Thursday, 8 August 2013

The U.S.-Russian narrative

Obama and Putin meet at G20 Summit in Mexico

On Aug 7, the White House gave a formal notice that President Obama would not be meeting, bilaterally, President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and will instead make a two day visit to Sweden. Popular opinion suggests that the Edward Snowden is the source of Obama's diversion to Moscow but there are far more complexities in the relations between Moscow and Washington that make the geopolitical landscape chilly.

To understand the U.S.-Russian relationship, it is first necessary to understand the Russian modern history from 1991 to the present day. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has been through two phases of the post-Cold War world. The first being the initial fall of the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it was anticipated and perhaps deluded that the Russian Federation would slip into a style of Western constitutional democracy, emphasis on individuality and the construction of a competitive, stable and opportunistic free-market.

The Russia under Boris Yeltsin created a somewhat chaotic affair by the methodology in which it privatized Russian commercial assets. This process gave advantage to those who could rapidly organize and control areas of commerce. The accumulation of wealth was fast and created the foundations  of the Oligarch Russia that we see today. The connection of post-Soviet oligarchs is the interlinked relationships between the owners of the businesses and government officials, blurring the Western ideal of the public-private divide.

Declining influence

The most organized and stable throughout this transition were the security services. The security services held the country together to the largest extend possible and also took part in the aforementioned accumulation of wealth. The survival of this institution, this structure, is the reason why Russia is often referred as a "Spookocracy" or a "Counter-intelligence state" - a government compromised and where power is situated with those who are part of the security apparatus.

These two factors, the combination of chaos of Russia's transition out of its Soviet past and into the post-Cold war world and the survival of the security services inevitably produce a figure such as Vladimir Putin. Russia by 2000 has very little influence in the region and indeed, in the international system. This was illustrated by the United States' intervention in Kosovo where the U.S. were indifferent to Russia's opposition.

Russia's declining influence meant that Putin had to focus on a niche that Russia possessed in order to re-establish itself in the international system. This niche was the abundance of natural gas reserves and other commodities that lend hand to Russia being a strong power player in the energy market. As a consequence, what we are seeing now is Russia aiming to consolidate its influence in Europe, strategically creating natural gas deals with Central and Eastern European countries establish a commercial base.

In order to achieve such calculation, Russia has somewhat "de-liberalized" from its former 90s self. What matters for the Putin administration is order and control in a socio-political sense. These include restrictions on public assemblies, the internet, media and non-governmental organizations. Ideas that are associated with the chaos of the transitional period are therefore suppressed. One of these most prominent examples of this are laws attacking social minorities such as the LGBT community.

Balance of power 

This then establishes the U.S.-Russian narrative. Currently, Russia is asserting itself and benefiting from the United States' imbalance of power. For the United States, its strategic interests and foreign policy devotion has been in the Middle East and as a consequence, neglected other pillars of the international system. This has allowed Russia to regain its balance and exploit the United States' overcommitment in the Middle East. Moscow benefits from this as it takes the attention away from its careful and intricate regaining of influence in Europe. It also benefits from a more secure Afghanistan as Russia relies on regional security for its interests in former Soviet nations that border Afghanistan.

The internal political crisis of the EU has also shifted the balance slightly. As mentioned before, the commercial expansionism into Central and Eastern Europe is detrimental to U.S. interests. It allows tension to increase between Europe and the United States which benefit Moscow and an economic crisis amid the political complexities of Europe only serve as a catalyst. Moscow will do all it can do minimize influence in Eastern Europe, exemplified by its abundant opposition to a proposed U.S. missile defense system in Poland in 2007 which was discontinued in 2009.

The issue of Syria also illustrates the chill of the U.S.-Russian relationship. In May 2013, it was reported that Russia was in the process of selling S-300 anti-air missile systems to the Syrian regime. Whilst such weapons do not pose a significant advantage for the al Assad's fight against the rebels, they do minimize and draw attention to the United States. Russia has a history of leaking rumours of selling sensitive weapon systems to countries that the U.S. deem to be political outcasts to focus U.S. attention on issues that Russia deem critical. But Russia also has a strategic benefit by having a naval ally and presence in Syria's mediterranean Tartus port.

As we can see, this goes far beyond Snowden but that doesn't mean the Snowden affair is politically significant. Snowden has brought tension between the U.S. and their allies on such security programmes and Russia's lack of cooperation with the United States for Snowden's extradition is certainly a projection of their ability to defy the United States which it may not have done 10-15 years ago.

But the United States does not have a defined strategy for Russia but it has time to formulate one. Being such a huge power it can afford to reorganize and regroup. It may not even have to, there's only so much an energy-led commercial expansion can go. Without that, Russia is weak relatively. Moscow has tried to prove the contrary with military drills in sensitive geographic regions. It also has internal problems to contend with such as corruption, demographic decline and its dexterity in the industrial-military sector. But the challenges of American influence in Eastern Europe will certainly present challenges for Washington in the near future and this will be focus.

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