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Raising the stakes with Russia

November 29, 2011

American foreign policy has a lot of problems it needs to deal with. But what if, through reviving perennial antagonism with the largely dilapidated husk of its former superpower competitor, it could combine all of them into one giant cascading architecture of intractability? Well, we just might be able to pull it off.

Lo and behold, R2P and its most recent application have left rival great powers suspicious and potentially hostile to Western intentions in areas they care about. The most visible sign of this, of course, is the Russian deployment of the Admiral Kuznetsov and a squadron of other vessels to protect Russian interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. As Rob Farley points out:

An indication that Russia continues to support the regime, and also that any multilateral effort to conduct a no fly zone regime change would have to go through a venue other than the United Nations Security Council.

Russia has energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, which it maintains when Turkey is relatively flexible and Syria provides Russian ports and a node of influence in the region. The Russian deployment serves as a reminder that Russia is staunchly opposed to intervention on humanitarian grounds, particularly when only regime change can alleviate the humanitarian issues in the first place. Now, it’s worth bearing in mind that a cruise to show the flag in an area of Russian interest was pre-planned, but that it is not being cancelled and, to the contrary, receiving attention in Russian state media is a sign that Russia wants to reaffirm it is against NATO or American provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Russia’s suggestions it might moderate reconciliation talks, in combination with the continued deployment, is a very clear sign that Russia is not interested in supporting the rights of the Syrian people or even genuflecting to the actual cause of the Syrian people. With good reason – there is virtually no reason for them to intimate they would, except to extract massive concessions from NATO. Russia wants stability, and Russia will try to sell the US a diplomatic bill of goods just to abstain even on mild UNSC action in Syria.

As I’ve argued before, the US interest in democracy promotion, regime change, and R2P have the cumulative effect of isolating and coalescing disparate authoritarian groups. Their conglomeration is hardly natural, because authoritarian leaders are generally too cynical to feel very much ideological solidarity. Communist countries routinely intervened against other, reformist communist countries primarily to advance national interests by keeping them in line geopolitically, they quite rarely launched crusades for purely ideological reasons.

Unfortunately, as Dmitri Trenin notes, the natural result of the simultaneous Western insistence of some kind of new authoritarian unholy alliance and the promotion of a rhetoric that argues in theory, if not always in practice, for the overturning of any regime which does not rankle at the whiff of grapeshot, results in forging tighter bonds between countries that might otherwise be natural rivals. Russia and China have plenty of differences of issue, though their underlying rivalry is not now as intense as it might be, but the US has not just forgone exploitation of this potential rift, it has solidified the exact opposite by pursuing policies which both countries oppose. Trenin argues that at the end of the day Russia and China are not providing realistic solutions to be international leadership, but I might argue that the Sino-Russian rhetoric is forged in opposition to the need for a world with a leader. Neither country is interested in leading, they are interested in inaugurating a multipolar system. Russia can polish its anti-imperial credentials abroad, where the old “Third World” (in its original sense of being non-aligned) will pay more attention to what happens in Syria and Libya than to any post-Soviet state such as Georgia. China can also reinforce its old maxim of “never seek hegemony” even as its military power over its neighbors grows.

In other news, US deployment of an ostensibly anti-Iranian missile shield (and it would really only have serious value against Iran) is continuing to aggravate Russia. Taking advantage of Pakistan’s cut of NATO supplies, Russia has threatened to follow suit if the US doesn’t abandon its missile shield plans. Russia has recognized the vulnerability of a huge counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan stemming from its geography. While the problem can be somewhat allayed with more cooperation with Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, to maintain the current US presence America must keep a stable relationship with one of three countries: Russia, Iran, and Pakistan. Considering two of those countries have deep states recently engaged in killing American soldiers and assisting regional and global terrorism, Russia is probably the most palatable option.

A cold-eyed assessment of US policy towards Russia would recognize the value of keeping Russia relatively pliant, not just for bilateral arms reductions or securing the European Union, but because Russia is a potential counterweight to China and a more tolerable regional security partner in Central Asia than, say, Pakistan, Iran,or China, as far as US interests are concerned. Yet America continues insisting on policies which do remarkably little to concretely advance US interests, but do very much to heighten tensions with a great power, and the US does so essentially voluntarily.

It should be no surprise that R2P and humanitarian intervention antagonize US-Russian relations. This has essentially been the case since the Balkans. Russia will not ignore its regional interests or sell out its partners because Russia sees no moral imperative to violate borders for the sake of human rights. In this it is not alone, but joined by a variety of countries from democratic Brazil and India to the People’s Republic of China. In addition to enabling a civil war with far more potentially deleterious consequences to regional stability than Libya ever posed and taxing US resources and attention, intervention in Syria would needlessly kindle enmity in relations with authoritarian great powers that are already quite fraught. In Russia’s eyes, the simultaneous expansion of a missile shield in Europe and the pursuit of humanitarian interventions in areas of Russian interest accelerate two trends Russian policymakers have abhorred since the 1990s. Russia is not nearly so intransigent as its national interests are. Even if we treat the benefit of a successful Syrian intervention as a sure thing – and it is not – we must still reckon with the external risks that antagonizing Russia might pose by again deferring potential exploitation of a Sino-Russian split, but increased hazards to US assets in Afghanistan and the spiking of our already high costs in pursuing that campaign.

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