The cover of the November/December 2008 issue of "Foreign Affairs" catches one's eye with a headline: "Checking Russia." The burden of checking on Russia (and figuring out how to keep it in check) fell on the shoulders of Georgetown University's Charles King ("The Five-Day War. Managing Moscow After the Georgia Crisis") and the Council on Foreign Relations' Stephen Sestanovich ("What Has Moscow Done"). Both provide solid analysis of the roots of the August conflict between Russia and Georgia and ponder over the future of U.S.-Russia relations in the aftermath of the conflict.
King doesn't appear to share a popular belief that by invading Georgia and recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia has condemned itself to international isolation. He believes that there are many countries that support Russia
"…in questioning the consistency of the United States' responses to territorial conflicts around the world or the evenhandedness with which the West doles out labels such as 'democratic,' 'terrorist,' or 'rogue state.'"
King seems to be more concerned that Russia's isolation may be self-imposed. He argues that Russia's recent actions in the Caucasus have demonstrated Moscow's "…little faith in multilateral institutions, such as the UN Security Council or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe." He adds:
" This distrust reveals something important about Russian leaders' view of global politics in general: Russian leaders believe that the existing multilateral institutions are unsubtle fronts for promoting the naked interests of the United States and its major European allies."
In Kings's opinion, the real danger is that Russia will respond to Western criticism by withdrawingl from any cooperation with the West, a pattern of Russia's behavior that King follows from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the end of the Cold War. He concludes his piece with the following pessimistic statement:
"Certainly, Russia's actions have distanced the country from Western institutions. But the deeper worry is that the Kremlin and average Russians can now imagine a world in which they do not have to care."
On the surface of things, there has been little evidence so far that King's bad dreams are coming true, as the Russian leadership, both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have flatly rejected the idea of Russia breaking up its relations with the West. ("Self-isolation is a path to nowhere", proclaimed Medvedev in his state of the nation address; "Isolationism is absolutely not our choice", Putin told to a meeting of the Cabinet).
In an article published in October, Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, called for an immediate resumption of a "straight talk" between Moscow and Washington. He stressed that differences in opinions shouldn't prevent both countries from cooperating on vitally important issues.
This verbal olive branch was followed by a diplomatic overture as Lavrov has announced that Russia will support an extension of the United Nations mandate (due to expire on December 31) allowing United States troops to stay in Iraq, a development that gives the Bush administration a much needed breathing space.
(Characteristically, a Washington Post editorial — under a tasteful headline "Rogues Gone Bust" — has interpreted this good-will gesture as a sign of Russia's weakness. The message of the editorial was clear: if the United States wants something from Russia, pressure must be applied.)
And yet, the future of U.S.-Russia relations looks much bleaker than the Russian leaders' conciliatory statements might suggest. President Medvedev uses every opportunity to blame the United States for both fomenting the August crisis in the Caucasus and unleashing the world financial crisis. At the same time, Medvedev doesn't fail to highlight what he considers a balanced approach to the August War demonstrated by Russia's major trading partners in Europe: France, Germany, and Italy.
Speaking at an international conference in Evian, France, Medvedev made his sympathies clear:
"Over the past two months [after the war in Georgia], we have come to see…who our friends are, and who're not."
Having hailed "brave and responsible actions" of the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, Medvedev continued:
"[I'd like to] emphasize the constructive role of the European Union in finding a peaceful solution to the crisis in the Caucasus. When other forces showed unwillingness or inability to do so, it was the European Union that came across as a pro-active, responsible, and…pragmatic partner."
On Wednesday, delivering his first state-of-the-nation address, Medvedev promised to send short-range missiles to the Kaliningrad region of Russia in response to the planned deployment of U.S. anti-missile defense systems in Poland and Czech Republic. The timing of this statement — just hours after election of Barack Obama — led to suggestions that Medvedev's message was intentionally unfriendly and even "provocative."
Medvedev and Obama stand a chance to meet on the sidelines of the upcoming G20 summit in Washington on November 15. The very fact of this meeting taking place (a possibility that Obama will refuse meeting Medvedev due to a "scheduling conflict" cannot be excluded), the body language of both leaders and their comments for the media, if any, will tell volumes about how relations between two most powerful nuclear states in the world will develop.
Although Medvedev's openly anti-American stance may turn out to be a short-term, tactical, maneuver aimed at putting pressure on the new Obama administration, another possible option would be that Russia will follow a "half-King" pattern of its relations with the "West": Russia will actively cooperate with Europe, but its relations with the United States will sink in a state of withdrawal.