Obama: comment gerer relations avec la Russie?


Le numero novembre-decembre du journal americain specialise dans la politique exterieure Foreign Affairs nous presente deux articles sur la question: comment on doit manager relations avec la Russie?  Resultat: demonstration de la predominance de mentalite Guerre Froide parmi les dirigeants futurs d’Establishment americain.

Une Note par Gilbert Doctorow


FOREIGN AFFAIRS: November/December 2008, Volume 87, Number 6: “Checking Russia

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

In an issue offering the incoming U.S. administration advice on managing relations with Russia, America’s leading journal on foreign policy, which claims the ranking of number 1 in influence among U.S. opinion leaders, demonstrates yet again that it remains mired in the Cold War mind-set of the past and cannot come to terms with the opportunities before a President elected on a platform of change.


Our scorecard on contributors Charles King (“The Crisis in the Caucasus”) and Stephen Sestanovich (“Washington’s Choices”) is 0 for 2.


One can suppose that the editors’ logic in their choice of paired contributors was to give its readership the benefit of divergent interpretations of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August and of the way forward in US-Russian relations. However, the structure of the articles is asymmetrical and no such direct debate takes place on these pages Indeed, what we get is a timid exculpation of the Russians from Charles King and a shopping list from Stephen Sestanovich of ‘to do’ issues for resolution by the incoming administration which pays no attention whatsoever to the important material presented by King and instead takes as its point of departure the given that Russia was guilty of a shocking act of aggression in the Caucasus and must be dealt with at arm’s length.


Charles King presents us with an attempt at impartiality and scholarly detachment, feeding us third party observations. He give us Russian perceptions, Ukrainian perceptions and Chechen perceptions of who was right and who was wrong in the crisis, who committed the attack (Georgia) and who intervened to defend the status quo and its interests in the region (Russia) without having broader, expansionist ambitions. What is strangely missing is any discussion of the report by the OSCE’s impartial and professional observers, which authoritatively confirmed the indiscriminate nature of the Georgian attack on the civilian population of Tskhinvali that constituted the immediate casus belli.


It is clear where King’s feet are headed. He maintains it is nonsense to speak of Russian action in the same terms as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 let alone compare it with Hitler’s march into the Sudetenland as both American neoconservative theoreticians and Western politicians of all stripes have done with gusto.


But King never goes that short step further to state the obvious: that the Russians were right, that the United States and the chorus formed by the many European states that fell into line were wrong. There is no hint that someone should say “sorry” for all the Russia-bashing propaganda.



King criticizes the Russians for never seeking the support of multilateral institutions such as the UN Security Council or the OSCE before moving in. Is he being coy or has he no interest whatsoever in the details of the military conflict and its imperatives? It has been perfectly clear from generally available reports on the fighting that the Georgians made a strategic blunder when they concentrated their energies on devastating a civilian capital at nighttime instead of driving straight to the tunnel at the northern end of the enclave which served as the sole access to South Ossetia from the Russian side across the mountain range. This misstep allowed Russian forces headquartered in Vladikavkaz to move into the enclave in time to prevent the breakaway republic from being entirely overrun by Georgian forces. The notion that Russian action could have been postponed until an international body convened to discuss the crisis is patently absurd.


King also has a curious observation about the ineffectual Russian PR campaign during and immediately after the 5 day war, which he contrasts with the slick PR effort of media-savvy President Mikheil Saakashvili. The wily Georgian issued hourly email updates on his nation’s suffering at the hands of Russian aggressors and was interviewed live on CNN in the midst of it all.


Given that the Georgians initiated the crisis by their murderous assault on South Ossetia at a moment when Russian and world leaders were attending the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, it is not surprising that the Georgian President had a prepared dossier to deal with the press while the back-footed Russians had operational matters foremost on their minds.


More importantly, King himself remarks at the very beginning of his article the virtually unanimous condemnation of Russia in the Western press which depicted its leaders as “a rogue government scheming to roll back democracy and monopolize oil and gas networks across Eurasia.” It is disingenuous to suggest that a charm campaign would have helped the Russian cause at that point.


Moreover the distinction between a sophisticated Georgian President trained at Columbia University and fluent in English versus some bear-like Russian generals or local officials whom King saw on Russian state television deserves rebuttal. I would like to bring this discussion back down to earth and to some personal experience that has relevance to Belgian readers of this review. In the early autumn I twice met with Russian Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium Vadim Lukov to ask precisely why his embassy was not presenting the Russian case to the media in Brussels, which is one of the world’s leading news centers. He brushed off my mild criticism as regrettably naïve, explaining that despite the best efforts of his staff he was not given a microphone by any of the Belgian radio or television channels nor could he get any space in Belgian newspapers of all political persuasions. Lukov, it has to be said, is a very skillful communicator in at least four foreign languages, including French, English and Flemish, so any problems he encountered cannot be explained by lack of charisma or capability


Insofar as King is arguing that the Russians turned their back on international organizations and that their adventure in the Caucasus marks the launch of their own brand of unilateralism, I would point out that during the 5 days of war Russian state television carried images of more than just the grim destruction in South Ossetia or military briefings by medal-clad generals mentioned by King. They also carried live and in full the deliberations of the U.N. Security Council on the Georgian crisis, whereby all Russians could watch not only the declarations of their Ambassador Vitaly Churkin but also hear the highly critical views of the other side. I wonder if any US or European channels gave the airwaves to these UN debates in similar uncut manner.


In his concluding remarks, King presents Russian behavior in the Georgian affair as symptomatic of the country’s turning its back on Western detractors and heading off in its own direction, with the intention of presenting “a powerful and alluring alternative to the West.”


There is a certain truth in that observation. In the immediate aftermath of August 8th, Russians interviewed by the media claimed that it had been their wake-up call, their own 9/11, in which the country stood up to military and political provocation and carried the day.


However, it is too early to gauge the likely durability of that alienation and re-born nationalism, especially in the face of the current economic downturn which has focused minds in Russia, as elsewhere, on more mundane issues of daily bread. In fact, from a longer term perspective the most remarkable aspect of the New Russia has been its rejection of ideology and its focus on personal success.

The search for the Russian Idea, for some great unifying principle has been going on there ever since the demise of the Soviet Union. Under the country’s first President Boris Yeltsin, a national flag was designed and an anthem was approved, but there was little other progress towards the national Mission Statement.


Towards the end of President Putin’s second term in office, as the state coffers filled with oil revenue and prosperity spread across the land, a national idea finally emerged: enrichissez-vous. The Kremlin party’s electoral platform for the Duma elections of late 2007 and the Presidential elections of spring 2008 was a modest and moderate call for a materially comfortable Russia which its citizens could be proud of, where they could bring up their children and from which they would not dream of emigrating.


I would suggest that the course of Russia’s government is still unformed and that if the West ceases to actively frustrate Russian economic, security and geopolitical interests, a warming of relations at both the state and the popular levels is entirely possible.


Turning to the second featured article on Russia in this issue of Foreign Affairs, we are confronted with an unreflective, unapologetic Cold Warrior who served for four years as the Clinton Administration’s Ambassador-at-Large to the Former Soviet Union. For Stephen Sostanovich, the policy to pursue with respect to Russia is selective containment, balanced by modest engagement in a very few areas of mutual interest, while holding no illusions about strategic partnerships.


On three issues Sestanovich’s contribution is mildly constructive. He sees compelling reasons to resume talks over arms control. He would discontinue US hectoring over alleged erosion of democracy and give President Medvedev a chance to implement his advocacy of rule of law. And he would play along with Medvedev’s call for a Europe-wide security meeting: though he paints it negatively as a throw-back to the Helsinki accords of the Cold War days aimed at consolidating a Russia-friendly status quo, and he expects the initiative to backfire on the Russians.


Notwithstanding this touch of forward-looking advice, Sestanovich is unswervingly loyal to the view of Russia delineated by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. He tells us that Russia’s aggression in Georgia is only part of an overall ambition to restore its control over the ‘industrial powerhouse’ of the Ukraine and the ‘energy storehouse’ of Kazakhstan as well as other bits and pieces of the former Soviet Union, thereby reviving a strategic threat to American interests. Hence, his recommendations on selective containment.


If this kind of Democrat comes to the fore in the inner counsels of President Obama, as we may expect from the announced appointments to his security team in the Cabinet, then Europeans and Americans may well ask where is the ‘change we can believe in?’ It would be unwise to merely sit back and hope for a brighter, less conflict-ridden period ahead in international relations.



© Gilbert Doctorow, 2008-2010


G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.