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September 24, 2008

Four Tough Questions on Russia
Posted by The Editors

Our guest blogger is Rose Gottemoeller, the Moscow Center Director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former deputy undersecretary for defense nuclear nonproliferation in the U.S. Department of Energy.

After Georgia, why can’t we get our act together to punish the Russians?
The Russians have done it to themselves.  After their attack on Georgia, their economy has taken a serious beating.  The Wall Street Journal reports that Russia’s market is the worst performer in the world in 2008.  From its all-time high in May 2008, the Russian market had lost $680 billion in value by September, when the stock exchanges in Moscow had to halt trading for two days to try to control the crisis.  With the entire gross domestic product of the country standing at $1.29 trillion in 2007, this drop was a serious blow to Russian economic performance.

What about the Russian cooperation with Venezuela, the flights of the TU-160 bombers, the naval ships heading to Venezuela to participate in “joint exercises”?
Russian military spending, which is slated to reach $50 billion next year, is only a fraction of the $700 billion per year that the United States spends on its armed forces.  If the Russians want to expend their scarce resources on sending naval ships and bombers to Venezuela, so be it—but it is truly a waste of time and money.  Threats to Russia are not in Latin America, but on Russia’s periphery, where extremism and terrorism are the enemies.  We need to work together with Russia to defeat those threats, especially when they involve weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

Why are we wasting our time trying to negotiate arms control deals with the Russians?  The Georgian conflict shows they cannot be trusted.  We can reduce nuclear weapons unilaterally and not worry about the Russians.  We don’t want to be locked into any treaties with them.
There is no way we should let the Russians off the hook on nuclear arms control.  If they can’t be trusted, then we need to sign them up to legally binding arms control deals, which was the watchword of the Reagan administration—“Trust but verify” was Ronald Reagan’s favorite comment on the Russians and nuclear arms control.  That is why we need to ensure that the START treaty does not disappear at the end of 2009, but is transformed into a more modern agreement that will allow us to cut the nuclear threat deeper than ever before.

What would you do with the Russians?
The Russians showed their absolute worst in Georgia—they haven’t altered their military doctrine since they took the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945, and Georgia bore the brunt of a Russian military onslaught that was inexcusable.  So the question is, now what?  Should the Russians be shut out of Europe?  Should they have no part in building the security system in Europe?  It seems to me the Russians have a choice, and we need to present it to them: do they want to be in the game or not?  Are they going to be part of the security system in Europe, or shut out?  We tried to make a good start in the NATO-Russian Council engaging the Russians, but they weren’t ready in the end for the engagement.  So let’s turn the question back on them—do they want to work with NATO or not?


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Absent here is any discussion of the internal conditions of Russia. My colleague Andy Pryce wrote a post about this recently. He points out that we in the West seem to overstate Russia's strengths while failing to examine Russia's weaknesses.

This is quality commentary. The danger Russia poses lies in its government's willingness to do the kind of thing it did in Georgia, making a trivial local ethnic problem the occasion for a major violation of internationally recognized borders. There is always the risk that this behavior might be repeated in a case where the resulting violence couldn't be stopped as quickly as was the case in Georgia.

This danger was understated in the wake of Russia's attack on Georgia by many American commentators eager to find fault with the unpopular Bush administration during the election campaign. But the danger is to local peace and security, not to the security of the United States or the great majority of its allies. Recognizing this, we should recognize also that Russia's assertion of raw power earned the former Soviet Union much ill will internationally, at a time when Moscow's relative strength was much greater than it is now. That is not something the end of the Cold War has changed; Russia neither got significant international support for the invasion of its neighbor, nor did it find that invasion helpful in reassuring investors that Russia is a safe place to put their money -- investor confidence being already under severe strain because of Russian government actions unrelated to the dispute with Georgia.

Putin and his licksplittle president are caught up in nostalgia for the Soviet past, but that doesn't mean the threat to us from Russia is back in the way it was 30 years ago. As long as we understand that, we can approach the other issues we have with Russia with realistic hopes for success, or at least for being able to stick the Russians with the blame for failure.

There is no way that the United States can punish Russia without punishing itself. The Americans need to work with Russia in order to safeguard its nuclear stockpile, but the Bush administration's cancelling of a program in which the Americans buy nuclear fuel from Russia is a move in the wrong direction. Gottemoeller wants the Americans to unilaterally disarm their nuclear stockpile, but that still won't ease the Russians current distrust of US intentions. What the Americans really need to do is to get rid of missile defense because this seems to be the main reason why Russia is modernizing its nuclear stockpile. NATO expansion is another factor that is detrimental to the future of arms control. Many in the West seem to think that in the near future NATO expansion will not matter because the weakness of Russia will make it more compliant with nuclear arms control. However I believe that this assumption is false because nuclear weapons are much cheaper than having a huge conventional force. If Russia feels that is surrounded by a hostile NATO on its western borders,it more likley to increase its nuclear stockpile instead of having a large conventional force.

We have to answer on those questions all together

Punish the Russians? Or get punished by the Russians?

NEW YORK -- Foreign ministers from major powers have canceled a meeting in New York to discuss more sanctions against Iran after Moscow opposed the move.

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