Russia-West Partnership Hurt by Moscow's Paranoia

André Budick

Russia has an ongoing fear of being encircled and slowly pushed back by the West, making it difficult for other nations to have valuable relations with Moscow. Should the West even pursue a partnership with such a paranoid regime, even though the alternative is very unpleasant?

In the 1983 movie 'Wargames', produced and shown at the height of the Cold War, an out-of-control NORAD computer system starts playing games with different scenarios of a thermonuclear war on earth, while powerless humans watch with horror as their giant screens deep down in the Rocky Mountains are showing the ultimate nightmare of the war ending all wars. Finally, the computer stops playing the nuclear game, because - "the only winning move is not to play".

Russian foreign policymakers of our time apparently did not see that movie - or follow its conclusion. They are not just still looking to find a new role for their country after the end of its Soviet empire. Instead, they are playing the old games of power politics once again; this time, their weapons of choice are no longer soldiers, tanks, ships or rockets, but oil and gas. They are, however, playing filled with anxieties deep down in their mind, in particular towards the West - in fact, I think they badly need a good therapist.

The continuing Russian fear of being encircled and slowly pushed back by the West - these days not just directly by its old foe from accross the Atlantic, or the NATO alliance, but also by the seductive soft power of the EU - has been aptly described in quite a few recent writings by much more profound experts on Russian affairs than than the author of these lines can claim to be.

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Still, beneath all the diplomatic analyses, economic number-crunching and military power estimates which should not be discounted as relevant factors for Russian concerns, something is hidden which cannot be explained away in completely rational terms. As no matter what the West proposes as a means for cooperation - take the idea of a strategic partnership as a prominent example -, the Russian reaction these days sounds like this: 'Thank you very much for that, but we're powerful and equal to you and have to be respected and by the way, do not dare to invite what we define as our near abroad to cooperate in any way with you, because we are calling the shots there, and you'll need our oil and gas!'

Criticism accepted: The author is playing a little game of caricature here. There exists, to be sure, a real base for Russian skepticism towards the rhetoric of cooperation and understanding emanating not just from the new American president. Russian decision-makers and its foreign policy elite pursue what they perceive as their national interest - no surprise there, and no need to invoke a certain Freudian touch.

Still, a recent survey of major Russian foreign policy publications done by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) reveals some interesting undercurrents of opinion: the vast majority of Russian authors who specialize in foreign affairs defend and justfy the scope of Moscow's military action against Georgia in August 2008.

More broadly, they subscribe to a zero-sum view of international relations. Russia, seen from that perspective, is surrounded by potential enemies who cunningly claim to pursue farfetched ideas like a 'strategic partnership' to deny Russia its fair share of power and influence in global affairs. Thus Russia has to show strength to pursue its legitimate interests: the bear is roaring again. Alas, he isn't roaring out of strength, but out of fear of being pushed around. The Russian bear is being afraid.

The eerie similarity of that mindset with Russian leader's rhetoric as well as actions in the Putin-Medvedev era during the last couple of years until today, in particular towards their self-defined "near abroad", begs the question of whether the West should continue trying to deal in good faith with such a regime.

Can there be a real partnership with a country whose leaders cannot help themselves but calculate every single move by one or the other side in terms of winners and losers? Can there be a real partnership, let alone be "strategic" one, with a Russia still obsessed with dreams of empire, feelings of loss, longing for the good 'ol days? Is the West just fooling itself here; does he just want to believe in partnership and cooperation because the alternative looks too unpleasant to contemplate seriously?

We may, however, be forced to admit that the alternative for another and another and yet another attempt to cautiously and judiciously work with that Russian leadership and its intellectual backers does, in fact, look too bad to even start thinking about.

Maybe Woody Allen could help us out with one of his shrinks?
André Budick is a Legislative Assistant with Bernhard Kaster, MdB.