The Economist Debates The West’s Response to Russian Assertiveness

Yestarday The Economist has started debating the West’s response to renewed Russian assertiveness. This event will last for two-weeks as part of an ongoing, Oxford-style Online Debate Series.
The proposition is, “This house believes the West must be bolder in its response to a newly assertive Russia.” What’s your opinion? With Russia’s recent incursion into neighboring Georgia, many Western governments are worried about the renewed Russian assertiveness. Is Russia’s intention to upset the current international order, or is it responding directly to the widening sphere of American influence in former Soviet countries? Can the European Union speak with one voice and take the diplomatic lead? Or must America protect the world order by standing up to Russia to prove that any form of aggression comes at a cost? Is this the dawn of a new Cold War?
Moderating this debate will be Robert Lane Greene, International Correspondent for The Economist. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs will be weighing in for the proposition and Dmitri V. Trenin, Deputy Director, Senior Associate, Foreign and Security Policy, Carnegie Moscow Center will be arguing against the proposition.  Opening statements post on Tuesday, September 9 followed by rebuttals September 12 and closing statements September 17. A winner will be determined by popular vote and announced on September 19.
It is free to comment and vote but you must register first.
If you want to take part in this debate go to this link


Pro Opening Statement

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University


The West should be bolder in confronting a newly assertive Russia, but bolder in a way that understands and manipulates the realities of 21st century politics rather than plunging us back into a 20th century stalemate. A bold Western response should have three components: letting the EU take the lead, albeit with close coordination with the U.S.; splitting Russia off from its incipient partners in a global “G-5” (China, India, Brazil, and South Africa); and using networks of economic, religious, social and cultural actors below the surface of traditional geopolitics to bring home the true costs of Russia’s actions.

First, however, a word on why it is important to make absolutely clear that Russia’s decision to solve its problems with Georgia by force, to engage in its own crude and brutal attempt at regime change,  was a serious mistake and miscalculation. Fareed Zakaria has done an excellent job [:] of explaining all the reasons why the West should not have been surprised by Russia’s move; as a great power, Russia cannot be expected to have an alliance that it continues to perceive as an adversary move to its very borders. He argues, rightly in my view, that the West must avoid overreacting; that Russia has already made a “strategic blunder.” Less noticed, however, has been the centuries-old Russian tradition of creating external enemies to deflect domestic attention from problems at home. Although Russia’s coffers are flush with petrodollars, the resulting wealth is held by a tiny elite, just as in the age of the czars.  As popular as Putin and his party are, they are delivering a heady nationalist brew rather than actually providing badly needed economic and social benefits to the population at large. It is that domestic political equation that the West must counterbalance by making clear that the diplomatic, political, and economic costs of external adventures outweigh the domestic benefits.

The right-wing response in the United States has been essentially to confirm Putin’s narrative of an aggressive United States bent on humiliating Russia by ratcheting up our rhetoric and threatening a new Cold War. In such a world, we would go back to a game of Europe in the middle, working hard to lower tensions that hurt its economy and its energy supply. A far better response is to let the EU take the lead, as Sarkozy did immediately as EU president in the first week after Russian troops rolled into Georgia. Let the EU make clear to the Russians that they cannot drive a wedge between us and Europe; rather, Russia’s actions have strengthened transatlantic unity and resolve and bolstered the incentives for further European defense and foreign policy integration. That is not a trend that Russia wants to continue.  

The most important aspect of the West’s response is to avoid pushing Russia closer to China and to other emerging powers. China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa met for the first time as a “G-5” immediately in the wake of the collapse of the Doha Round. Some Chinese scholars have called for such a group instead of the expansion of the G-8 to the G-13. Yet China has been appalled by the Russian invasion of Georgia, particularly during the Olympics; the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in which China and Russia play the predominant roles, notably refused to support Russia’s action and instead called for a non-violent solution to the ethnic issues in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The last thing China wants is violence on the Russian perimeter, or, for that matter, a newly assertive military power in Asia. Here lies the greatest danger of a “bold response” as traditionally framed, relying on diplomatic isolation with veiled military threats and a claim that we are seeing a new global division between capitalist democracies and capitalist dictatorships. That division, in my view, is nonsense; China is closer in many ways to the U.S. than to Russia in its economy and its search for ways to increase popular participation in government to shore up the government’s legitimacy. The point here is that a bold response to Russia must be directed at Russia, not at any larger category of states.

Finally, a bold response would target not just “Russia,” as a unitary state, but would apply targeted pressure to powerful individuals in Russia’s government, economy, and society. We should compile a list of 100-500 individuals who have the ability to influence Russian policy, either through direct communication with Putin and Medvedev or through direct appeals to the Russian people, and figure out precisely how to pressure or persuade each one to see the costs of using force in Russia’s near abroad and the benefits of both non-violent solutions and increasing integration with the West and the world at large. Increasingly dense economic, political, cultural, and religious networks are the distinguishing feature of the 21st century world; we should be identifying and using these networks as conduits of communication and response. The message we send, however, should be one of incentives as well as deterrents, holding out the prospect of a new and more respectful NATO-Russian relationship and renewed recognition of Russia as an essential state in reaching solutions to problems in the Middle East and globally. 

In sum, a Russian use of force against Ukraine would be disastrous, essentially confronting the world with the specter of a nation rebuilding an empire by military means, rampaging and killing as it likes. Were the next step to be a Baltic state, the world could find itself plunged into nuclear war just when the Cold War generation assumes we have escaped that particular nightmare scenario for good. We must respond boldly, but not in a traditional sense. Let Europe take the lead; avoid redividing the world with Russia on some artificial “authoritarian” side; and use the new tools of 21st century networks to offer a choice between painful isolation and renewed integration.

Con Opening Statement

Dmitri V. Trenin,  Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Those who argue that the West should be bolder in its response to a newly assertive Russia are trying to use their memories of the past to deal with a very different present and a highly uncertain future. They see the danger in an authoritarian state which they often confuse with its totalitarian predecessor and see as a sworn enemy of democracy. They fear Russia’s revived imperialist vocation, which should pose a mortal threat to its weaker neighbours. They are concerned that Russia is using its energy resources much as the Soviet Union had used its military power: to beat others into submission. Finally, they see Moscow at pains trying to construct something like an Authoritarian International to rally the enemies of the West on the world scene. 

The problem with that view is not that it is all wrong, but that it is clearly biased and woefully incomplete. Without question, Russia is authoritarian; it does see itself as a great power and has engaged in power competition with those whom it sees as its rivals; it does insist on preserving links and influence in the former imperial borderlands turned independent states; it looks at oil, gas and other natural resources as its few real assets before its economy is modernized and diversified; it does have a global view, rejects US world domination and openly seeks to build what it calls a multipolar world order. True, Russia is not a post-modern player when it comes to international relations: it is nationalistic, sovereignty-conscious, and does not shy from wielding hard power, but apart from the European Union, no country is. Today, Russian people are freer and more affluent than they have ever been: capitalism is transforming Russian society on a daily basis. Yet even as Russia becomes progressively more Western inside, it has ceased to be pro-Western in its foreign policy.

Some of Russia’s critics are those who once hoped to foster and domesticate post-Soviet Russia as a ward of the West, to turn it into a version of Germany or Japan. When Russia’s harsh circumstances confuted their high expectations, or their advice turned out to be futile or worse, they went from enthusiastic acclamation to angry disapprobation. Others had never believed Russia would change for the better; it could only grow weaker, and that moment should be used to create new realities on the ground that would keep Russia in its place when and if it recovered. In other words, the two prevailing models of the 1990s and the early 2000s were a democratic and dependent Russia; or a weak Russia that did not matter much. Most practitioners, of course, held less strident views than either group, but they walked away from Russia as a serious issue for the West as soon as they could, happy to be able turn to other business.Now, after years of mismanagement and neglect, people have woken up to a mildly recovered and seemingly resurgent Russia. In response, they propose to isolate it and thus bring pressure on the economy,the population and ultimately the regime. In principle, sanctions can be imposed, and some can work. Some Russian assets abroad can be frozen, and some wealthy people, no doubt in good standing with the regime, can be made to suffer. Blacklists could be drafted, air traffic between London and Moscow would become much less heavy, and some boarding schools would get new vacancies. Yes, Europe’s energy dependency on Russia may be eventually reduced, but diversification of sources and alternative energy are basically sound policies in any event, and should be seen as a precautionary measure, rather than a reaction to a worsening relationship with a supplier.

One could surely take away the 2014 Sochi Olympics or the 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostok, but those are symbolic steps devoid of real impact. A freeze on the WTO membership and the perpetuation of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment would do little in the short term, and potentially harm both sides in the future. It is a pity that the nuclear co-operation agreement between Russia and the United States will not be enacted, but both sides will share the opportunity loss. Kicking Russia out of the G8 would bring some satisfaction to some, if only others agreed on that, and would exclude an important country from an exercise in global governance, which will be an insult to the former and an injury to the latter. One might terminate the NATO-Russia Council, in the situation where the only area for bilateral co-operation could be Afghanistan; or put a new agreement between the EU and Russia into a deep-freeze, and downgrade the overall relationship, but only to the effect of reducing the EU’s diplomatic leverage, its internal unity and its outside role. It is not that Western sanctions would not hurt Russia, as Kremlin propagandists claim; it is that they are double-edged swords.
There are things, of course, that would make a difference: putting Georgia and Ukraine on a fast track to NATO membership, for example. One needs, however, to study the Georgia case a bit more closely to understand why the Georgian attack on South Ossetia was prevented last month, as several others had been before. One needs also to give deeper thought to the consequences of allowing an unstable authority to push a country towards NATO membership when only a fifth of the population supports it, and over half strongly oppose the move. Having gone through the crisis in Ossetia, one needs to be more careful with Crimea. Or so it would seem. Arming the Baltic states may be safer, but the real security problem there is that several hundred thousand Russophone people in Latvia and Estonia, whatever the reason, still lack citizenship and feel alienated from local democratic governments which they see as ethnocratic.
Rather than thinking about bold steps which would fuel nascent confrontation it makes more sense to subject old stereotypes to a reality check, and figure out whither Russia is heading, and what it actually wants. And then perhaps use the present crisis to structure a security relationship in Europe which would include Russia and reassure its wary neighbors. That, incidentally, may come in handy as other crises may jolt the world: a politico-nuclear meltdown in Pakistan, a Taliban comeback in Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear weapons progress, North Korea’s proliferation regression and the like.


One thought on “The Economist Debates The West’s Response to Russian Assertiveness

  1. Russia
    Russia’s recent display of military power in Georgia caused a wave of concern about the resurgence of Russian assertiveness. Is Russia’s objective to upset international order or is it merely reacting to a widening influx of American influence in neighbouring countries?
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