian gas on their balance sheet are incredibly shortsighted (the gas is still on Russian territory and thus fully controlled by the Russian government; any confrontation on this topic may benefit oil majors but not energy consumers) and stand no chance of success anyway: why on earth would Russia willingly give away to us the rent embedded in the oil & gas under its territory? Why? The argument that they need the foreign investment and expertise is laughable when you know that Gazprom produces more gas, in much tougher conditions, than all the Western majors put together and has always exported as much gas as Europe would buy from it (it's always been Europeans that have limited their purchases rather than Russia ever limiting their sales.)

    With all that said, the current discourse is a noisy one that of Russia threatening our lifeblood without any evidence (and please do NOT bring up the 2006 crisis with Ukraine, please go read this (pdf) first), a simultaneous discourse which is hostile to entities like Gaz de France, Ruhrgas (now E.On) or Snam (ENI) that have run integrated import policies that have successfully managed Russia as one gas supplier amongst others for the past 30+ years (but no, they are outdated and inefficient State-driven dinosaurs), and a persistent market ideology that pretends that Russia would gain anything by opening up to foreign ownership of its resources - and at no point any perception of the fact that if we want to control our energy without controlling our demand, we stand to have to deal with suppliers able to impose their terms on us.

So far, nothing in what we've seen towards Russia lately makes any kind of sense. Bluster. Sanctimonious bullshit. Mindless invocation of long trashed concepts like "freedom" and "democracy". Needless provocation. Threats that cannot be backed by anything real. Appeals to higher sentiments. And, above everything, appalling double standards and breathtaking hypocrisy.

And no hint of any kind of effective realpolitik, even if we can't get consistency with our professed values.

But, as this recent interview with Wesley Clark makes clear, what is at stake is not really the relationship with Russia, but it is Europe's subservience to the USA. NATO used to be about "keeping America in, Russia out, and Germany down"; now it seems to be about "keeping America in, Russia down and Europe out" - in the sense that any independent assertion of its national interests by Russia is not tolerated, and any strengthening of European unity is actively fought.

Today's conflict shows the exact same divisions as the Iraq War, with "Old Europe" on one side, willing to see Georgia's responsibility in the crisis and keen not to criticize Russia too much, and the US, UK and "New Europe" on the other, on a hard anti-Russian line. It also shows that Americans are united, by large, behind these policies, and that there is no Republican vs Democrats divide here. Obama has been on a similarly hard line against Russia, effectively calling for NATO membership for Georgia.

So, given that these policies have no visible way to influence Russia or make it care and, if anything, will make it more hostile, it is hard not to ask if this is not yet another shot at keeping Europe divided and impotent.

Oh sure, we don't need much help in that respect, with our wannabe  important leaders out-petty-ing one another and caring more about (i) grandstanding opportunities and (ii) sucking up to Washington opportunities than about actual policies - and they all got legitimately elected.

But still, with Russia our neighbor, maybe they'd think we actually need a policy, even if the US does not?

Originally posted to Jerome a Paris on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 01:34 PM PDT.

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