Who Should Press the Reset Button?

Dr. Stephen Blank is a Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute United States Army War College, specializing in Russia, Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern Europe. His two most recent books are Russo-Chinese Energy Relations: Politics in Command, and Natural Allies?: Regional Security in Asia and Prospects for Indo-American Strategic Cooperation. He holds a B.A. in History from the University of Pennsylvania, and a M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. “What Russia is demanding right now from the United States is essentially surrender. No missile defense, no NATO enlargement, and recognition of Russia as a hegemon with a privileged influence in the CIS and in Afghanistan.”

Question: What are the major short-term and long-term threats to U.S. national security, and does Russia or any other former Soviet republic make the list?

Blank: The major short term threat is of course the war in Afghanistan and a terrorist attack on the United States. Depending on how you define short term, other threats to the interests and security of the Untied States would be North Korean and Iranian nuclear proliferation and perhaps even a missile strike either at the U.S. or one of our allies. However, the most critical threat, and not just in the short term but in the long term, is clearly the current economic crisis and the geopolitical consequences that are going to come out of it. As Admiral Blair testified recently to the Congress, the crisis of this magnitude is going to have major geopolitical repercussions and we are going to start seeing them soon. So the major threat clearly is economic, and you have to deal with it adequately otherwise it will lead to other strategic threats. So to answer your question, Russia does not make the list, and I don’t think that anybody in the United States feels threatened directly by Russia. Russia may take actions that are adverse to U.S. interests, or to U.S. partners like Georgia, but vital U.S. interest are not at risk from Russia.

Question: In Russia, the United States has been often portrayed as a threat to Russian national security, especially over the last several years. It is often said that the United States carries out anti-Russian policies that are a legacy of the Cold War. What is your opinion on this?

Blank: First of all, U.S. policy towards Russia is not a legacy of the Cold War. Most of what the Russians are saying about the U.S. threat is an attempt to create an enemy image at home to consolidate domestic support for the Putin regime which cannot survive without the invocation of a foreign enemy.

Second, it’s not so much that American policy is anti-Russian as it is anti-monopoly. It’s as much a response to Russian obstruction of American policy as it is anything else. Basically the United States is determined to lock-in the status quo that came out of 1989-1991, which means the independence of the former Soviet states and it’s going to oppose any attempts such as Russia has been waging for the last decade and a half to re-subordinate those states to Moscow. But there is no threat to Russia as such. Nobody is talking about any kind of military action or anything else. What we have is an old fashioned geopolitical rivalry, but Russia is not being threatened by anyone, much to the chagrin of the Russian elite who continue to put out this nonsense.  

Question: How successful has been Russia’s recovery over the last decade? What is the outlook for the future? Has Russia “got of its knees” as Putin claims?

Blank: They had considerable success until last year because of three reasons. Fist, was the depreciation of the ruble in 1998 which created the basis for a domestic market for Russian industry. Second and the most important is oil. Third, some intelligent fiscal policies by Putin and Kudrin to build up the stabilization fund and get out of debt. The problem is that they did nothing constructive after that. They allowed Russian businesses to borrow wildly from the west. They did not reform the Russian economy to make it less dependent on energy, instead they encouraged the corruption, rent-seeking and lack of investment that has now come back to haunt them. I therefore think that the outlook for the future is very grim for Russia because its economy is an energy based economy, which the government recognizes, and it’s not a competitive producer anywhere. Therefore it’s going to face major economic and political crises as the system works itself out. I have been predicting since 2007 that by 2010 this system would be in crisis and it’s there today.

Whether Russia got of its knees, psychologically they may feel they got of their knees, but the point is that they are not going to be on their knees they are going to be on their back if they don’t reform. This has nothing to do with the United States. Rather it’s a question of doing something for the national interest of Russia instead of the personal interests of the elites.

Question: Where does Russia rank relative to other countries in the international arena (politically, economically, militarily, etc.)? Has Russia’s status improved in recent years?

Blank: That is a difficult question to answer simplistically. It depends which other countries you want to compare Russia to. It is the most backward member of the G-8 economically and politically. Its political system is pre-modern and its economy in many respects is that of a third world cash crop country. It is nowhere near as diversified and competitive as China. Its growth never approached that of the Chinese. They are not going to have 30 years of unbroken growth as China has. It’s not industrially competitive, it’s not an exporter, or a financial center, and it’s not going to become one anytime soon. As long as the right to own property is not secure and you have this economy which is based on the model of a service state, where the state is really the president’s Votchina this is not a state that can compete politically and economically with its peers. Moreover, by its own admission, the Russian army as of last year was not militarily ready for contemporary warfare. I don’t think they are going to have the money to do all of the reforms they have announced even so they say they are not going to cut defense spending. Even the defense spending they have is woefully insufficient, 30-40% is stolen by Russian admission, and defense industry is busted, one third of the defense industry is facing bankruptcy as they themselves admitted. So I think it is a relatively backwards state compared to its G-8 counterparts.  

As for its status, what is status and how do you measure it? Russia was always considered to be a great power. If at some point it was not, then perhaps its status has improved in recent years, which is a huge boost psychologically for the Russian elite. However, it is a state that is universally suspected and in many cases is simply outside of the major agenda of the world politics. So Russia’s advances are less than claimed.  

Question: The current relationship between the United States and Russia is in fairly bad shape. What can be done to improve this relationship? Who benefits more from an improved relationship, Russia or the U.S.?

Blank: I am going to say something that is contrary to the conventional wisdom. I think that Russia benefits more from an improved relationship. Russia needs what the United States has to offer much more than the United States can benefit from anything that Russia has to offer. What’s more, the Russian government is so intrinsically anti-American that it’s not prepared to offer any kind of genuine cooperation to the United States. Today Medvedev rejected the Obama letter that was reported yesterday, and they have attempted to oust the United States from Central Asia. This demonstrates that the idea often passed around Washington that America needs Russia because without Russia we can’t get cooperation on proliferation and success against terrorism is nonsense. The Russians are not prepared to cooperate with the United States on any other basis than surrender to its agenda.

What Russia is demanding right now from the United States is essentially surrender. No missile defense, no NATO enlargement, and recognition of Russia as a hegemon with a privileged influence in the CIS and in Afghanistan. This is not going to come about, the United States quite frankly does not need Russia if Russia is not going to cooperate, because if anything Russia’s obstructing on both proliferation and terrorism puts Russian interests at risk.

Question: What aspect of modern day Russia worries the United States the most?

Blank: I think there are two, the return to autocracy and the neo-imperial and anti-American foundations of Russian foreign and defense policies.  I think that is what concerns us and for that matter our allies the most.

Question: Can you assess the success of policies conducted by the United States and Russia with regard to the former soviet republics?

Blank: We are talking about 15 states and one would have to examine each one individually, but overall I think that both the U.S. and Russia have had a lot of failures. Russia has managed to turn Ukraine and Georgia into anti-Russian states and is attempting to impose a neo-colonial relationship on the CIS, which it cannot afford or sustain and which will lead to violence. The United States has neglected an opportunity to have a truly strategic relationship with Ukraine, Georgia and Central Asia, and as a result is now paying a price for that. So I think both of them in different ways have failed to take advantage of the opportunities presented by these states.

Question: The often cited list of mutual interests between Russia and the United States is rather limited and has remained relatively unchanged, these include: fighting terrorism, organized crime, drug-trafficking, proliferation of nuclear weapons and cooperation in the energy sector. Are there any overlooked spheres where Moscow and Washington can work together?

Blank: The problem with this question is that it represents a projection of American intellectuals and analysts’ views onto Russia, and these are views that Russia does not share. The government in Russia by its actions shows that it does not see any need for cooperation with the United States on nonproliferation or terrorism. They would like to perhaps cooperate on narcotics trafficking and maybe on organized crime, although a lot of the organized crime is controlled by the Kremlin.  However, narcotics trafficking and organized crime are not enough to sustain a strategic relationship. Since Russia has shown that it is not prepared to cooperate with the United States on other issues and that it does not feel the same sense of threat that Washington does from terrorism or proliferation, I really think there is very little basis for cooperation with Russia. The problem with this kind of rhetoric is that it projects what Americans think Russia’s national interests ought to be onto the Russian government and then it’s played back as if this was really Russian policy and it’s not. It’s not what the Russian leaders say, it’s not what they do and it’s not policy.

Question: If everything is going to go the way it is right now, what is you prognosis for the future, where will the Untied States and Russia be in 20 years?

Blank: I think it will be a relationship where Russia is in a steady decline. Possibly the U.S. role in the world politics will have declined as well depending on how the economic crisis works out. The relationship may not be one of cold war enmity, or an adversarial relationship, but it will not be a close alliance unless Russia fundamentally changes the way it does business.

-- 03/20
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