After its occupation of Georgia, one begins to wonder how Russia sees its role in the world. With the benefits of cooperation comes the need to cooperate. If Russia's new position is that it no longer intends to abide by what it perceives as terms dictated by the West - which is far less homogeneous than what Russia presents - then it is communicating its desire to exit the global "sphere of influence" and enter a more isolated posture. U.S. officials have already hinted that this could mean expulsion from the Group of Eight and a snuffing of Russia's ambitions to join the World Trade Organization.
Russia's financial markets already lost foreign confidence earlier this year over disagreements between BP executives and Russian executives on how to invest profits from the jointly owned TNK-BP oil company. Just after the Russia-Georgia crisis, the London Telegraph reported that the unexpected costs of the war had an instant effect on Russian markets, that Russia's economy suffers from chronic inflation, and that falling crude prices are threatening a major trade deficit. If Russia decides to embrace isolation in this kind of insecure global environment, its leaders must understand that it is the general population that will face economic and social hardship as a result.
Nevertheless, Russians perceive their foray into Georgia as a success, and cite Europe's relatively soft response as proof. Moscow's next step will likely be to attempt similar strategic moves, the most significant of which would be to bring Ukraine back into the Russian fold. Unlike Georgia, whose ethnic population is hostile to Russian dominance, about 35 percent of eastern Ukraine is made up of ethnic Russians), lowering the potential for unified opposition to a Russian advance, whether political or military. If during the Cold War, we saw the historical anomaly of an East and West Germany, it's no longer absurd to think of an East and West Ukraine. In Cold-War terms, this in itself can be considered a victory: The separation line has moved from the center of Europe much closer to Russia's border, continuing to constrict its strategic options. But it would be a bittersweet end to a tumultuous yet freer epoch, harkening the return of a deep East-West divide.
Political leaders and analysts generally agree that the West and Russia are not returning to the days of the Cold War because, at its core, the matter at stake in the current conflict is not ideology. Though the word "democracy" is still bandied about, the main issue is geopolitical influence and deterrence. Today's rhetoric is more likely to refer to international partnerships, economic cooperation, spheres of influence, and globalization.
But as the relationship between West and East becomes strained, so do each side's choices, and the scope of this supposed friendship narrows down to the unavoidable issues in which each depends on the other. As fighting broke out in the Caucasus and the U.S. came out in support of Georgia, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.S. had to choose between "its prestige over [the] virtual project" that is Georgia and "a real partnership that requires joint action" with Russia. Without naming it, he was referring to the international effort to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, and the West's dependence on Russia's cooperation to pass sanctions against Iran through the UN Security Council. Yet Russia has already stated that it will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, and if thwarting Iran's nuclear ambitions is its goal, then Russia will be dependent on the West. If the West were to actually stand unified behind its declared values, Russia might even communicate the West's seriousness to Iran.
Over the past four years, Russia has laid the groundwork for its own isolation by limiting and even abolishing democratic and individual freedoms, and also by expecting the West to accept its internal changes without criticism. The West has not done so, and Russia has turned to demanding respect through a show of military force. But control over its neighbors has always come at the expense of the Russian people's freedom and quality of life, a price Russian leaders have repeatedly been willing to have them pay. Just as Stalin sacrificed countless lives for the sake of Soviet expansion, so Putin is poised to make a similar sacrifice for the sake of Russian neo-imperialism - perhaps not on Stalin's scale, but likely in a way that will negatively affect Russians' lives.
For now, Putin can cash in on having led Russia to post-Soviet recovery - funded in part by loans and gifts from the West, and repaid largely by windfall revenue following the war in Iraq, for which Putin also has the West to thank. Russia can handle small and contained events like cutting off Ukraine's gas supply as an intimidating warning to Europe, and may ride out the financial and political costs of its incursion into Georgia, but it's unclear how the country would weather major hitches in its economy. What would happen in a poorer Russia?
If the country's tenuous social fabric were to unravel, the Russian people could find that they had long ago been subjugated by what they believed was Putin's national goodwill - and discover themselves too weak to enact change, maybe even too dejected to consider what could have been done differently. And though there may not be a new Iron Curtain forcing people to remain in the country, the economic and political barriers now solidifying between Russia and the West could function as a comparable source of division.
David Stromberg is editor of "Zeek: Russified," a volume of works by contemporary Russian Jewish writers, poets and artists.
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