Thursday, 28 August 2008

Rallying 'round Russia

Belarus is. But China is not.

Russian rhetoric concerning the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation often plays on western fears. Moscow is wont to cast it as a vehicle for Eurasian anti-Americanism; the worry of some in Washington, London and Brussels, is of a nascent hostile military alliance to challenge NATO. The attitude of China towards its erstwhile communist neighbour continues to belie both images, however.

Rather than back Russia over the Georgian war and its subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, China has instead expressed its concern. It has too many of its own separatist headaches - nationalists in Taiwan, Buddhists in Tibet and Muslims in Xinjiang - to indulge Russia's meddling with territorial sovereignty. The economic ties that bind it to the wider world are much more complex than those of Russia (which remains little more than an exporter of metals and energy), leading it to place a much higher premium on relations with the rich western markets on which its growth to date has relied. Suspicious of each other even when communism was on the march across the world, there remains little love lost between the two paragons of authoritarian development. Russia and China are unlikely to jump into bed together unless the open world locks them in the boudoir.

Which means that as talk of a new Cold War returns, we should resist proposals for an 'alliance of democracies' to contain a resurgent Russia. Pursuing one would needlessly drive China into its arms, and for now China seems quite content in the rules-based international order to which it has signed up with membership of the WTO. Military alliances and open values undoubtedly have a role in countering unwanted external aggression, whether in the Caucasus or anywhere else, but they should not be championed to the extent of hamstringing attempts to bring the rest of the world on board too. The world needs China to be responsible stakeholder, and while it has thus far disappointed in Sudan and on global warming, it has at least shown itself willing to stand up to Russia. Its a start.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Passing the baton

The XXIX Olympiad has drawn to a close having been quite the success, for 'Team GB' (with their 19 golds), for 'Team PRC' (with their 51), and for China itself, having hosted a Games on a scale which London has already given up trying to surpass.

China has marked its arrival at the highest echelons of the global order in spectacular style. Despite the odd hiccough, its primary aim in hosting the Olympics has been fulfilled; few can now doubt that when it so desires China can match the capabilities of almost any developed country. At the closing ceremony earlier today, the Mayor of London was symbolically passed the Olympic flag. All eyes now start to turn to the games of 2012 (although lets not forget Vancouver, South Africa, New Zealand, South Asia and of course the paralympics in two weeks time first).

The primary aim of the London Olympics is supposedly the regeneration of East London. This is undoubtedly a worthy goal, but it is far from clear why the addition of a two week jamboree will radically amplify the effects of the money to be thrown at the area, money that could anyway have been allotted to community development if the case for such funds was convincing. Hosting major tournaments has long ceased to be about simply providing sporting spectacle and is now an exercise in country and civic branding. But London already has a global reputation, and spending the vast sums needed to match Beijing is politically untenable. There is no reason why the London Games cannot be a great success, but if they indeed are, London has not proved anything that people did not believe already, and if they are not, then the renown of a great city has been needlessly sullied. There are many countries (such as Russia in 2014) and cities (such Manchester, which submitted a bid to host in 2000) that can benefit a great deal from running a tight Olympic ship and advertising their competence to the world. London is not one of them, and 2012 will not match the brilliance of 2008 without billions in extra funding which simply are not there. Now it is host, the best we can hope for is for brand London to emerge
in 2012 unscathed.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The origins of autocracy

Thomas L. Friedman (via Free Exchange) argued in the New York Times on Wednesday that NATO only has itself to blame for Russia's recent assertiveness and aggression.

The humiliation that NATO expansion bred in Russia was critical in fuelling Putin’s rise after Boris Yeltsin moved on. And America’s addiction to oil helped push up energy prices to a level that gave Putin the power to act on that humiliation.

Friedman wants us to believe that Russia would have become a normal neighbour to its near abroad and a partner of the west, had but NATO stayed where it was in 1991, or even ceased to exist altogether. This is to entirely misread the origins of Putin's autocracy.

Russia in the 1990s was never a liberal democracy. It could have become so, like much of the rest of the former soviet bloc, and it still can. But the key episodes that prevented it from doing so before now have little to do with NATO, or indeed with the world beyond Russia's borders at all; they can only be understood within its own domestic context. Boris Yeltsin failed to use his popularity and constitutionally mandated extraordinary powers to craft a balanced constitution in 1992. He ended up shelling the Russian parliament when it defied him in 1993 and imposing a new constitution with an irresistibly powerful presidency later that year. Having undermined liberal democracy and the rule of law, events conspired to tarnish the reputation of the market economy as well, with Russia suffering from rampant inflation, following the price liberalisations of 1992, and then the financial crisis of 1998. Putin's ascent to the Presidency was a result of his astute handling of the Second Chechen war, but his success since is down to the Presidential powers bequeathed to him by Yeltsin, and genuine popularity due to the stable society - in comparison to the economic chaos of the 1990s - over which he has presided.

American and European demand for natural resources has undoubtedly helped the Russian economy, and thus indirectly helped solidify Putin's grip on power. But you cannot blame NATO expansion for Russian autocracy; nor for the current imperatives of Russian foreign policy. It is untenable to suggest that Russia would have contained itself had NATO never crossed the Oder. Russia's regional assertiveness stems from a desire for recognition as a great power rooted in its continuing autocracy; an autocracy shaped by its domestic trajectory rather than its geopolitical position. Were it not for the NATO membership of a great number of Russia's former satellites, the situation in Europe would now be a lot worse.

What just happened?

After months of tensions: war in Georgia, and an overwhelming Russian victory. "Both sides are to blame" for the recent conflict, argues the Economist, "but it ran according to a Russian plan". Why? "Given the scale and promptness of Russia’s response, the script must have been written in Moscow."

Russia won the war through a combination of sheer numbers and air support. The 58th army had been parked in the Northern Caucasus for months. But had it been Moscow's plan all along to make a point about Russian capability and regional might, it could have done so with a technological as well as numerical edge. Instead, as Jane's, the military intelligence group, points out, "Russia did not appear to use its more modern weapons in this short campaign, as the units nearest to Georgia were equipped with older equipment, much of it fielded over 20 years ago". The technological backwardness of its units at times got them into trouble, and despite the comprehensive nature of its swift success against an inferior foe, the campaign served to demonstrate to the rest of the world the continuing inadequacies of Russia's post-Soviet military machine. Russia could have had a much cleaner victory had it brought its technological superiority to bear. That it did not suggests that this was a war that Russia did not necessarily expect to fight.

Unless we assume that Russia remains incapable of deploying the more sophisticated tools of modern warfare at its disposal - not inconceivable given the sclerosis of much of modern Russian armed services, but still not likely - or take the paranoid view that it was simply keeping its gunpowder dry for bigger battles to come, it remains a real possibility that Russian forces were in the region in such substantial numbers as a deterrent to Georgian actions as much as a threat. Moscow found itself obliged to deploy them once it became clear that the conflict in South Ossetia was nevertheless escalating, and an outright Georgian victory was potentially in sight.

I remain of the belief that had NATO offered Georgia MAP status - with the greater western commitment to its defence that this entailed - a conflict on the scale witnessed in recent weeks would likely have been avoided. The prospect of facing the American military itself would have given Russian generals a much larger headache than 37000 partially-American trained troops. But perhaps Moscow in the run up to this war was merely hoping to influence the calculations of Georgian generals in a similar way. By taking the recent war far past the break-away enclaves and into Georgia proper, Russia has once again underlined the malign nature of its post-imperial pretensions in the region, and has sought to foster instability for its own ends. But that does not necessarily mean that this was a desired war.

How not to respond

British opposition leader David Cameron has been playing at foreign policy - and again making the holidaying Gordon Brown look flat footed - with a trip to post-conflict Georgia. He advocates a robust response to Russian aggression: cogent condemnation, diplomatic efforts to secure the ceasefire agreement, the investigation of reported atrocities and a price for Russia to pay. But while it is tempting to conclude with Cameron that "we must make clear that the path [Russia] has chosen leads to isolation and contempt", we should refrain from egregious isolation simply for its own sake. All of Cameron's specific proposals will be seen as provocative in Moscow. Some are enlightened if unlikely; others will simply make the task of rebuilding confidence between Russia and the open world even harder.

Cameron's good ideas concern international organisations. He wants NATO membership for Georgia. This indeed remains the best insurance against another Russian attack, but is now a more distant prospect than ever. Having already blocked Georgia's MAP in April, Franco-German concerns at the seeming ease with which they might be dragged towards a conflict with Russia can only have been exacerbated by the recent war. He wants Russia kicked out of the G8. This would be a largely symbolic move since the G8 has turned into a largely symbolic forum, but to reduce the G7 back to a democratic rump would at least make the point that Russia does not belong in the clubs of the open world, without significantly impacting upon vital negotiations over climate change and nuclear proliferation in which Russian involvement is crucial. But such a dramatic step is unlikely ever to be taken unless a President McCain makes good on his promise to tear up the order of international institutions as we know it.

Cameron's bad ideas concern the people of Russia themselves. He wants to derail negotiations for a new EU-Russia Partnership Agreement. Granting the Kremlin a diplomatic success by concluding an accord in the coming weeks would indeed seem strange retribution for attacking a European ally. But such a scenario is not on the table; negotiations, which only began in June, are still on-going, and are unlikely to produce a finished document for some time. Deferring talks now would simply push further into the future an opportunity for freer trade with Russian companies and people. Cameron also wants to tighten the visa regime for Russian citizens. "Russian armies can’t march into other countries while Russian shoppers carry on marching into Selfridges" may sound like a nifty turn of phrase, but why do we wish to penalise those Russians who are enamoured enough with the EU that they wish to come and visit it? Why do we wish to externally assist the forces in Russian society that wish to keep it closed?

Opening up Russia and expanding the opportunities for its citizens to travel and trade are things the open world should foster, not oppose. NATO boots on the ground might be a short-term fix for Georgia's current predicament, but the only long term solution to Russia's estrangement from the West is for it to embrace the values of the open world. This is best achieved through dialogue; through building on the channels of communication that already exist, not through closing them down. David Cameron is right to advocate a robust political response to the Russian government's latest actions. But needlessly alienating the Russian people will serve only to necessitate further such responses in the future.