One of the incoming Obama administration’s top foreign policy priorities should be to stop the drift toward confrontation with Russia. The war in Georgia last summer demonstrated the dangers of an American policy that encourages Russia’s neighbors to attack what Russia sees as its vital interests. The United States, by contrast, has no vital interests in this region–certainly not compared with those elsewhere. The Georgian attack on South Ossetia and President Mikheil Saakashvili’s increasing authoritarianism should also make clear that the United States has no moral stake in the Russia-Georgia dispute. In any other context, Washington would have not the slightest difficulty in denouncing the Saakashvili administration as chauvinist, bellicose aggressors against the Abkhaz and Ossetian peoples.
Above all, however, Washington simply cannot afford the geopolitical distraction of confrontation with Russia when the United States faces such immense challenges elsewhere. What is more, Russia can be of great help on what should be two linked priorities of the new administration: achieving détente with Iran and putting together a regional coalition to help stabilize Afghanistan and eventually replace the US and NATO presence there. Russian pressure and Russian contacts in Tehran would be immensely valuable in this regard. These are urgent issues; defending Europe against possible Iranian nuclear weapons at some indefinite time in the future is not necessary today and probably never will be. Plans to deploy missile defenses in Central Europe should therefore immediately be put on hold, as part of a wider strategy outlined below.
In its approach to Russia the new administration has one great advantage, denied to it in other spheres: in order to achieve a significant improvement in relations, Washington does not actually have to do anything. It only has to stop doing certain things. This is because, contrary to the impression assiduously cultivated in the US media and think-tank worlds, Russian policy vis-à-vis the West is not more aggressive or assertive than it was in the past. Outside the economic sphere, it is rather overwhelmingly reactive, made up of responses (which may, of course, be exaggerated or unwise) to the actions of the West and especially the United States.
The difference between the image of Russian behavior in the United States and its reality was dramatized by the war over South Ossetia in August. It is not just that a clear and obvious Georgian attack was misreported as an act of Russian aggression by the US media and establishment. It is also that the whole affair was presented in terms of a new Russian expansionism. As a matter of record, however, Moscow’s commitment to defend South Ossetia dates back to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, and that of defending Abkhazia, to Boris Yeltsin in 1993. Rightly or wrongly, Soviet and then Russian help was instrumental in defeating Georgian attempts to crush these regions’ independence moves in the early ’90s.
Thereafter, Moscow repeatedly made clear that it would not accept any Georgian attempt to retake these territories by force. In recent years Moscow’s signals in this regard to the Saakashvili government could not have been clearer. One can criticize this Russian policy from a number of points of view; but one cannot seriously claim that it was either new or hidden.