Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 04:27 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 04:27 | SYDNEY

Russia: Time for some tough love


Andrew Shearer

19 August 2008 17:16

As always with Hugh White’s arguments, his classic realist critique of US policy towards Russia is seductive.

It is true that when the USSR collapsed Washington could have done a better job of reassuring Moscow of its strategic intentions and should have given more generous support to the establishment of robust, market-based democracy. And, of course, geopolitics never totally disappeared. Moscow has always hankered for a buffer-zone to the West: this was the logic that produced the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939 and Stalin’s enslavement of central and eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War. In recent times, however, Moscow lacked the muscle to enforce its traditional satrapy until energy prices skyrocketed.

But that doesn’t make its naked aggression any more palatable. Nor does it undermine the case for a measured but firm Western response.

There is no moral equivalence between Russia’s continuing assault on democratic Georgia on the one hand and NATO enlargement, the Colour Revolutions or missile defence on the other — none of which poses an objective threat to Russia’s national security or integrity. It is Putin and his ultra-nationalist cronies who, to prop up their kleptocratic and authoritarian regime, have distorted the legitimate political and security choices of democratically-elected eastern European governments into a sinister American geopolitical plot.

With the Cold War receding in memory, we often tend to see the outcome as inevitable. But it wasn’t. Strategy was hotly contested within the Western alliance at different points. On numerous occasions western European governments pushed Washington to accept the prevailing balance of power. Classical realist theory might have supported that outcome at different times: some scholars still criticize the Truman administration for rejecting Stalin’s 1952 offer to negotiate a reunified, neutral Germany.

Thankfully, however, American idealism leavened realism at these moments of temptation. Dean Acheson consistently rejected the idea of accepting the Cold War stand-off, instead pursuing a strategy of building ‘situations of strength’ as a basis for thwarting, rolling back and ultimately defeating expansionary Soviet communism. He always put off negotiations until he had the upper hand. And surely Ronald Reagan’s genius was that he, better than anyone, grasped both the fundamental moral and strategic strength of the US position and the rottenness at the core of the Soviet system?

The days when the leaders of a handful of countries would sit in a smoke-filled room and dispose of the futures of peoples and nations with the stroke of a blue pencil should be behind us. What the West needs to do is take a leaf from Dean Acheson’s book, and start rebuilding the situation of strength it has frittered away in Eurasia since the Wall fell.

This isn’t easy — the divisions are great and the levers few. But nurturing strong European political, military and economic institutions and restoring a shared transatlantic strategic vision will be key.

France and Germany are right to be nervous. Russia’s long-term strategic future is bleak for demographic and economic reasons, but it has some strong cards — including a stranglehold on Europe’s energy supply. Moreover, the West needs Russia on vital issues from preventing a nuclear-armed Iran through to restarting the Doha Round. It’s important to leave Moscow room to climb down.

But the West cannot afford to succumb to Putin’s thuggery. While the usual critics were quick to pay out the United States, the Bush administration’s military-humanitarian response to Putin’s gambit looks pretty well judged. It is more important than ever to allow those countries, which seek to join NATO and meet the criteria, to do so. Missile defence cooperation should also proceed. And western Europe needs to awaken from its post-modern trance and start taking hard security seriously: the world still looks pretty Hobbesian east of the River Oder.