IT is unfortunate that Russia’s president Vladimir Putin should have cancelled his long-awaited visit to Pakistan at what was apparently short notice, and that in its train the quadrilateral summit on Afghanistan with the leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan will have to be rescheduled. Given the overall background of his recent policy towards this entire region, his action seems to be inspired by tactical reasons and does not reflect a major strategic shift.
Shortly after he became president of the United States in January 2009, President Barack Obama began mending fences which his predecessor George W. Bush had broken. ‘Reset’ in relations with Russia was part of this policy. As in other fields Obama’s achievement fell far short of expectations.
While the United States and Europe remain Russia’s main areas of security concern, President Vladimir Putin has actively pursued his own ‘reset policy’ in another direction. He has turned to the Far East and to the South.
Early this month, Putin presided over the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok. It is the first time that APEC’s annual summit was held in Russia. Shortly before the meeting Putin made two significant remarks to Russia Today, the state-controlled TV channel. He said: “Two-thirds of Russian territory is located in Asia, and yet the bulk of our foreign trade — more than 50 per cent — comes from Europe, whereas Asia only accounts for 24 per cent.”
Time there was when Moscow’s claim to be an Asian, as well as a European power, was challenged by Beijing. The quarrel prevented a second Bandung from being held. No one contests the claim today. For, Putin added: “Russian-Chinese relations are at an unprecedented high level and we have a lot of mutual trust both in politics and economy. The second stretch of a trans-Siberian oil pipeline, which already touches the border with China, will soon extend to the port of Kozmino, near Japan, increasing capacity and speeding shipments to Asian customers.”
The United States’ Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met Putin at the APEC summit. But few would accept her claim that “during the past three and a half years, the United States and Russia have deepened our cooperation to address shared challenges”.
This is not to deny some improvement in relations during this period. Putin has called Obama “a very honest man”. On the other hand, he was riled by Mitt Romney’s remark that Russia is “without question the No. 1 geopolitical foe” of his country.
In the United States Senate, abrasive rhetoric on Russia cuts across party lines. Both Houses of Congress are seized of a human rights bill which is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison in 2009. While it enjoys bipartisan support, the Obama administration, however, is opposed to it. Putin has warned of reciprocal action if the bill becomes law.
The United States sharply criticises Russia and China’s veto on resolutions on Syria in the UN Security Council though it has vetoed more Security Council resolutions than any other permanent member since 1972; mostly to protect Israel from deserved censure.
While the importance of these issues is not to be minimised, what has really impaired the ‘reset’ is continuing disagreement on some key issues which directly affect Russia’s security. They are — the missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic, Nato’s overtures to Georgia and Ukraine, and Russia’s claim to respect for its historic sphere of influence.
Russia’s grievance was articulated by President Putin in his famous speech at the annual trans-Atlantic security conference held at Munich. He alluded to the unipolar world which was established after the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago.
Russia remains as formidable a nuclear rival to the United States as before; but its political clout has declined steeply. Boris Yeltsin’s years injected complacency in the West. Russia’s quick revival under Putin and his assertiveness in Europe and in Asia, buoyed by soaring energy prices, unsettled the West. There will be no stability in global politics unless the West begins to treat Russia as a partner in shaping the world order rather than as an adversary.
Russia feels cheated several times over. In 1989 the president of the Soviet Union Michael Gorbachev agreed to Germany’s reunification as well as its membership of Nato on the understanding that it would not expand eastwards. It did. In 1990 he cooperated fully with president George H. W. Bush on Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait. In 2001, Vladimir Putin as president rushed to offer his support to president George W. Bush after 9/11. But there was no reciprocity, he feels.
Stephen Blank of the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College warned on the reset policy: “A reset that omits to understand Russia’s primary regional security goals and unyielding perception of a hostile US, that must be permanently threatened in order to have a détente, does not augur well for this policy, just as it did not augur well for the long-term consolidation of the détente of the 1970s. Thus once again we are failing to take Moscow and its interests seriously or understand with what or whom we are dealing.”
This happened in 1944 when the United States jettisoned Churchill’s understanding on spheres of influence with Stalin. Like any other country, Russia’s security concerns are shaped by its history and its geography. Its neglect of either factor in its policy towards this region would be unwise.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.