Some foreign policy experts warn that an overly strong American response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia will “isolate” Russia. That would be a bad thing, they say, because we need Russia’s help to deal with Iran and solve other pressing world problems.
Sorry, this argument is backwards. If anybody isolates Russia, it will be the Russians themselves.
Nobody forced Moscow to invade Georgia. They knew full well it would antagonize Americans and Europeans, and they did it anyway. Indeed, one of their main purposes was to show the West that they don’t much care what Washington, Paris or London thinks.
This is not the attitude of a country that wants to work with others to “solve problems.” Yes, Russia’s economy is more fully integrated with the West than the Soviet Union’s ever was. But this “integration” works to Europe’s disadvantage. Its dependence on Russian energy is muting Europe’s response to the invasion, and thus is playing into Moscow’s bid for influence and power.
Why should anyone assume Russia is a necessary partner in problem-solving? Moscow has blocked more than helped efforts to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons and to end the genocide in Darfur. It opposed Kosovo’s independence against the wishes of America and Europe.
This is hardly the behavior of a country that wants to fully integrate with the West. What Russia wants is the best of both worlds -- East and West -- to consolidate authoritarian rule at home, and to press its case for a new sphere of influence abroad.
Moscow does not want its geopolitical ambitions blocked by a united Western front. It wants relations just good enough to gain access to the West’s capital and energy markets. While Russia wants to have its cake and eat it too, we need not supply it with utensils and dinner napkins. If Moscow continues to treat us and its neighbors with contempt, we should at least raise the price of the Western benefits it seeks.
The worst possible reaction to Russia’s invasion is to pretend that nothing has changed. Putin and Medvedev are banking that Europe’s energy dependence and American nervousness about “a new Cold War” will let them get off scot-free for invading Georgia.
If that happens, they will not conclude that they need to start acting more like Western leaders. Why should they? They will have seen their aggression countenanced by Western acquiescence. Moreover, the moral they will draw for their people is that this kind of assertiveness pays dividends in international prestige.
If no sanctions are forthcoming, or if the U.N. confirms the legality of Russian “peacekeepers” on Georgian territory, why should Putin think twice about intimidating other former Soviet republics like Moldova? Why would he not think of ratcheting up pressure on the West, and doing more of the same?
The fastest way to further isolate Moscow is to tempt its leadership into thinking it can do more of the same, cost-free. What is at stake here is Russia’s future. If left to its own devices, it will surely evolve into a more hostile power. It will do so first by re-establishing its sphere of influence in the “near abroad.” Then it will seek cover from the West, the U.N. and the “international community,” proving them impotent in the face of its actions and changing the very rules of international engagement in the process.
Moscow indeed wants two sets of international rules -- rules for Russia and rules for all the rest. It argues U.N. “legitimacy” all day long to stop America from doing something. But it flaunts U.N. norms when it perceives its “privileges” infringed upon.
Moscow likes to think of itself as the mirror image of Washington -- “exceptional” in its own right because of its history and power. Medvedev has gone so far as to issue a formal statement of principles in which “privileged” or priority special interests are now part of official Russian foreign policy. He and Putin don’t want Russia to be seen as just another Western country. They want Russia to stand beside the U.S. as a separate but equal power.
But Russia can’t have it both ways, unless we let it. We cannot force Russia to behave like a Western country; but we don’t have to let it in the club. Russia should not be a member of the G-8 until it is willing to play by our club’s rules.
Either Moscow changes us, or it changes itself to be like us. There is no “realist” third way.
If Russia becomes further isolated from the West, it will be because its own leaders have chosen that path. The Russian argument of the “devil (meaning America and NATO) made me do it” has worn thin.
Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at The Heritage Foundation and author of the book “Liberty’s Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st Century.”