One of my second or third reactions to the news last Friday was shock over the impact on our agenda that depends so heavily upon establishing a positive relationship between the US and Russia. I have been avoiding being pessimistic in public because that doesn’t help anyone, but it really doesn’t look good. From my perspective, though, while the Russian response on Friday was undoubtedly disproportionate, it would be wrong to characterize this as Russia displaying a disinterest in negotiations with the United States and instead challenging democracy head-on. Indeed, I would say it is still far too early to draw any such conclusions about attitudes in the next few months, from the Russian side. Actually, the situation has made me more pessimistic about the willingness of the United States government and eastern European allies to deal with Russia, rather than the other way around.
An alternative viewpoint to the official transatlantic story on all of this can be read in today’s Guardian from its recent Comment Editor in Chief Seumus Milne. I think he’s wrong, though, because the longer-term impacts of this war may yet run in favor of Georgian attempts to face West. This is my biggest fear: that the West senses potential longer-term strategy of isolation with Russia, with a return of a new unbalanced Cold War. We see this in today’s announcement that the US and Poland have now agreed to the construction of missile defence batteries – they may even be explicitly facing Russia now.
Any revival of a face-down against Russia could well have been caused by our own attempts to impose our model and interests in the region, as described by Seumus Milne. I have a strong distrust of the current Russian regime; it displays authoritarian tendencies that are profoundly concerning. But today’s threat from Robert Gates that relations with Russia will suffer for years to come takes the dispute to new heights and is profoundly disproportionate. If we cut them off it will be more our own doing and will be the most profound foreign policy mistake of the 21st century (worse than the Iraq war).
So there’s plenty to do from our side to avoid the slide towards greater nuclear danger, and I think it would be a mistake to try to move forward independently of the Russians. This would only magnify the isolation and would be fiddling at the edges. We cannot go forward in establishing progress towards nuclear disarmament without Russia, and if the West were able to be mature about this and change its failed strategy of isolation with any country that doesn’t play by its rules, we still have a chance.
We do need to reassess our strategy, we have to continue (perhaps even more than before) to reach out to Russia. The work needs to be done on our side at least as much as on the Russians.