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Russian Enigma Part Three

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on January 6th, 2005
LOOKING FORWARD

When it comes to serving national interests through their foreign policies, few countries have ever proven very successful, whatever political theorists may tell us, and Russia in the decades ahead looks to be no exception.

Consider Russia’s small neighbor at the Western edge of Europe: namely, France. In spite of the nationalistic intentions espoused by Charles de Gaulle and his successors, it is by no means clear that France’s foreign policies have made her better off. Quite the contrary.

Why? The reason in the case of France (and potentially of Russia) is that the quest for global status and power (which relatively weaker countries can attain only by constantly searching for leverage, making alliances of opportunity, employing, as Italy did in two world wars, the “strategy of the decisive weight”) draws governments into the international political equivalent of day trading, distracting them from their real long term interests and leading them to squander their genuine advantages.

Thus, one may wonder whether France, in spite of the flashes of publicity achieved by her expulsion of NATO from Paris and flouting of EU fiscal guidelines, not to mention her strong but costly position in Africa, her President’s recent trip to China, her demonstration of muscle in the UN blocking the US Iraq initiatives and so forth might not be better off in every respect if she enjoyed warm relations with Washington and with her closest European neighbors, and, instead of looking for leverage in Africa and Asia, concentrated on reforming her economy and unleashing the creativity of her (remaining) entrepreneurs.

Arguably, the quixotic quest for gloire, initiated by Charles de Gaulle, resting on the great general’s fundamental misconceptions about the shape of his world and its future, has prevented France from achieving a more mundane, but perhaps more desirable situation, as a normal and prosperous country, comfortable with itself.

What is true for France is true (if we use the ratio of land areas) twenty five fold or so more for Russia. Always a greater power, incomparably larger, until recently ruler of an empire within the USSR that dwarfed France’s pre World War II holdings, Russia too faces the fatal temptation of gloire and the danger that the quest for it may distract it from what really needs to be done.

Sadly, that seems to be what is happening now. Like France, China, and other countries, Russia is beginning to play the leverage game. Hence her (wise) decision to end her energy pipeline on her own Pacific territory, giving Moscow the ability to direct the flow where it chooses.

But what about the most salient feature of Russia’s current foreign policy: namely, her arms sales? Just as Europe has a very fine product in the Airbus, but one that cannot really pay its way commercially and must be massively subsidized, so Russia has among the most advanced armaments industries in the world. But without the Red Army’s massive orders, and in the absence of adequate state support to keep it alive, the industry has turned, more and more, to foreign customers, notably China and India. India has relatively little choice in this matter, as for decades, back when it was playing the leverage and balance game, it tilted toward the USSR and is thus locked in to all sorts of systems and standards that cannot easily be changed.

China is different. Her arms purchases went to Russia chiefly because, after the Tiananmen massacre, no one else both had the goods and was willing to sell. Now Chinese money, earned mostly by selling consumer goods to the West, purchases from Russia every sort of advanced weapon. As a result, the oversized ex-Soviet military industrial complex can limp along. But make no mistake, by selling these weapons to China, Russia has created what may prove an unwelcome power on its border. The day trader might sell, but the strategist, having Russia’s long term interests in mind, probably would not.

Now we learn that Russia and China are to carry out an unprecedented set of joint military maneuvers, including Russian strategic bombers and so forth. How, one wonders, does this serve Russian interests? To be sure it attracts the attention of countries like Japan, Korea, India, and the United States. But that attention may not be welcome: all four are carrying out serious reforms of their militaries that will in a few years’ time most likely offset whatever momentary advantage is gained.

And who is the hypothesized adversary? In the 1960s and 1970s Western specialists were preoccupied with the idea that Russia and China were strategically incompatible. After a decade of worrying about the Sino-Soviet bloc, it was discovered that no such bloc existed: far from it, there was a Sino-Soviet split, which the United States, starting with the Nixon administration, attempted to exploit—until the USSR collapsed and the exercise became pointless.

Frankly, I cannot imagine any of the foreign powers ringing the two countries, from Japan through Indonesia to India and Turkey, as the object of cooperation. Rather, I think that if there is an answer to the question of who the target may be, we will find it in Central Asia.

Potentially one of the greatest areas for future conflict is the former Turkestan, partitioned by the Manchu Qing empire and the Russian empire in the nineteenth century. Russian Turkestan is now free, in the form of five artificial states created by the Bolsheviks to prevent dangerous unity in the region (where a major uprising against Petrograd had taken place during World War I). The Qing portion of Turkestan—known as Xinjiang, or “new dominion” today, and where a massive rebellion was crushed at great cost in the nineteenth century, remains under Beijing’s control, but only by dint of large scale military deployment. The local Turks and Muslims resent their subjugation, and have long carried out a brushfire war against it, which the Chinese have been unable to extinguish. It is bound to get worse, as Islamic fighters grow stronger and more technically capable.

Here China shares a problem with Russia, which still, long after the bloody Caucasian campaigns of the nineteenth century and the deportation of the Chechens in World War II, is unable to maintain its grip on the independent and non-Christian peoples of its southern border. Here I speak of peoples still within the Russian federation—the independent states of Central Asia simply complicate the problem.

How conventional warfare of the sort the Chinese and Russians will be practicing can solve these deep ethnic and religious problems is a mystery. Heavy bombers are little use against Islamic consciousness. But habitually both countries have resorted, ineffectively, to such measures against their own dissidents. The Chinese, recall, sacked their own capital with their own army in 1989.

That, of course, was in response to another sort of challenge, also not soluble by carpet bombing: namely, massive pro-democracy demonstrations by the people of China. Russia today has elements of democracy at war with elements of resurgent dictatorship; China is not only a dictatorship, at the moment she is by all evidences seeking to tighten that dictatorship. So perhaps the two remaining large autocracies feel it natural to keep company.

Thus we can perhaps construct some sort of explanation for the latest Russian-Chinese cooperation, even though we consider that explanation faulty. What of the effect on the rest of the world, however, of this alignment?

This effect can only be negative, increasing the already substantial international distrust of both countries. When trouble comes, states look for other states that can play the role, as Lord Baden Powell put it, of “good man in a tight spot.”  That means countries that share values and have long and thoroughly tested relationships. Diplomatic opportunism sacrifices such relationships, thus endangering the long term security of the state that practices it.

Thus Russia runs the risk of creating, as China has already done, a ring of (often quiet but deep) distrust around itself—and sacrificing the possibility of real friendship with former Soviet states and Warsaw Pact clients. Like the day trader, pursuing a directionless and opportunistic strategy, both countries risk losing the capital with which they began.

Yet that would appear to be what Russia is doing at present. For this to change, either political power will have to shift, in a second wave of democratization such as we saw in the Ukraine, and which is certainly possible, or the Kremlin leaders will have to sit down and ask themselves what is really important to their country.

If they do so, the answer will likely be two words: Economic Liberalization and Europe. The last several months have seen tightly argued and brutal warnings about the decline of European industry and innovation from the likes of Michel de Camdessus and Wim Kok. These detail the stagnation of growth, the hypertrophy of the welfare state, and the minefield governments have planted in front of would be entrepreneurs. The economic solution is fairly clear: deregulate, lower taxes, favor wealth creation, and so forth. Unfortunately, as in foreign policy, both Russia and Europe (France in particular) are distracted from this task by a quest for “national champions”—i.e. great big firms capable of playing in the major leagues. Not an unworthy aspiration. But the means are doubtful. Had we followed for example French policy, IBM would have been subsidized and cosseted by government, while Microsoft would have been encouraged to wither away. Russia is following similar policies, notably in its energy sector (and so, it should be added, is China). Japan’s post war experience proves definitively that bureaucrats cannot pick economic winners, and they should not try.

As for Europe, the Old Continent is slowly pulling itself together into an as yet inchoate form that will supersede what it was in the half century after World War II, a process that many Americans are ignoring. Although progress is slow and easy to ridicule, it is real, as is the determination of European leaders. Nothing would so strengthen Europe, or Russia, as good relations between them. China cannot match what Europe has to offer, and from a European point of view, Cote d’Ivoire and so forth appear rather insignificant set beside Russia. Of course immense obstacles exist, not least the incompatibility of political systems, and the inevitable dilution of European (voir French) influence were Moscow to draw closer. But the match is in every way natural—Russia’s estrangement from Europe since the Bolshevik coup in 1917 has grievously harmed both.

The argument is made stronger by the gradual recessional of American forward deployed power, at flood tide when World War II ended, but now steadily retreating, and unlikely to flow out again anytime soon after Iraq is (or is not) sorted out. America will no longer be in a position, logistically or politically, to intervene in the dangerous borderlands of Europe and the former USSR. But do we see cooperative efforts between Russia, former Soviet States, and Europe, in this direction? No. Russia, like France in Cote d’Ivoire, is distracting itself with visions of impossible hegemony in the near abroad.

So to return finally to the great Churchill. His description of Russia is unlikely ever to be improved. But his seemingly reasonable suggestion that we look to Russian national interests in anticipating Moscow’s behavior, turns out to be wrong in the way that common wisdom often is. For as these essays have sought to suggest, Russia (like France and in fact most other countries) has rarely followed her national interest in making her policies. But without national interest, what is the lode-star?

The answer for the rest of us is the domestic policies of the countries involved. The United States, a foreign UN ambassador recently explained to me, requires a veto in the Security Council to protect its friends. England and France rarely use theirs, at least alone, but were they to do so, the rationale would be similar—for all are stable, democratic states. China and Russia, however, are quite different. They require the veto to protect their internal regimes from external scrutiny. They are unstable autocracies in a world where the tide is democratic, and much of their foreign policy is devoted to the futile erection of dykes against that tide, in which the veto can be useful.

If Russia is institutionally incapable of identifying its national interests, as it clearly is, we certainly cannot do so for them. What we must do is prevent the opportunistic search for leverage from actually damaging the international system, while at the same time preparing for the day when, as a result of political change, Russia and other such states move in the directions hard headed logic suggests will benefit them most.

Or to return to the financial imagery that has somehow infiltrated this essay, we must be sure that the Nick Leeson like speculations of Russia, China, France and other powers desperately seeking status beyond their reach, will not break the international security bank.

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