Russia’s Move-Making, and Why the U.S. Stands Idly By

by Joshua Foust on 11/11/2007

Via the excellent Siberian Light, I found this intriguing study by the European Council of Foreign Relations contrasting various EU member countries’ relationships toward Russia. There are some larger issues the study is meant to cover (in particular Joschka Fischer’s push for more European unity), but it is revealing of Russia’s attitude toward its neighbors.

Nordstream PipeContrary to the frankly uninformed commenters who assume Registan.net hates Russia or “has it in” for Russia, the “gas games” are actually a smart move on Moscow’s part: it is aggressively leveraging its advantages into gaining a more advantageous position in the world—precisely what the U.S. tries and the EU wants. The problem, as the ECFR notes, is that there is no EU-Russia policy, but rather a series of bilateral policies between each EU member and Russia. As a result, Russia can leverage various bilateral agreements to gain maximum leverage and extremely favorable results, such as their recent move to force Lufthansa to refurbish and expand airport hubs in Siberia.

This is a problem well documented by CSIS energy scholar Keith C. Smith, who has written extensively on the geostrategic implications of Europe’s lopsided dependence on Russian energy. Interestingly, this disunity that all seem to realize as the problem is more simple than having simply a chaotic series of policies. The ECFR divides the EU into five distinct categories, each of which tends to adopt a similar type of Russia policy:

  • Trojan Horses (Cyprus and Greece) who often defend Russian interests in the EU system, and are willing to veto common EU positions
  • Strategic Partners (France, Germany, Italy and Spain) who enjoy a ‘special relationship’ with Russia which occasionally undermines common EU policies
  • Friendly Pragmatists (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia) who maintain close relationship with Russia and tend to put their business interests above political goals
  • Frosty Pragmatists (Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden and the United Kingdom) who also focus on business interests but are less afraid than others to speak out against Russian behaviour on human rights or other issues
  • New Cold Warriors (Lithuania and Poland) who have an overtly hostile relationship with Moscow and are willing to use the veto to block EU negotiations with Russia.

What results is a goopy mess of conflicting policies and interests, in which the EU as a whole winds up in an extremely weak strategic position. But rather than blanketly condemning Russia for exploiting this inherent weakness in the EU, it might make more sense to examine why the U.S. lets Russia muscle Europe in a way that is often antithetical to American interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia. As Andy Young at SL notes, Russia plays Europe in much the same way the U.S. does—they basically learned from the last few generations of American administrations how to play European countries off each other, and they’ve learned to do so quite well. Even George W. Bush, who normally has a tin ear for diplomatic maneuvers, was masterful in using a cantankerous Donald Rumsfeld to divide Europe into “Old” and “New” during the initial invasion of Iraq—so no one is really alone in this.

So from an American perspective, Russia’s aggression is a double-edged sword: it works against American interests, yet it uses a method American politicians perfected and continue to exploit. Hence, there is very little incentive on the American side to push for more European unity—the move most likely to limit Russian strong-arming.

This is a policy failure that has implications far beyond what Germany and Estonia will eventually pay for Gazprom’s imports. At the moment, Russia has tremendously more leverage in energy exploration than Western energy companies, in part because Western companies have pissed off most of their current and potential hosts in a way Russia hasn’t yet, and in part because of their market position: sitting on so much natural gas in a way gives them the right to be a bully, even if everyone happens to bristle under such behavior.

Things continue to worsen for Western interests in the still-ascending energy states of Central Asia, however. Bonnie Boyd just wrote an excellent exploration of Europe’s haughty attitude toward Turkmenistan. It is specifically relevant in this context:

What’s wrong with asking for information rather than demanding it? Asking to put in some internet cafes rather than dissing the one that’s there? Arranging to have broadband capacity installed with cell phones rather than being contemptuous that it’s not already available? Behind the scenes, diplomats are doing just that–and are frequently put off because we’re so busy talking about the target state’s deficiencies and stripping their pride.

And sometimes pride is the pivot. Turkmenistan has been a failed state in all but name. Mr. Berdymukhamedov seems to understand that Mr. Niyazov perverted or killed every institution in Turkmenistan. He’s been out in the world, trying to develop relationships. I don’t consider that “grasping at straws” but evidence of real opportunity…

And friends ask each other for favors: but they don’t present a list of demands at the moment of introduction. At the least, they ask how you’re doing first. They compliment you. They listen to your dreams, plans, and problems. They follow up and they follow through. They catch your back. Sometimes, they tell you off: but most of the time–not. That’s the part of the quid pro quo that we seem to be missing.

As silly as that may seem in a Realist framework, when dealing with personalities—and there is no way to avoid dealing with personalities, sometimes very strong personalities, in Central Asia—it is vital. The U.S. used to be good at seductively stroking the egos of whatever dictators they needed to establish pragmatic relationships with. While that was sometimes disastrous and deeply ill-conceived (the Shah of Iran comes immediately to mind), many times (Turkmenistan, for instance) there is simply no other option.

And yet… and yet, the U.S. hasn’t seen fit to incorporate this into its geostrategic calculus. There is a curious and frustrating disconnect within the Bush administration’s rhetoric—tacitly assenting to Russia’s energy colonialism in Europe while condemning or at the least ignoring other countries like Turkmenistan as they reach out to maximize their position in the world using their only real asset: energy. All of this happens against the “march of freedom” tropes that are, thankfully, receding with each week.

In the meantime, Russia continues to assert itself in very smart ways, from agreements to help China build additional nuclear power plants to angling to turn the SCO into an energy cartel. These public moves, which have a huge impact in the popular perception of each politic, even if they are being responded to with quiet behind-the-scenes pressure (something I seriously doubt, given the demonstrated competence of the State Department lately), are leaving the U.S. in the dust. And having all of the Near Abroad’s choices narrowed to “Russia or bust” is bad news for them, at least long term: there is left no future flexibility should they decide another option is better.

But Moscow is probably happy as a clam at the turn of events over the last three years. They should—they’ve earned it.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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