Saturday, May 1, 2010

It's Russia Time

Watching the rumble that took place in the Ukrainian Parliament this week evokes an interesting image; Russian officials sitting around a table toasting each other with Vodka to go along fresh caviar fished straight out of the Black Sea.

Asides from being a stereotypical parody of Russians, I don't think the underlying logic of the image is that far off the mark.

If we were to look back at the past eight years of Russian-American relations, it would be difficult to label them as anything other than 'prickly'.

The post-9/11 rapprochement between Washington and Moscow was a short-lived affair. It was truly a 'marriage of convenience'. Both the Russians and the Americans had an interest in facing Islamic-inspired and nationalist militants - the U.S. in Afghanistan and the Russians in Chechnya. But that is about as far as their strategic interests converged.

Very quickly, geopolitical realities came back with a vengeance. Russian national power began reconsolidating itself around the emergence of Vladimir Putin on the national stage in 2000 - a nationalist ex-KGB director with a life-long network of friends and allies in Russia's security services. Around the same time, the rapid rise of oil prices beginning in 2002 and reaching a record US$147 a barrel in July 2008 resulted in a more confident and wealthy Russia. The windfall from oil and gas rapidly expanded Russia's state coffers and brought about a renewed sense of economic and political assertiveness.

The U.S. was heavily invested by this point in Afghanistan and Iraq, and had an increasingly thorny Iranian nuclear issue to deal with. This made the U.S. vulnerable - both Washington and Moscow recognized this. To keep the Russians occupied away from the Afghan and Iraqi theatres of operation, the Americans successfully supported anti-Russian politicians and pro-Western movements through the 'colour revolutions' which began in Georgia 2003, moved to Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. Looking to consolidate these geopolitical gains in Eastern Europe, Washington pushed to install anti-missile capabilities in Poland and the Czech Republic - using the Iranian threat, which the Russians never bought for one second, as smokescreen. Washington also pushed for expansion of NATO into Ukraine and Georgia, in the face of heavy French and German opposition.

So, in light of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 (which Russia handily won), the return of a pro-Kremlin party to power in Ukraine in February 2010, and the recent events in Kyrgyzstan, the push-and-pull of American-Russian competition is clearly laid out. Advantage Washington for the first half of the first decade of the 21st century; advantage Kremlin in the second.

I wouldn't call this the return of a new Cold War. Just geopolitics as usual.

Photo from Peter Schrank - The Economist

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