Friday, February 26, 2010

Ronald Asmus: Battle to hold sway in 'contested zone' on EU's doorstep

WHAT is the most important source of disagreement today between Russia and the West?
It is not the issues most often in the news – Iran or Afghanistan. It is Europe's contested neighbourhood – the future of those countries between the eastern border of Nato and the European Union and the western border of Russia. While the West and Russia still talk the talk of co-operative security in Europe, geopolitical competition for influence has been renewed in these regions.

Russia today openly lays claim to a sphere of interest in its borderlands, in direct contradiction to commitments made under the Helsinki process. It has embraced policies and a military doctrine that labels Nato a threat and justifies the right to intervene in these countries. While packaged in smooth diplo-speak, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev's new proposal for European security has the less-than-hidden goal of stopping and rolling back western influence.

Rather than moving into the 21st century, Russia seems determined to revert to 19th-century strategic thinking. With the Obama administration focused on Afghanistan and Iran, the Kremlin hopes that a West in need of its co-operation will acquiesce in its demands.

And it is not only words. Eighteen months ago, a war took place in Europe between Russia and Georgia. It was a little war, but one that raised big questions. It was not fought over the future status of Georgia's Russian-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (though that source of conflict was a real one). Instead, the war's root cause was Georgia's desire to align itself with the West and Russia's determination to stop it.

Many diplomats would prefer to forget the Russo-Georgian war or sweep it under the rug. But none of the underlying tensions is resolved. There is no stable solution in sight for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has not abandoned the goal of breaking Georgia's desire to go West.

In late January, the Obama administration issued its first unequivocal reaffirmation of the strategy of democratic enlargement that has guided western thinking since the collapse of the Iron Curtain two decades ago. Speaking in Paris, secretary of state Hillary Clinton reminded us that Nato and EU enlargement had created an unprecedented degree of stability and security in the eastern half of the continent, that Russia, too, had benefited from this stability, and that it was critical Europe's doors remained open to further enlargement.

Clinton went on to reject as unnecessary Medvedev's call to re-make current European security arrangements. Nato has also finally started engaging in defence planning and other forms of strategic reassurance for its allies in Central and Eastern Europe, which are unsettled by Russia's new assertiveness.

But what about those countries in between – countries like Ukraine and Georgia and the southern Caucasus? Ukraine has just elected as its president Viktor Yanukovich, who is unlikely to pursue a Nato integration agenda, and if he follows through on his commitment to join a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, EU membership would be precluded. But that does not mean tensions with Russia will automatically disappear.

Yanukovich's victory notwithstanding, Ukraine is a country that is becoming more European and gradually moving out of Russia's orbit in its own chaotic way. Regardless of whether Georgians like or dislike their president Mikhail Saakashvilli, they want to go West, too. So Russia's attempts to bring these countries to heel are likely to continue and remain a bone of contention and conflict.

And what is western policy? In reality, the West today no longer has a grand strategy toward the East. The moral and strategic vision of the 1990s has exhausted itself and come to a grinding halt after the shock of the Russo-Georgian war and the recent Ukrainian election.

It is time for the West to openly debate what its strategy is – and what it is not. Two decades ago, the West rejected "spheres of influence", because Europe's bloody history taught us that compelling nations to align themselves with others against their will was wrong and a recipe for future conflict.

If we still believe that today, we need an updated moral and strategic vision for such countries, and to back it up with a real strategy. We need to be clear that Moscow has a right to security, but that it does not have the right to interfere in the affairs of its neighbours.

As the United States and Russia close in on a new arms-control treaty, it is time to face the question of how we deal with Europe's contested neighbourhood.

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