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IA-Forum Interview: Jeffrey Mankoff
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IA-Forum speaks with Jeffrey Mankoff, Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University and author of Russian Foreign Policy: the Return of Great Power Politics, about Russia’s relations with post-Soviet states and Western powers. By Marina Grushin. (03/11/09) International Affairs Forum: Your new book, Russian Foreign Policy: the Return of Great Power Politics, discusses Russia’s increasingly assertive post-Cold War behavior. What do you believe are the primary causes of Moscow’s shift towards a more decisive foreign policy? Jeffrey Mankoff: Over most of the past decade, the Russian economy has been growing very rapidly. A lot of the profits that have been generated from high oil and gas prices have gone directly into state coffers. For that reason, there is a greater sense of confidence among the Russian elite. As a result, [Russia] is well-placed to play a more active role on the international stage. The second thing, I would say, is that there has increasingly been a belief that the approach of trying to work closely with the United States has not brought the benefits that it was meant to bring. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Russia was very closely involved with the U.S. in working towards the deployment of troops in Afghanistan. The Putin government was trying to position itself as a kind of indispensable ally of the United States. The perception has grown since then that this strategy hasn’t worked. The U.S. has taken a series of actions-- most notably the expansion of NATO, but also involvement in the so-called colored revolutions in a number of post-Soviet states-- that are seen in the Kremlin as leaving Russia less secure. There has been a sense among the Russian elite that it was Moscow that was making all of the concessions in this relationship, and that in exchange, the U.S. had taken advantage of Russia’s relative weakness. With the increase in Russia’s relative standing over the last couple of years, there has been a greater willingness on the part of the Kremlin leadership to push back. IA-Forum: One of the ways in which the Kremlin has been more confident has been in its attempts to retain a sphere of influence in the Former Soviet republics. Why is this so important to Russia? Jeffrey Mankoff: There is an unwillingness on the part of many in the Russian elite to see these states as fully sovereign or as fully foreign. There is a term that you still hear a lot in Russia, “near abroad,” which essentially implies that there are two different tiers for foreign countries: some countries are more foreign than others. Of course, there are cultural and economic links with a lot of the post-Soviet countries. The Soviet Union was a single integrated economic space: you’d have a factory in Russia that was using raw materials from Ukraine, and a distribution chain that involved railroads that went through Kazakhstan to China, for example. Now that all of those are separate countries, you have to deal with problems of tariffs and a variety of other things that the economic infrastructure just wasn’t designed to do. Another [reason] is geopolitical. There is a desire to keep the former Soviet republics as a buffer to prevent the deployment of Western military power too close to Russia’s borders. Russia has been subjected to invasion numerous times over the course of its history, and I think that has shaped the understanding of the security environment that Russia operates in. There is a desire to keep those post-Soviet countries from becoming a launching-off point for any sort of new security challenge, whether it is originating from NATO, from China, or from any other major security actor. IA-Forum: Do you think that the Kremlin’s desire to play a powerful role in the affairs of its neighbors is reconcilable with the West’s vision of world order? Jeffrey Mankoff: Taken to its logical extreme, no. I think, however, that there is an evolution in Russian thinking towards the “near abroad”. How Russia deals with these countries is going to change over time. It may be something that takes a generation until the Russian elite has fully reconciled itself to the independence of these countries, and until the elites and the publics of these countries are fully committed to the idea of seeing themselves as something other than post-Soviet. In some of the post-Soviet countries, like Belarus and some of the Central Asian countries, the nation-building process is still under way twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union-- and it may be another twenty years until they are fully comfortable with themselves as being completely sovereign, independent countries. IA-Forum: Certainly, one of Russia’s most assertive foreign policy moves in recent history was its war with Georgia last summer. What do you think Russia was trying to accomplish by this conflict? Jeffrey Mankoff: The number one reason for the war was to send a message both to the Georgians and to the West that NATO expansion in the region was something that Russia was not going to accept and had means at its disposal to oppose. I think the recognition of the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was a second-order issue. Georgia’s decision to try and bring South Ossetia back under Tbilisi’s control forcefully provided a pretext for Russia to do something that, based on the amount of military preparations that went into the invasion, had been contemplated for some time. I think another aim, and one that was not achieved, was to get rid of Saakashvili, the Georgian president. [Saakashvili] is somebody that the Russians see as being extremely hostile and as something of a Western puppet. I think they are still putting a lot of pressure on him and hoping that the impact of the war will undermine his standing domestically. IA-Forum: Was the war with Georgia just a way for the Kremlin to solidify its influence in the Caucasus, or could it be considered a proxy war with the United States? Jeffrey Mankoff: I think it was both of those things, and they’re not necessarily incompatible with one another. The reason that Russia was worried about its influence in the Caucasus has to do with its fear that the region was slipping from its control and coming under the influence of NATO-- which is another way of saying the United States. IA-Forum: At the Munich security conference last month, Vice President Joseph Biden expressed the need for Russia and the United States to press the “reset button” on their relationship. Despite the closing of the U.S. airbase in Manas, it appears that both Moscow and Washington are taking steps to improve their relations. Do you believe that this reset is likely to happen? Jeffrey Mankoff: I do think that there is political interest both in Moscow and in Washington in trying to improve the relationship. There has been recognition that both sides have gone too far towards confrontation, and that doing so has not really improved security for either of them. Politically, I think right now it makes sense. IA-Forum: What could both nations do to establish closer and more positive ties? Jeffrey Mankoff: There are things that both of them could do, and I think the US is already exploring some of those. That includes pulling back on the commitment to deploying missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic. [The United States] is signaling that NATO expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine is off the table for the moment, and signaling that Washington is once again interested in negotiating a strategic arms control agreement to replace the START I treaty which expires at the end of this year. What the Russian side can do is a little bit more difficult. On the one hand, they can start playing a more constructive role in the post-Soviet states. It looks like Ukraine may be headed for another showdown with Russia over gas supplies. If there is another clash, the Russians could be a lot more helpful than they were last time. There could be a more active attempt to resolve the lingering problems over Georgia. There could be a greater willingness on the part of the Kremlin to assist the US with opposing the nuclear program in Iran. IA-Forum: The Obama administration recently explained that it may be willing to abandon its missile defense projects in Eastern Europe if Russia could help stop Iran from developing long range weapons and nuclear warheads. Many people are wondering if this is a viable plan. Do you believe that Russia has the necessary leverage to affect Iran’s nuclear policies? Jeffrey Mankoff: I think they can affect Iran’s nuclear policy, but I don’t think that Russian pressure in and of itself would be enough. While it would be helpful to have Russia on board, rather than working in a way that undermines U.S. efforts, I think at the end of the day it is more important for the United States to engage with Iran on this question rather than with Russia. It may ultimately become necessary to take a harder line towards the Iranians, and then it will be important to have Russian support. That said, I think on this particular issue the ball is much more in the American court than in the Russian court. There are good reasons for the United States to pull back on its commitment to missile defense and for Moscow to take a harder line on the Iranian nuclear missile program, but I don’t know that having the kind of one-for-one trade off that has been speculated on in this country is necessarily the way to go about it. IA-Forum: Russia’s influence in the international community greatly depends on its access to natural resources. How do you think its foreign policy is going to be affected by the dropping price of oil and the greater financial crisis? Jeffrey Mankoff: To the extent that oil prices remain low in the coming months and years, I think that would argue for a more restrained foreign policy on the part of the Kremlin. You can trace this back to the immediate aftermath of the conflict in Georgia, when the Russian economy really started going in the tank. [This] was sparked not as much by the banking collapse as by the withdrawal of foreign investment from Russia out of concern over the country’s political direction. That was a wake-up call for the Russian elite about how integrated their country was in the global economy and how vulnerable it was to economic pressure. Now, there is a debate underway within the Kremlin over how exactly to respond. There is one contingent that is trying to reduce the country’s exposure to international financial flows, and at the same time, adopt a more militaristic foreign policy. I don’t think Medvedev is particularly supportive of that approach, and to a great extent I think [he] will try to resist it. Certainly, if Russia goes further down that path, it’s going to find itself increasingly weakened and isolated—which isn’t to say that they won’t do it. IA-Forum: How badly has Russia’s credibility been hurt by its dispute over natural gas with Ukraine? Jeffrey Mankoff: I think the Russians and the Ukrainians both handled the crisis fairly badly. They were so involved in trying to score points off of one another that neither one of them really cared what happened to the Europeans. That was something of a wakeup call for a lot of consumers in Europe. The problem, of course, is that Europe has few alternatives at the moment to getting its gas. Eighty percent of Russia’s gas deliveries to Europe go through Ukraine. So at least for the foreseeable future, the Europeans are going to have to make the best arrangements with Moscow and Kiev that they can. In the long run, Europe is going to have to diversify away from its reliance on Russian gas. This means getting more of its gas from other sources, and ultimately moving away from gas in areas where that’s possible. The challenge for Europe is managing its relationship with Moscow and Kiev in the short run to avoid the kind of disruptions that it suffered this year, while in the long run not losing sight of the importance of reducing its dependence on this one particular supply corridor. IA-Forum: Is it going to be possible for Moscow to develop good relations with the members of the EU after this scandal? Jeffrey Mankoff: There’s this proposal that the Kremlin has made to negotiate a new security architecture in Europe. I think that this is actually a fairly significant idea, and one that would behoove the Western powers to take up and negotiate in good faith. But in order to do that, they need to be convinced that Russia is serious about reaching an agreement and is not trying to use this suggestion as a way of sowing dissention among the Western powers. To the extent that Russia can go out of its way to address some of the concerns that have been raised about its proposal, [this] would show that it is serious about playing a constructive security role. IA-Forum: Do you believe that under Dimitri Medvedev’s leadership, the Kremlin will change it approach to international relations in any fundamental ways? Jeffrey Mankoff: I think that the Russian elite has a relatively unified understanding of [Russia’s] national interests: it is a major country that has to be taken seriously and has to have a seat at the table in resolving the major security issues of the day. How that’s done--in partnership with the West or against the West—I don’t think is necessarily a function of who is in the Kremlin. The institutions that are responsible for determining the country’s foreign policy course haven’t really changed. Putin is still powerful as prime minister. The biggest change will have to do with the impact of the economic crisis forcing Moscow to go into a period of retrenchment in terms of foreign policy, which is not to say that we might not see some renewed attempt at reaching a broad-based agreement with the Western powers. Jeffrey Mankoff is Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University, Adjunct Fellow for Russia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of the new book, Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics.:

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