In concert with many other remarks made by President Obama, there has been much mystery, worry, and speculation regarding his stated desire to “reset the button” on U.S.-Russia bilateral relations.
The Heritage Foundation held a discussion July 1st led by panelists Ariel Cohen, Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasion Studies, Sanford Saunders, partner at Greenberg Traurig, and director of the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Janusz Bugajski, who each shared their expectations for Obama’s visit and possible consequences of the summit’s outcome.
“By all appearances Mr. [Dmitry] Medvedev and [Vladimir] Putin are reviving the old Soviet Africa strategy…now the Kremlin is trying to regain its status as a global player and Africa appears to be the first coordinated attempt to do so,” says Cohen. Medvedev has talked much about innovation and diversification in high-tech development but those words appear to be mere rhetoric and peripheral goals, as Russia’s actions and global strategy have demonstrated. While Obama’s upcoming visit to Africa will focus on global warming, the Russians have made serious inroads to lock up and consolidate natural resources in Africa and Asia. Medvedev and his team have targeted oil, copper, diamonds, and uranium in African states which have generated several cooperative agreements.
According to a recent June 9th Heritage article by Cohen, recent developments include:
- an oil pipeline deal in Nigeria;
- a $300 million loan to Angola in eye of greater access to their oil fields;
- a cooperation pact with Egypt to build the state’s first nuclear power plant; and
- several gas export deals Russia has secured utilizing carrots and sticks.
The obvious goal in mind for Russia’s global strategy is European, African, and Asian economic dependence for consumers. “It is clear they want to tie up Caspian states into energy contracts in order to create economic dependence which will create political dependence on Russia,” Bugajski concurred.
Sanford Saunders emphasized a legal approach in dealing with Russia, as he believes the rule of law (or lack thereof) is the biggest problem plaguing Russia’s economy and voiced the critical need of Obama to address Russia’s corrupt judicial system and illustrate the tremendous harm it has had on foreign businesses. “Russia had an appearance of adhering to the rule of law at the turn of the century, but they have turned away from them. It is not just about human rights but the press and economics as well,” Saunders began, “and hopefully Obama will speak about rule of law and pursue the issue.” British Petroleum, Shell, and Ikea are a few of the most recent foreign businesses to partake in “political/foreign flight” due to the cost of playing by Russia’s rules, while the Dutch and Swedish are two court systems which no longer recognize court decisions in Russia.
Saunders so heavily emphasizes the rule of law based upon the premise that the global integration of Russia would equally benefit not only Russian-U.S. relations, but have far-reaching benefits globally. “To use the tired old cliche-as the world becomes increasingly flat, rule of law becomes more important,” Saunders reiterated. Ariel Cohen agreed, stating one major incentive Obama could offer to help facilitate Russian cooperation is membership into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Still, dealing with the Russian government throws all conventional wisdom out the door, making even the simplest of tasks perplexing due to the unpredictable nature of Russia. Cohen conceded the possibility of Russia rejecting WTO membership, “but why they would not want to join beats me,” he said. The highly controversial and questionable arrest and conviction of former Yukos’s largest shareholder Mikhail Khodorkovsky was supposed to be a watershed moment for the West in hopes of economic and judicial justice in Russia, but Russian authorities continue to be untethered in their operations. “I am hoping Obama uses Khodorkovsky as the symbolic figure to press Russia on human rights and the rule of law,” Saunders declared.
Leverage is the major issue, and the panelists were pessimistic about Obama’s chances to slow down Russia’s incursion of former-Soviet states and anti-American policies. Janusz Bugajski said that Russia’s major agenda is “to neutralize democracy-building by the U.S. and discredit Western institutionalism,” in line with their agenda of:
- 1) political domination;
- 2) keeping the countries off-balance and out of alliances; and as a last resort
- 3) territorial domination” of Eastern Europe.
Russia’s neighbors fear Obama may be overlooking Russia’s imperialist notions, as Russia views the current statehood of places such as Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Georgia, and Azerbaijan “aberrations,” refusing to recognize distinct ethnic, historical, and cultural differences. Bugajski recommended Obama pursue a course of action for NATO to
- 1) fortify its security forces;
- 2) have more openness to new members; and
- 3) adopt a greater cooperative approach by its members,” as long as it doesn’t compromise the first two principles.
However “there is a major contradiction of Russia’s view on NATO,” said Janusz Bugajski, “on the one hand they view NATO membership as a threat, but NATO as too weak.” Bugajski cited the 2008 Russia-Georgia as a perfect “test-case” he fears will encourage future Russian aggression due to the “security vacuum in the region.”
Cohen’s most recent article that was published by Heritage references how the Medvedev-Obama summit comes at a time where Russia is actively trying to recreate its sphere of influence in eastern Europe and entrench itself as the dominant partner/power in Africa and Asia. By way of utilizing various bullying tactics such as economic blackmail and military maneuvering, the Russians have forced countries such as Nigeria, Turkmenistan, Mongolia, and Azerbaijan into exclusive trade agreements and economic control. In light of Russia’s current political climate, Ariel Cohen is not optimistic the summit will lead to much, if any change. Cohen stated the pressing need for Obama to pursue weapons and inspection deals, sanctions on Iran, European missile-defense, and respect for sovereignty but advised “we should lower expectations for Russian cooperation.”
The multitude of issues Obama must take exception to is the anti-American stance axiomatically displayed by Moscow in recent years. The following “five planks” illustrate policies in direct opposition to American goals:
- 1) NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia;
2) U.S. missile defense in Europe;
3) joint policy against Iran’s nuclear ambitions;
4) current security structure in Europe; and
5) Western-dominated global economic institutions and architecture.
Bugajski, Saunders, and Cohen agreed the five planks are not issues Obama has the luxury of overlooking at the behest of “resetting the button.” Even the pro-Kremlin political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Let’s be frank: There’s not a single serious global issue where the United States is dependent on Russia today,” serving additional strong and potent argument against an excessively flexible and ingratiating stance by the new White House administration.