Building on Common Ground With Russia

A soldier atop an armored vehicle yesterday at a Russian checkpoint in Georgia.
A soldier atop an armored vehicle yesterday at a Russian checkpoint in Georgia. (By Sergey Ponomarev -- Associated Press)
By Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

In 1914, an essentially local issue was seen by so many nations in terms of established fears and frustrations that it became global in scope and led to the First World War. There is no danger of general war today. But there is the risk that a conflict arising out of ancestral passions in the Caucasus will be treated as a metaphor for a larger conflict, threatening the imperative of building a new international order in a world of globalization, nuclear proliferation and ethnic conflicts.

The presence of Russian troops on the territory of a state newly independent from the old Soviet empire was bound to send tremors through the other countries that established themselves after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This has evoked a rhetoric of confrontation, reciprocal threats and retaliatory countermeasures: American naval forces have been in the Black Sea; Russian military and economic capability has been displayed in the Caribbean, as if from a 19th-century balance-of-power playbook.

The Georgian crisis is cited as proof that Vladimir Putin's Russia is committed to a strategy of unraveling the post-9Soviet international order in Europe. A strategy of isolating Russia has been advocated in response. Until a recent meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sergei Lavrov, the United States and Russia had been without high-level contact since early August. Nongovernmental contacts have been curtailed.

This drift toward confrontation must be ended. However appropriate as a temporary device for showing our concern, isolating Russia is not a sustainable long-range policy. It is neither feasible nor desirable to isolate a country adjoining Europe, Asia and the Middle East and possessing a stockpile of nuclear weapons comparable to that of the United States. Given Russia's historically ambivalent and emotionally insecure relations with its environment, this approach is not likely to evoke considered or constructive responses. Even much of Western Europe is uneasy about such a course.

In 1983, when the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner that had wandered into their airspace, the United States vigorously invited all countries to join in sharp condemnation. Yet President Ronald Reagan ordered our arms-control negotiators back to Geneva. Strength and diplomacy remained in step.

Like most wars, the Georgian crisis originated in a series of miscalculations. Tbilisi misjudged its scope for military action and the magnitude of Russia's response. For its part, Moscow may have been surprised by the West's reaction to the scale of its intervention. It also may not have fully considered the impact that recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states would have on other countries with geographically distinct ethnic minorities, or the precedent this action might establish, even for some regions of Russia.

Yet these miscalculations should not be allowed to dominate future policy. America has an important stake in the territorial integrity of an independent Georgia but not in a confrontational diplomacy toward Russia by its neighbors. Russia needs to understand that the use or threat of military force evokes memories that reinforce the very obstacles to cooperative relations that are the basis of its grievances. America must decide whether to deal with Russia as a possible strategic partner or as a threat to be combated by principles drawn from the Cold War. Of course, should Russia pursue the policies its detractors assign to it, America must resist with all appropriate measures. Those of us who had responsibilities in conducting the Cold War would take the lead in supporting such a strategy.

We are not yet at this point. Russia's leaders undoubtedly deplore the dissolution of the Russian and Soviet empire. But if they have any realism -- and in our experience they do -- they know that it is impossible and dangerous to seek to reverse Russia's history by military means.

Russian history displays a tale of ambivalent oscillation between the restraints of the European order and the temptations for expansion into the strategic vacuums along its borders in Asia and the Middle East. These vacuums no longer exist. In the west, NATO is a formidable strategic presence. In the east, there is a resurgent Asia, to which the center of gravity of world affairs is shifting. In the south, Russia faces a partly radicalized Islam along a lengthy border. Internally, demographic prospects are for decline in the total population and a relative rise in the percentage of its Muslim portion, which is partly disaffected. Russia has not been able to address its infrastructure and health deficit adequately. With a gross domestic product less than one-sixth that of the United States (in purchasing power parity terms) and a defense budget significantly smaller than those of the European Union and the United States, Russia is not well placed to conduct a superpower struggle. Whatever their rhetoric, Russian leaders know this.

What they have sought, sometimes clumsily, is acceptance as equals in a new international system rather than as losers of a Cold War to whom terms could be dictated. Their methods have occasionally been truculent. Understanding the psychology of its international environment has never been a Russian specialty -- partly because of the historic difference in domestic evolution between Russia and its neighbors, especially in the West.

But fairness requires some acknowledgment that the West has not always been sensitive to how the world looks from Moscow. Consider the evolution of NATO. For its first 50 years, NATO legitimized itself as a defensive alliance. In undertaking a war of choice against Yugoslavia in 1999, NATO proclaimed the right to achieve its moral aspirations by offensive military action. (We strongly supported NATO policy at the time.) The war to stop Serbian human rights violations in Kosovo, ended in part by Russian mediation, provided for an autonomous Kosovo under titular Serbian sovereignty but de facto European Union supervision. Earlier this year, that status was changed by, in effect, a unilateral decision of a group of European nations and the United States to declare independence for Kosovo without U.N. endorsement and over strenuous Russian objection.

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