First 100 days: Turn down the rhetoric on Russia
— Peter Schechter is an author and an international political and communications consultant. A founder of one of Washington’s strategic communications consulting firms, he has spent twenty years advising Presidents, writing advertising for political parties, ghost-writing columns for CEO’s, and counseling international organizations out of crises. “Pipeline” is his second novel. The views expressed are his own. —
After an eighteen year sabbatical, we fiction writers have recently put Russia back foursquare into its role as a novelist’s favorite fierce antagonist. For decades, thrillers were dominated by the threatening Soviet imagery spun by John Le Carré, Tom Clancy and Frederick Forsythe. Now, recent offerings like Daniel Silva’s “Moscow Rules”, Ted Bell’s “Tsar”, and my own “Pipeline” again reassign Russia its place of concern for political leaders, intelligence agencies and military planners.
That Russia provides good material is no surprise. The non-fiction Russia uses natural resources for coercion. It militarily overwhelms a small neighbor. It crushes domestic dissension through physical or psychological intimidation. It suffers from near-obsessive mistrust of foreigners’ intentions. Oligarchs and Kremlin bureaucrats are locked in a maze of corruption, mafia and violence.
So, how does America reconcile this reality with its foreign policy needs? As it considers its options with Russia, the new administration must wrestle with two potentially contradictory considerations. On the one hand, no matter how good the fodder for fiction, Washington must ”reset” relations that have gone badly off track with this prominent nuclear-tipped, 11 time-zone behemoth.
On the other hand, events in the financial and energy markets may have inadvertently exposed an uncomfortable quandary: Does the New Russia actually matter all that much?
As demand and prices for its commodities soared, Russia has gotten rich without making much of anything. When is the last time you bought something with a ‘Made in Russia’ label? No textiles. No computers. No cars of any worth. No refrigerators or washing machines. No services. Even Stolichnaya is now bottled in Latvia.
Depressed energy prices and weak demand means that petro-states have lost the saber they used to rattle. As the Kremlin’s finances flounder, some see a possibility that Vladmir Putin could even lose his hold on power – but not before Putin’s Siloviki (security bureaucrats) apparatus fights tooth and nail to hang on to money and clout.
Worsening matters for Russia, western environmental and national security concerns are accelerating technologies that could reduce the west’s dependence on hydrocarbons. When the United States announces a serious conservation policy that reduces fossil fuel consumption – and with President Barack Obama this will happen – Moscow could find its long term geostrategic position increasingly eroded.
Yet, notwithstanding its difficulties, let’s remember that engaging Russia is better policy than the previous administration’s pinballing between infatuation and thoughtless antagonism. Yes, Moscow hasn’t exactly been a reliable ally. But as Professor Dimitri Simes says: “Nor has it acted like an enemy, much less an enemy with global ambitions and a hostile and messianic ideology.”
It is clear now that the Bush administration’s desire to place advanced warning missile defense systems so close to Russia’s borders was a miscalculation. Similarly mistaken was the willy-nilly rhetoric of NATO expansion.
At a time of so many competing financial, military and political priorities, U.S. policy must first and foremost prevent Russia’s return to the top of America’s international worries. U.S. policy needs breathing space to tackle priority number one: the growing arc of Mideast violence from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush.
Perhaps the place to start is to communicate a willingness to revisit missile defense. Iran’s early February satellite launch may now have impeded the removal of the Polish-based anti-missile sites.
But the United States can agree to provide Russia ongoing, verifiable reassurances that the systems will remain directed at “rogue states” and have nothing at all to do with Russia.
Given the regime in Moscow, this is a relationship fraught with difficulty. But it can be kept on track through pragmatic engagement. Both countries will benefit from meaningful cooperation on Iranian nuclear advances, terrorism, non-proliferation and the spread of nuclear materials.
Turning down the rhetoric and finding a few areas of real joint interest would bring an welcoming respite to the frost in Russo-American relations.
Pity us authors, though. We risk losing this fascinating subject all over again.