Russia's 'sphere' in Europe

By Ronald D. Asmus
Saturday, December 26, 2009

As Washington and Moscow zero in on a new strategic arms control treaty, it is time to look at what lies ahead in U.S.-Russian relations. The greatest gap between Western and Russian thinking today may not be on Afghanistan or Iran. It may well be on Europe. The first signs of the unraveling of the European security system built after the Cold War are evident.

Almost unnoticed in the U.S. media, Moscow last month proposed a new draft treaty on European security -- thus making good on President Dmitry Medvedev's call after the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 for changes to the current system. In parallel, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brought forward a second and more worrying document in the NATO-Russia Council. This is the latest in a series of Russian moves to alter how European security is run, to constrain NATO and, above all, to stop any further enlargement of the Western alliance.

Both documents suggest that we are on different planets when it comes to thinking about Europe's future. Rather than moving into the 21st century, a revisionist Russia seems determined to revert to a 19th-century policy of "spheres of influence." With the Obama administration understandably focused on the war in Afghanistan and the looming challenge of Iran, Moscow may hope that a West in need of Russian cooperation on these issues could be willing to acquiesce to Russian claims of such influence on its borders, allowing it to stop further encroachment of Western institutions.

The Charter of Paris for a New Europe in 1990, and the Istanbul Charter for European Security in 1999, were supposed to establish a kind of "bill of rights" designed to create the political foundation for a post-Cold War peace. These rules rejected spheres of influence, recognized the right of all countries to equal security and to choose their own alliances as part of a new cooperative security structure. Moscow agreed to the rules at a time when it, too, wanted to shed its imperial past and join an enlarging Western community. But as the pro-Western drive in Russia waned and the imperial impulse began to return in the late 1990s, Moscow concluded that these rules were encouraging Western enlargement at its expense. I saw this thinking firsthand as a U.S. negotiator for the Istanbul Charter of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. At a dinner with my Russian counterpart in 1999, I explained our concept of strengthening a universal set of norms and rules covering the entire OSCE area, including Russia. But the deputy foreign minister drew a line through my sketch of Europe and claimed: "That is your half and this is ours. And the problem is that yours is getting bigger."

Today these charters are dead letters in Moscow's eyes. Russians are almost unanimous in their belief that the West exploited the rules to expand its sphere of influence. But the enlargement of NATO and the European Union were not some geopolitical gambit by the West to humiliate Russia. It was our response to the affected countries' legitimate wish to undo an artificial separation and become part of the West to secure a democratic peace. The problem has worsened as Russia has taken a more aggressive nationalist and revisionist path. This was a major factor underlying the Russo-Georgian war. That war's origins did not lie in the unresolved conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia but rather in Tbilisi's desire to align with the West and Moscow's determination to stop it. Moscow ignored or broke nearly every core OSCE rule, including the cardinal one -- that borders in Europe cannot be changed through force.

Let's remember why those clauses are in the Charter of Paris. Europe's bloody history illustrated that spheres of influence do not produce real security, that compelling nations to align with countries against their will is a recipe for conflict and that changing borders by force only sows the seeds for future conflicts. We wrote those clauses to protect small states from the predatory behavior of more powerful ones. We were convinced that democratic integration was the best foundation for future peace on the continent. Perhaps we should also recognize that Russia's failure to align with the West may be less about our lack of will or imagination in embracing Moscow and more about Russia's own choice not to take advantage of the partnerships we offered, and its inability to respect the sovereignty of its neighbors or to honor its commitments from the past 20 years.

President Obama is right to try to "reset" relations with Moscow. Dealing with a revisionist Russia requires engagement. But we must first be clear about which Russian interests we consider legitimate and which we do not. Moscow has a right to equal security and to ensure that no new threat appears on its borders. It does not have the right to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors, to seek to topple their governments or to deny their foreign policy aspirations. On those issues our position must also be clear. Resetting relations with Moscow must include the Kremlin returning to the principles of the Charter of Paris.

The writer, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, is executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are his own.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company