Part 2 of 3 in a series on NATO by Nic Wondra
It just has not sunk in yet. Somehow, The US’s (and therefore NATO’s) largest concern is the Russian Federation. The upcoming elections will bring a lot of issues to light, even if we see another Putin-Medvedev administration. The Western press seems to write off Russia as a simple dictatorship, a conclusion which classically misses the nuanced political landscape of Russia. This explanation is too convenient to be true. I am confident that democratic feelings are being slowly incubated in Russia. We have been paying too much attention to “civil society” and not enough attention to “dinner table talk.” After all, “dinner table talk” is what the 1991 changes of power were fueled by, and it can happen again. Protests after the December parliamentary elections have proven this social need for representation, but I have been saying this since November and before (see my blog).
Notably, the 1991 upheavals were democratic, peaceful, and transparent on policy terms so why do we think Russia is a lost cause? The fact of the matter is that few study Russian, so even the blogs and independent media sources that would illustrate a more complex society are missed by the west. There is not only discontent from the Russian public, but there is a real lack of policy ideas and the government is not as cohesive as it seems. Terms like “strongman” are used to describe Vladimir Putin, but this ignores how difficult it is to keep many agents satisfied in the context of governing. The Russian Federation has seen its fair share of resignations from ministerial seats, illustrating some fragmentation.
Something that I like to call the myth of perfect information and the power vertical is something that the Russian (and Soviet before it) government depends on to stay in power. It seems that western commentators have bought into this idea that everything is decided at the top with all information at the state’s disposal simultaneously being available to and used by the center. Once this myth is gone from analysis, we may see a truly democratic Russia, not a lost cause. This is a fundamental misreading of both foreign policy objectives and the internal structure of power in the state. Kremlinology is back in force, with tomes being written based on this myth. In some way, this is the only comfortable format for aging scholars to comment on current developments in Russia
So what is the fable? In short, it is that Russia is not the enemy. It is a real state with real interests like any other great power. It is concerned about the flexibility of international law while seeking to sometimes bend the law itself. It is worried about the NATO nuclear umbrella and proposed anti-missile shield, which removes any potential use of its own nuclear weapons (a basis for Russian conventional forces draw-down and key component of both Russian and US defense policy). Russia is also justifiably interested in affairs of countries along its periphery. If its policy seems disjointed, let us appreciate for a moment the diversity of countries requiring attention from Moscow: North Korea, Norway, Poland, Iran, and China all require different policy approaches; as do former Soviet Union countries like Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. This is a very complex set of relationships, histories, and interests to negotiate, making me reflect thankfully that my own country only borders two other countries and both relationships are amicable. If Russian policy and perception about security are different that the US or NATO perceptions, there are 1001 reasons why this is the case.
Opportunities for cooperation are minimal, some say, but the fronts of diplomacy today are not fundamentally different than the past. Territorial integrity and trade interests are there; most cite nuclear weapons negotiations as the one place of parity (numerical) between Russia and the USA; and united diplomatic action on global trouble spots is still possible. Why the animosity, then?
Though NATO has entered a new era and the metrics of both warfare and power have changed, NATO’s stance toward the USSR/Russia has shockingly not changed. Such a negative outlook and expectation of Russian interests and the inherent mistrust which is omnipresent in European-Russian relations then flavors reaction and response on both sides of this artificial divide. Each “side” then properly reads the resulting posturing and strength-based and guarded against the other. My hope is that the end of the Cold War was not a missed opportunity to change this status quo, but that meaningful rapprochement is still ahead between NATO and former state adversaries.
Written by Nic Wondra
Nic Wondra is a first year MA candidate in Russia & Eurasia studies. He was a Fulbright Scholar to Georgia and studied at Cornell College.