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A fact of life

Jan 17th 2008

Patience, resolve in the West’s approach to Russia

WHAT should the West think about Russia? That is the subject of a powerful new study by James Sherr, a senior lecturer and fellow at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Britain’s military think-tank. Released this week, as Britain tries to keep its cultural-diplomacy offices in Russia open in the teeth of intimidation and official displeasure, the paper is highly topical.

The Kremlin, Mr Sherr argues, is not reviving the cold war, but pursuing a hard-headed realpolitik. That has replaced the post-cold war partnership developed in the 1990s, which Russians believe was founded on their own disorientation and weakness. Russia will now exploit the West’s weaknesses and mistakes, and compete for power and influence where it can.

Russia, Mr Sherr says, “will, by political and intelligence means, exploit disarray, ineptitude and division. It will, through pressure, partnership and bribery, seek to control the entire value chain in energy supply, transport and distribution. It will, by means of hard and soft power, seek to transform the former Soviet Union into a ‘zone of special interests’, irrespective of the wishes of third parties or the countries concerned.”

That will continue so long as Western divisions and dependence encourage the Kremlin’s strong-arm tactics. It won’t improve in the short term: the Russian political system is designed to discourage voices of moderation and cooperation. But in the long run, Russia is “underestimating its own shortcomings,” he argues, as well as the West’s potential leverage. The picture may look bleak, in short—but only so long as we let it seem that way.

Is Mr Sherr right to say that there is no new cold war? It hangs on definition. He argues that the three main elements of the old cold war—ideological, military and global confrontation—are now missing. “Russia is aggressively ideological about its sovereignty, but in other respects cynically ‘pragmatic’”.

Perhaps. But the promotion of Soviet-era myths, xenophobia and nationalism, plus the sanitisation of Stalinism in officially sanctioned textbooks has more than a whiff of ideology. Military power certainly takes a back seat compared to its prominence at the height of the cold war. The resurgence in Russian military capability is a long way from matching the Soviet arsenal. But arms sales to countries such as Iran, China and Syria give teeth to Russian foreign policy.

The Russian navy—now making a much publicised return to the blue waters of the world’s oceans—may be ineffective in a real fight because of its lack of air cover. But even a symbolic presence can raise the stakes, especially against indecisive or timid opponents. What is certainly true is that the Kremlin is no longer a global adversary: its relations with the Muslim world and China, are tetchy and ambiguous. But the lack of a global dimension doesn’t make the tussle for power less troubling in the main theatre of the old cold war—the countries stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Clearly the icy and terrifying confrontation of the 1950s and 1960s is not in view. But that era shaded into détente—what some have called the “soft cold war”. Finding similarities between that era of uneasy coexistence and our own is perhaps easier. But whatever the new era is called, the big question is what to do about it.

Mr Sherr recommends patience and resolve. Russia will not lightly abandon the course it has set over the past decade. As in Soviet days, contradictions will be the Kremlin’s downfall: perhaps frustration with bureaucracy and bad government, perhaps growing energy shortages, perhaps open feuding at the summit of power. These may eventually turn public opinion and even officialdom towards real integration with Europe. Don’t hold your breath.

Copyright © 2008 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

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