In the second session of Carnegie Europe’s New Vision Conference: Post-Bush America and the World, experts discussed how the West can move forward with its relationship with Russia in the aftermath of the Georgian conflict.

Participants included Philip Stephens, Associate Editor of The Financial Times, Bobo Lo, Director of the China and Russia Programmes at the Centre for European Reform, and Dmitri Trenin, from the Carnegie Moscow Centre, and Michael A. McFaul of the Carnegie Endowment.

Post-Imperial Russia
Dmitri Trenin began the discussion by stating that Europe should see Russia as acting in a post-imperial way. Trenin explained that the fact that President Medvedev took his vacation on August 1st, while Prime Minister Putin was attending the Beijing Olympic Games, showed that the Russian action in Georgia was not premeditated.

It was a reactive response to an attack against Russian soldiers and citizens. Many in Russia believed that the U.S. would prevent Georgia from acting on its whims. The fact that this did not happen raises concerns in Russia not about Georgia’s stance toward it, but about the West’s.

Trenin explained that, because of its complex attitude towards Russia, his concern is Ukraine. If Ukraine is to be safe, NATO should not encourage it to become an alliance member. Instead, EU membership should be the focus. Georgia was a case where the red line was crossed. Pushing on Ukraine would result in a far more extreme situation than that in Georgia.

Comparing the situation in Georgia to the Cold War is not apt and sends the international community down a dangerous path. It is more accurate to liken the current environment to the pre–WWI era in which geopolitics, not power politics, dominated.

Russian Motivations

Michael A. McFaul implied that the question which has governed U.S. thinking about Russia for the last ten yesrs, 'is Russia on the road to democracy?,' has been irrelevant for some time now and should be abandoned altogether. Instead, the West should be asking whether what happened between Russia and Georgia was a defensive or tactical move on the part of Russia. Should the West perceive what happened as a single event or a sequence of events that define a new Russian policy?

McFaul argued that Russia is indeed trying to assert itself in the region. The war did not come as a surprise, and was a trap set by Russia. What was surprising was Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

There is a need to correct the Bush Administration’s tactics. International norms need to be restored and Russia needs to stop being ignored. If the West applies the lessons from other areas in the world in which it has faced tension, like China, it will be in a much better place to deal with Russia. Furthermore, a complex and multiple track strategy for dealing with Russia has long been needed. McFaul emphasized that relations with Russia need to be improved in terms of developing a long term strategy. 

He then presented a four part structure for that strategy. First, the U.S. needs to have a common voice with its European allies and with NATO. Second, democratic regimes in the former Soviet Union need to be bolstered. The worst thing that could happen would be the collapse of those regimes. Third, there needs to be a real bilateral strategy with Russia not based on values but instead on areas of agreement and common interest. Finally, the Europe must keep its door open – Russia’s future is with Europe.

Russia’s Perspective
Bobo Lo began by arguing that the Georgia conflict was both a one-off intervention and an attempt to redefine the balance of power, but it is misleading to extend the example of Georgia to Ukraine. Russia is neither an imperial power nor does it have an imperial vision; it still has a vision of itself as a modern state.

Russia has a mixed identity in what is a tripolar world. It sees itself as a fundamental part of a Christian civilization and is overwhelmingly western-centric. A relationship/partnership with China is not an alternative to one with the West, but it is instead a supplement. What Russia wants is to be able to redefine its relationship with the West and to have some input into the grounds upon which that relationship is based. At the moment, it is insecure and weak. It is more strategically isolated than it has been at any point since June, 1941. In the long term, this isolation is strategically unsustainable.

As for the prospect for an EU-Russia working partnership, Lo stated that analogies to the Cold War are ridiculous. This is a new scenario that does not preclude cooperation in specific areas. In order for there to be cooperation, Europe needs to abandon the pretense that it has universally shared values with Russia. The West needs to accentuate the positives rather than thinking about how to punish Russia by making idle threats about kicking it out of the G8.

Lo then discussed the concept of red lines. At the moment, they are fluid and subject to Western whim and fancy. They need to be entrenched. The West needs to make it clear to Russia that it has the right to protect its influence by whatever peaceful means it can. But it should not be able to veto the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO. Appeasement to such a veto is not only morally delinquent, but also bad policy.

There is a third way between appeasement and conflict – hedging. The Bush policy towards China can give the West lessons for a viable approach to Russia. It should deal with core common interests and not pretend Russia is something it is not. The West needs to view the Georgian actions as reckless and irresponsible and instead of trying to re-arm Georgia, there should be an emphasis on economic assistance.

Lo concluded by explaining that Russia divides the West into ‘good West’ – continental Europe – and ‘bad West’ – the U.S. and the UK. A common Western position is absolutely vital and can be established on the basis of socio-economic assistance to Georgia. Furthermore, the West needs to take the symbolism out of NATO membership. There should be established criteria that is either met or not met with little discussion of other factors. Additionally, the process of Ukrainian integration into the EU needs to be accelerated.

Appropriate Western Responses to Russia
Stefano Steffani, the Italian Ambassador to NATO, observed that at present the Russians are on a high. He  asked how the West could bring them down to earth. Similarly, Maurizio Massari, Head of Policy Planning at the Italian Foreign Ministry, asked how the EU and Russia could construct a common vision of the European neighborhood.

Robert Cooper suggested that the most suitable analogy for the conflict with Georgia would be the U.S. conflict with Grenada in 1982. Russia should thus be isolated on this until they realize fully that their actions were a mistake but there is no need to isolate them on anything else.

Trenin responded by saying that although Russia should not prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, the West should recognize that NATO membership is a highly divisive issue in Ukraine itself. Ukrainian membership in NATO would lead to a crisis of European proportions. With regards to the inclusion of Russia into the international sphere, the West needs to recognize that there is a lack of functioning mechanisms to facilitate that inclusion. In the 1990s, the West held all the cards that were necessary to include Russia. Vladamir Putin asked to join NATO twice, an action also taken by Boris Yeltsin. The refusals and flippant treatment of the issue have resulted in the problems which we now face.

McFaul stated that there is a need for roadmaps with regards to NATO membership. Membership action plans (MAP) should be offered to Ukraine and Georgia, and they should be integrated if and when they qualify. There is no reason why Russia should not be given the same treatment, but McFaul doubted Russia would take the proposition seriously.

McFaul did not believe that the Georgian issue was one of national security to Russia, in the same way that Grenada was not a security threat to the U.S. Although Russia has adopted both a post-imperial and a post-Cold War mentality the Cold War context remains much more prevalent in Moscow than it does in Washington D.C.

With respect to the statement that the West needs to accept Russia as it is, McFaul stated the Russia needs to accept the U.S. ‘as it is’ as well.

Trenin interjected that it is not Grenada which is the closest analogy, but Serbia. Georgia was not seen as a security threat, but as a place that needed to be taught a lesson. There were failures on both sides, but both the West and Russia need to move forward from here – this is the moment of truth. In sum, the U.S. will not change, Europe will remain in a continuous flux of change, and Russia will have opposing views. That understanding could be the foundation of a new stasis.

Lo explained that the West needs to bear in mind that multilateralism is akin to democracy and that it needs to be distinguished from multipolarism. The West needs to deal in the concrete rather than the abstract.

Security Interests
Several questions and comments touched on the security interests of Russia, its neighbors and the West.

Jessica T. Mathews, from the Carnegie Endowment, asked about the limits of NATO’s expansion, adding that the West needs to start acknowledging the legitimate interests of Russia.

Simon Lunn from the Geneva Center for Security Policy asked how NATO should balance protecting the security of countries that fear Russian military aggression while also ensuring that the region remains stable by not sparking fear in Russia about aggression from the West.

Serge Schmemann from the International Herald Tribune questioned whether there is a legitimate sphere of influence for Russia to claim, if the West was wrong in not taking Russian sensitivities into account, and if the next U.S. president should consider missiles in Poland and NATO action plans.

McFaul fully agreed that Russia has legitimate security interests. The West's inability to engage in a dialogue with Russia in the 1990s was, retrospectively, a mistake. On the other hand, a lot of good work was done. For instance, the first round of NATO expansion was a great success.  McFaul concluded that what the West needs to remember that in the modern day world, it only has conflicts with non-democracies.

Lo reminded the audience that the Chinese were embarrassed by Russia’s foreign policy and that the Chinese feel they are being tarred by Russia’s actions. The West cannot apply the treatment of China to Russia because China’s main priority is to get on with domestic policy without interference. Because of this, China’s strategic partnership with Russia is now an awkward one.

Trenin concluded by disagreeing with Stephens’ characterization of Russia as "humiliated." It acts on a policy of impressing with its strengths and not its weaknesses. The difference between the Russian and Chinese approach is that Russia has given up on trying to be integrated. It was not accepted on its terms and it is not willing to sacrifice its autonomy and engage with the West on Western terms.

The West only perceives democracies as having legitimacy. Because the Russian regime is not democratic, it is not seen as legitimate and thus its interests are not treated as legitimate. But as far as Russia is concerned, it is a discussion about rules and norms.