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World Association of International Studies

Post Why the US Should Take Russia Seriously
Created by John Eipper on 01/20/13 4:34 AM

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Why the US Should Take Russia Seriously (Alan Levine, USA, 01/20/13 4:34 am)

Gilbert Doctorow (19 January) describes himself and Istvan Simon as 180 degrees apart. I find myself between the two of them on US attitudes toward Russia. Like Gilbert I am a realist when it comes to discerning interests, but I share many of Istvan's assessments of the corruption and harm of the Putin regime.

I wish here to make only two general comments, one on Putin and one on the US attitude toward Russia. On the first point I largely agree with Istvan and disagree with Gilbert. The second is a qualification of one of Gilbert's claims.

First, Gilbert has written frequently in this forum that there is currently no realistic, better alternative to Putin in Russia. I largely agree with this assessment--but unlike Gilbert, I partly blame Putin for it. JE asked if Putin has been good for Russia. My answer is in many ways yes, and in many ways no. Putin has brought a much-needed stability to Russia and adopted some policies that have contributed to economic growth. He has made many Russians feel proud again. But at the same time he and his group have gone out of their way to undercut every liberal and democratic (with and without Gilbert's quotation marks) alternative to his rule. The limits on television media, the harassment and, indeed, murders, of journalists and liberal activists is in the short-term interests of the ruling party but at the expense of the long-term good of the country, undercutting the possibility of more decent political development. Putin's policies in this regard are like Mubarak's: eliminate all alternatives except for the undesirable. This is short-term shrewd but long-term stupid, and I believe in the future Putin will be much blamed for this in Russia, as Cameron Sawyer has been arguing (persuasively to me) that Putin is already.

Second, Gilbert asserts that it is only because of Russia's nuclear weapons that the US takes it seriously: "This is why the US deigns to deal with Putin's Russia at all. Otherwise the two countries have almost no shared economic interests and no grounds for strategic discussions or power sharing. But the fact of nuclear parity makes it essential that the US not act irresponsibly towards Russia." This is a huge oversimplification. Of course, Russia's nukes do set a limit on how much the US would be willing to intervene in Russia or places in which Russia stakes an interest, such as Syria. But no one in the US is worried about a Russian nuclear attack. Unlike during the Cold War, there is no plausible scenario for such a thing to happen. Thus, of course Russian nukes limit US policy, but their existence doesn't explain much else.

The US tries to cooperate with Russia on a host of other issues important to the US where the two countries have fundamentally aligned strong interests that have nothing to do with their nuclear weapons, such as fighting the Islamic extremists in Afghanistan, in which Russia has given the US much help, including transporting supplies and, I believe, weapons, through Russian territory. The US argues similar interests on Iran, and at various times the US has considerably backed down from other of its initiatives, such as the weapon detection systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, in order to try to get Russian cooperation on Iran. My sense is Russia is ambivalent on Iran. It doesn't want Iran to have a nuclear weapon, but until then it enjoys how much more provoking Iran is to the US than it is to them. I don't want to exaggerate US and Russian shared interests, because I largely agree with Gilbert that there is not a lot of shared economic and strategic overlap of interests. I'm only qualifying his claim that it is nukes alone that leads the US to take Russia seriously. There are many other issues in the world on which the US knows it needs Russia's help--and thus acts accordingly.

JE comments:  We seem to have forgotten in recent years that Russia and the US have many shared interests, especially in the field of security.  My thanks to Alan Levine for this thoughtful overview.

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  • Why the US Should Take Russia Seriously (Cameron Sawyer, USA 01/21/13 6:28 AM)

    Gilbert Doctorow argues that Russia should be taken seriously by the US because it is a major nuclear power.

    I think there are other and much better reasons to take Russia seriously. Russia has the ninth largest economy in the world by nominal GDP and the sixth largest economy in the world by PPP. Russia has by far the most dynamic economy among large, fully developed countries, and will soon have the largest economy in Europe. Russia is also a financial powerhouse with the third largest foreign reserves in the world after China and Japan. Russia has the lowest debt of any large economy, and not just the state, but Russian people and companies, too. The Russian consumer market will surpass Germany's as the largest in the Europe this year or, at most, next year.

    So Russia is economically important--Russia is a key market for many companies, and is becoming a key destination for investment, and source for investment.

    Russia's economic importance creates geopolitical importance, much more than its military power does. Russia's economic ties with the rest of the Former Soviet Union and with countries like India, China, Turkey, Malaysia, and Germany ensure that Russia's geopolitical influence will reach far and wide.

    Therefore, of course we have to take Russia seriously. The fact that Russia has a vast nuclear arsenal is not so important--it only means that we would think twice about going to war with Russia, God forbid--something which is hardly imaginable in any case. But Russia's conventional military, while not as large or strong as the Soviet Union's was, is also nothing to sneeze at--Russia's conventional military force, much renewed in the last 10 years, is the second most powerful in the world, after that of the US. Russia's military force will eventually be eclipsed by that of China, naturally, but in the longer run, China's military power will eclipse that of the US, too. That's a bit of a different conversation.

    JE comments:  A question for Cameron Sawyer:  what is the current state of Russian investment in the US?  My uninformed impression is that beyond real estate and a sports franchise or two, it is almost nil.

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