Russia – America’s Best Friend. Maybe

Now that the dust has settled over the US Presidential election and Bush is back in office, Russia will be making plans for its foreign policy over the next four years. So, what does this mean in practice? Here are what I think are some of the key issues Russia will face in developing its policies.

The War on Terror

The Bush administration’s main foreign policy over the next four years will be to continue its pursuit of the War on Terror. States will be divided pretty roughly into two camps – those who are seen as friends of the US, and those who are not. Russia will want to place itself firmly in the first camp while retaining relatively cordial relations with those states in the second camp.

Although Russia has flirted with opposing the US in recent years – particularly in relation to the war in Iraq, where it joined with France and Germany in condemning the invasion – post-Beslan Russia has recognised the seriousness of the terrorist threat facing it, and consequently recognises that it and the US have a strong common interest in fighting terrorism.

Chechnya

By supporting the US in its War on Terror and associated military adventures it is hoped in Moscow that the US will in turn support Russia in its fight against terrorism. This is especially important in relation to Russia’s ongoing military actions in Chechnya and I expect that, by and large, the US will mute its criticisms of human rights abuses in the war torn republic.

This will probably be seen as a cue for Russia to take an increasingly hard line in Chechnya. Despite the dangers of this approach, Russia will continue to draw no distinction between moderate and extremist groups in Chechnya, and is extremely unlikely to begin any form of negotiations with the more moderate sections of the Chechen opposition (for example, with former President Aslan Maskhadov).

Pre-emptive strikes

Russia’s newly articulated policy of pre-emptive action against terrorists based outside of Russia is likely to gain qualified support from the US. Targeted assassinations of Chechen leaders, such as the recent killing of former Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Qatar, will probably meet with little or no American condemnation. But direct military incursions into neighbouring states will not be acceptable to the US. Georgia can breathe a sigh of relief that Russia is unlikely to launch a campaign against the Chechen terrorists that Russia claims are based in the Pankisi Gorge, although it in turn will come under increasing pressure from both Russia and the US to take action itself. This will quite probably come as a secret relief to Russia, as its military is ill equipped to mount successful operations within Russia’s borders, let alone outside them.

Iraq

In return for US silence in Chechnya, Russia will mute its criticisms of US actions in Iraq, but Russia won’t be able to change its position overnight – the domestic consequences for Putin would be too great. Don’t expect to see Spetsnaz in cruising the desert dune buggies anytime soon.

Relations with other states

Although Russia will be keen to maintain good relations with other states, its concern that US support is likely to be fickle will force Russia to maintain and further strengthen its relations with other major powers, especially China. Russia also believes its long term interests are best served by promoting a multi-polar world, and although they won’t push the issue too hard, they will continue to try bring this about in the longer term by developing good relations with other powerful states.

France, Germany and the EU

Russia’s relations with France and Germany are likely to suffer. Franco-US relations are at their lowest for many years, and Russia will not want to antagonise the US by cosying up to the French. At the same time, Russia will not want to abandon its links with these two European powerhouses, with which it has strong trade links. Expect to see Russia open more dialogue with the EU as a way to avoid being seen as too close to individual European states.

China

China and Russia have developed what they call a strategic partnership in recent years. Russia’s best hope in the long run of maintaining some kind of multi-polar ‘balance’ against the US is to continue to strengthen its partnership with China. Expect to see much closer co-operation between the two states in the fields of security and trade, and an increasingly high profile given to the Shanghai Co-operation Organization.

‘Rogue’ states

Russia has close links with a number of states the US has labelled as rogue, such as North Korea and, to a lesser extent, Iran. Russia can perform a useful role as interlocutor between the US and these states so, although the US will frequently criticise Russia for its close relations with these states, this criticism is unlikely to have a negative affect on the overall state of US-Russia relations.

The Former Soviet Union (FSU)

Russia has traditionally seen the FSU as its ‘near abroad’, a region that it wants to keep firmly within its sphere of influence. However, since 1991 it has gradually watched that sphere shrink. Russia under Putin has largely managed to stop the rot, but expect to see Russia remain on the defensive in the Caucasus where the US is likely to offer Georgia’s new leadership strong support in confrontations with Russia over breakaway regions.

The situation in Central Asia is somewhat more favourable to Russia, and although the US will continue to develop its political and military ties (it already has airbases in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan) with the region they are really no match for Russia’s continuing economic influence.

Russia’s relationship with the European members of the FSU (Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and the Baltics) is likely to be characterised by a continued steady loss of influence as they are lured ever closer to the riches of the European Union. The US will support this largely out of general principle, and will continue to promote NATO – but not too hard. And, frankly, Russia knows there is little it can do to stop a ‘westward’ shift. Don’t expect there to be any major US-Russia spats over this issue.

Conclusion

So, in a nutshell, Russia will try to make friends with the US, while simultaneously trying to keep its options open. The US in turn will probably be quite satisfied if Russia follows this course, judging that Putin’s support for their war on terror is enough to compensate for any minor annoyances that Russia can still cause.

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