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A Look At International Relations From A Russian Viewpoint

Aleksei Arbatov, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, analyzes Kremlin's foreign policy and offers an inside look at where international relations are headed.

Putin facing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Putin facing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Aleksei Arbatov


MOSCOW — To understand Russia's foreign policy today, its relations with Turkey and the West, one needs to look at the past.

Today, we have vast nuclear arsenals and the number of countries with nuclear capabilities have increased around the world. Current threats are being addressed with temporary solutions. Iran officials have already said they intend to resume their nuclear program after the 15-year deal they struck with the U.S. and other countries expires. In an even more alarming prospect, the possibility of using nuclear weapons in Europe due to a local conflict is now on the table. Who could have imagined this scenario five years ago?

Decades have passed since the Cold War. There's a new generation of politicians, officials, and military personnel. Those in power today do not know what it means to count warheads everyday and go to sleep with the thought that tomorrow may never come. They didn't live through a state of permanent fright, dreading the end of the world. They did not experience dealing with a crisis that pushes the world to the brink of a global war. They came to power during a time when relations between Russia and the West are relaxed. They take this situation for granted and focus on each other's faults instead. When tensions rose a few years ago, it was easy for them to talk about the use of nuclear weapons and not think of the consequences of such actions.

Of course, the world faces serious problems today: terror group ISIS, the war in Syria and Iraq, the migrant crisis, slow growth. But these are issues civilized nations are capable of solving one way or another.

The system of controlling nuclear weapons is falling apart. This system was an integral part of nuclear war prevention. It was built over the course of the previous half century by the tireless work of government leaders, diplomats, soldiers, scientists and public figures. Now, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a landmark 1987 agreement between the US and the former Soviet Union to eliminating certain missiles, is threatened.

There's the possibility that the successor of U.S. President Barack Obama will declare that the treaty was breached by Russia, and withdraw from it. Then everything will crumble. Treaty after treaty will fall, carrying the risk of new nuclear powers emerging in the near future. Instead of the current nine, we will face dozens. This means that terrorists will inevitably access these weapons. The likelihood of the disintegration of nuclear arms control, and the rate at which it happens, depends on who will be in power in the U.S. by the end of the year, and what decisions will be taken by the Kremlin.

From partners to rivals

During his first two terms, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that his country is a European nation, characterized by European values and standards. Those statements have faded today.

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is quick to point fingers at Russia. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, appears to be on the fence about Kremlin. Clinton is in the middle of a heated campaign in which politicians compete in "patriotism." Russia is as an adversary of the U.S. and NATO, so her words are understandable in this context.

The current state of relations was triggered by Moscow between 2011 and 2012. Kremlin decided not to put up with the model of cooperation at that time. Russia believed its position in the world was not acknowledged and its relations with the West had not been established on an equal footing. Officially, Russia did not name NATO as an enemy but instead hinted at it by such statements: "The West attempts to control Russia's natural resources." "The West dreams of reforming Russia's government and putting her on her knees." "The West strives for military superiority and wants to nullify Russia's nuclear potential."

For a while, the West didn't want to believe that it was necessary to consider Russia an enemy. Not because of any great love for Russia. It was because life was too good after the Cold War and relations with Russia had been acceptable for the West. The US considered itself the world's only superpower. The European Union was achieving the kind of prosperity and security the likes of which the continent hadn't seen for more than a 1000 years.

This era of wellbeing lasted only a quarter of a century. It was enough to miss drastic changes in Russia's rhetoric. In the midst of this contentment, it was easy to overlook Russia's change of policy in 2012, when the country started to focus on Eurasia. In 2014, Russia embarked on a power struggle with the West over Ukraine.

This is bad news for dealing with threats such as terrorism, which need the combined effort of the civilized world. Russia and the West aren't able to come together to address this threat because their judgment is obstructed by fear and distrust due to the deceptions of the past.

It's hard to believe today but Russia had supported NATO in battling extremist groups such as Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan despite its irritation over the alliance's involvement in Yugoslavia in the "90s. At the time, the Kremlin believed that helping the U.S. in the fight against al-Qaeda was of greater importance.

Today, Putin apparently has different priorities and opponents. He no longer talks about Russia being "European", and his views are backed by political analysts, deputies and television journalists here. At the same time, the worldview of the West also changed but it's not so quick to label yesterday's friends as enemies, or vice versa.

The Turkish Trap

With this background, we can better understand Turkey's warming relations with Russia. Turkey is not the West. It's not a member of the EU and will never become a part of it. The way things are going, Ankara will move further and further away from the bloc, and then from NATO, an alliance that it's currently a member of. The rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown signs that such an outcome is likely. It would not be the first time a country would leave NATO. France briefly withdrew from the alliance in 1966 because it didn't like American hegemony and the new world order. Ankara may follow a similar path and demand U.S. troop withdrawal from Turkish territory.

Such a turn of events would probably be favored by Kremlin. But here's the trap: A tactical victory can turn into a strategic loss for Russia. The West would manage the Black Sea region and the Middle East by consolidating allies such as Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Georgia and Ukraine. Even without joining NATO, these nations could formalize bilateral military relations with the U.S. and allow large military bases on their territory, much like Japan and South Korea.

Moreover, Erdogan is not a very predictable politician and his current mood is not a sturdy foundation for longterm relations with Russia. The interests of Turkey conflict with those of Kremlin on a variety of issues: the Middle East, the Caucasus, Ukraine, and central Asia. In the long run, these differences outweigh the momentary relief that deterioration of relations between Turkey and NATO brings. Another important point to consider is that Turkey is gradually moving toward Islamism. Is that the greater threat to Russia than NATO?

Playing on fears and nerves

Accusations are routinely traded between Russia and the U.S. about violations in airspace and water. For now, this is just a mutual show of force. The U.S. doesn't do it to frighten Russia but to calm down their NATO allies, who ask for aid against the Russian "military threat". The U.S. needs to respond so that their leading role in NATO and their promises of security are taken seriously. In Moscow, of course, we aren't going to allow such moves to be made at our expense. So, Russia responds the only way it can, and the vicious circle continues.

Such events cause a massive difference in how both sides perceive each other. The U.S. and western Europe aren't worried about their own safety. They're concerned about their allies in the Baltic and Black Sea region, who seem helpless in the face of a stronger Russian army. Moscow, on the hand, dismisses the anxiety of small neighboring countries. The tactical placement of troops by the alliance is also seen as a show of power and prowess.

In response to NATO's four battalions in the Baltic nations and Poland, Russia established three armies in Europe of about 100 to 150 battalions. Of course, these formations are in our territory and we have the right to do as we please — no agreements are being violated. But does this reassure those on the other side of our border?

Our offensive operations are seen as a legitimate means of defense against the threat of war. The threat is not very clear so maybe our countermeasures are excessive. Perhaps the fears of the West are unreasonable. But they didn't come out of nowhere. For instance, the alliance fears Russia's ambition to mobilize pontoon bridge brigades, which is a qualifying criterion of a highly offensive military strategy, particularly in Europe where waterways are abundant.

When it comes down to it, neither side is preparing an attack. But the difference in the perception of the current situation breeds mutual distrust. If this is followed by the buildup of tension and military advancement, it could result in armed conflict.

Chasing the chase, racing the race

Has the U.S. and Russia begun a new arms race? During the Cold War, the U.S. initiated the race. They advanced, and the former Soviet Union had to catch up. In the "90s, the arms race was over. Russia and the U.S. simultaneously reduced their nuclear arsenals. The period of tension was followed by an era of modernization. Each nation embarked on research and innovation, minus the competition.

But since 2008, Russia began to allocate substantial funding to military upgrades and training. The country had considerable revenue due to high oil prices and wanted to quickly improve its nuclear forces. But the U.S. does not want to embark in another arms race with Russia. It believes economic sanctions against the country will force Kremlin to change its foreign policy. So far, this move has been unsuccessful.

We must rationally evaluate which parts of planned military advancements are required for safety and defense, and which are for the sake of prestige, for the benefit of military manufacturers, and the like. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past. Our national tradition appears to be to step on the same rake over and over again. As noted by Grigory Yavlinsky, a Russian economist and politician, this repetition stems from the fact that some get to step on the rake. Others feel its jab in their face.

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