A thaw between Russia and the West?

A thaw between Russia and the West?

13 February 2009

by Charles Grant

After several years of chilly relations between Moscow and western capitals, a little warmth is detectable. At both the Davos Word Economic Forum in January, and the Munich Security Conference in February, the Russians’ exchanges with Americans and Europeans were fairly polite. Of course, this change in the political weather may prove to be short-lived. Indeed, some commentators argue that even if the style is softer, the substance of Russian foreign policy is as hard as ever (see Quentin Peel in the Financial Times, and a forthcoming CER policy brief by my colleague Bobo Lo). Thus in recent weeks Russia has announced plans for a new naval base in Abkhazia (which is legally part of Georgia) and encouraged Kyrgyzstan to close the American airbase at Manas.

But in international politics, style matters. Russia’s leaders know that their economy is being harder hit by the economic crisis than most others in Europe. One adviser to the Russian government recently said that a GDP shrinkage of 10 per cent could not be ruled out this year. Russia’s leaders know that the modernisation of their country will require western capital and technology. So perhaps it is not surprising that they have become less inclined to display the swaggering arrogance that was so visible at certain moments last year, and again during the gas crisis in January.

Even on substance, the Russians appear to be making an effort to be nice on a few issues. Russia’s threat to put short-range missiles in Kaliningrad – in response to American plans to install missile defence systems in the Czech Republic and Poland – has been withdrawn. And Russia is offering to help the US to get civilian supplies to its forces in Afghanistan. As Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s deputy prime minister, said in Munich: “Russia is ready to improve relations on a range of issues, including talks on reductions of nuclear arms.”

Ivanov was responding to the olive branch that Vice President Joe Biden brought to Munich. “On NATO-Russia relations, it is time to press the reset button,” said Biden. “Let’s co-operate on fighting the Taliban, securing nuclear facilities, and cutting numbers of nuclear weapons…of course we’ll disagree on some issues but we should work together where our interests coincide.”

Some of this new US approach to Russia merely reflects the realism that now dominates some – though not all – policy-making circles in Washington. Russia can help on several important issues, so it should be engaged, flattered and treated like the super-power that it wishes to be seen as. Iran is particularly important in shaping US policy on Russia. President Obama sees the challenge of Iran’s nuclear programme as one of his very top priorities. His administration thinks that Russia may be able to lean on Iran. Therefore it is willing to ‘give’ Russia some of the things it wants, like a review or postponement of plans for missile defence and NATO enlargement.

The Europeans are now willing to help the US on Iran. They share the American view that the best way of preventing Iran from pursuing its nuclear programme is to offer a combination of bigger incentives and stronger penalties. The bigger incentive is American engagement: Obama has indicated that he is ready to talk. The stronger penalties are more stringent economic sanctions against Iran. Germany was reluctant to consider these but Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated in Munich that she was ready for new sanctions.

Tougher sanctions are unlikely to achieve much unless Russia and China support them. Currently they do not, but American and European diplomats believe that if Russia moved, China could well follow. “We need Russia’s help on Iran, so that sanctions are effective,” said President Nicolas Sarkozy in Munich. “We don’t have much time, the recent Iranian satellite launch [which showed Iran’s mastery of some ballistic missile technologies] is very bad news. Russia must show whether it really wants peace [in the world], and whether it is prepared to behave like a great power.”

There are two big unknowns about Russia’s relationship with Iran. First, could Russia really influence the country, if it wanted to? Would the Iranians listen to Russia’s advice, or respond to pressure from its leaders? Second, if the answer to the first question is yes, does Russia really want Iran to abandon its nuclear programme? In public, of course, Russia’s leaders say they do not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons. And that may well be the case. But one may suppose that some Russians think that the Iranian nuclear programme suits them very well. It creates huge problems for the US, Russia’s principal strategic competitor, by amplifying tensions between America’s allies and radical regimes across the broader Middle East. The activities of pro-Iranian groups in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine help to weaken American (and European) soft power in the region. And so long as senior western policy-makers regard Iran’s nuclear programme as a major geopolitical headache, they will see Russia as a potential source of assistance, and thus treat it with respect. And that suits Russia very nicely.

Russia will probably tell the US that it will try to help with Iran. But if the answer to either of those two questions turns out to be no, President Obama will be disappointed. Of course, there are many important strands to the US-Russia relationship other than Iran. But a falling out over the Iranian nuclear programme would put a chill back into the entire relationship.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform.