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Understanding Russia

Russia's national security doctrine based on 'strategic depth' means it will always push westward.

Last updated: 07 Apr 2014 09:14
Vartan Oskanian

Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia's National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan's Civilitas Foundation.
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Russia has always based its national security doctrine on the notion of strategic depth through allies around its periphery, writes Oskanian [EPA]

The end of the Cold War was a transformative event. Reviving it would be hugely irresponsible. It was a turning point, no less historically significant than the Peace of Westphalia, the French Revolution, the Vienna Concert, or the two World Wars. And, as in all transformative events, the contradictory forces of continuity and change shaped, and will continue to shape, the ensuing events and developments.

At the end of the Napoleonic wars, Europe faced a dilemma. Despite the fear of a resurgence of French militarism, Europe nevertheless succeeded in integrating France into the international system. It worked.

A similar attempt was made after the end of the Cold War with the effort to integrate Russia into the international system. During Boris Yeltsin's weak Russia years, it appeared to have worked. But with Vladimir Putin firmly in control of a stronger Russia, serious cracks have appeared in that very system and if they deepen, Cold War redux will be a serious possibility.  

To avoid such a scenario, we need answers to the following questions: What were the forces of change and continuity at the moment the Cold War ended, how did they interact and continue to interact, how and with what intensity does their interaction continue to shape global politics and the new world order?

What were the forces of change and continuity at the moment the Cold War ended, how did they interact and continue to interact, how and with what intensity does their interaction continue to shape global politics and the new world order?

The fundamental, dominant and overriding force of change was the triumph of democracy and free markets over authoritarianism and command economies. The dominant force of continuity that was recklessly ignored by the architects of the new system was Russia's perennial security concern.

The US' two greatest foreign policy minds, George Kennan and Henry Kissinger, both warned about the cost of ignoring Russia's bottom line.

Cost of ignoring Russia's bottom line

Kennan, the architect of the US' successful containment policy towards the Soviet Union, had this to say in a conversation with The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in May 1998, right after the US Senate's ratification of NATO expansion.

"I think it is the beginning of a new Cold War. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves."

And Henry Kissinger in his 2001 book "Does America Need a Foreign Policy?" wrote: "One of the key challenges to the Atlantic nations with Russia is whether Russia can be induced to modify its traditional definition of security. Given its historical experiences, Russia is bound to have a special concern for security around its vast periphery and the West needs to be careful not to extend its integrated military system too close to Russia’s borders. But, equally, the West has an obligation to induce Russia to abandon its quest for the domination of its neighbours. If Russia becomes comfortable in its present borders, its relations with the outside world should rapidly improve. But if reform produces a strengthened Russia returning to a policy of hegemony, Cold War style tensions would inevitably appear."

Thus, the story of the chicken and the egg. Which came first? Was NATO's expansion provoked by real or perceived moves by Russia, or were the Russian moves in response to NATO's expressed intentions to expand to Russia's borders?

The specificity of the post-Cold War period was that most, if not all, of the institutions of change were the very institutions of continuity. Indeed, those very institutions that contributed to first the containment, and then the collapse of the Soviet Union - NATO, the EU, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization - were the ones that were modified and reinvented to accommodate and embrace the newly emerged states and outline the contours of a new world order.

This was clearly a Western design, convenient and on the cheap. And herein lie the seeds of today’s discord, disagreements, disenchantment and antagonism.

Emulate Finland?

Since the collapse of the Berlin wall, NATO's and EU's borders have moved east. Ukraine's and Georgia's expressed willingness, with the West's acquiescence, to become members of both NATO and the EU, has the potential of bringing those organisations to Russia's borders, this time from the west and south. In the past two decades there have been two Russian encroachments towards other countries in its immediate vicinity and those were, not coincidentally, Georgia in August 2008 and Ukraine just last month.

If we are going to understand Russia's behaviour and intentions, we have to begin with Russia's perception of its fundamental weakness - its borders. Historically, Russia has always based its national security doctrine on the notion of strategic depth through allies around its periphery. Therefore, Russia is always pressing westward. But Europe is always pressing eastward.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to US President Jimmy Carter, in a February 22 article in the Financial Times wrote: "The West, however, can play a constructive role in containing the exploding violence. That will take concerted action by the US and the EU. The US could and should convey clearly to Mr Putin that it is prepared to use its influence to make certain that a truly independent and territorially undivided Ukraine pursues policies towards Russia similar to those so effectively practiced by Finland: Mutually respectful neighbours, wide-ranging economic relations both with Russia and the EU, but no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself - while also expanding its European connectivity. In brief, the Finnish model as the ideal example for Ukraine, and the EU, and Russia."

Indeed, we are at a stage today that it would be futile, ineffective and dangerous to play the blame game. The stakes are so high that the focus should be on avoiding the escalation, and looking for ways that will reconcile the interests of both sides - national security interests first and foremost.

Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia's National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan's Civilitas Foundation.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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