It's no longer a superpower, but it cannot be ignored. So as Putin lays siege to Nato, why not open the door and invite him in?
For 19 years, the west (America and Europe) has been putting off answering a critical strategic question: what role should post-Soviet Russia play globally and in the European order? Should it be treated as a difficult partner or a strategic adversary?
Even when this choice became critically acute during the crisis of Russia's short war against Georgia last summer, the west didn't provide a conclusive answer to this question. If you follow most east Europeans, the UK and the Bush administration, the answer is "strategic adversary". But most west Europeans prefer "difficult partner". These seemingly mutually exclusive alternatives have one thing in common: neither of them has been thought through to the end.
If you see Russia as a strategic adversary – and the restoration of Great Russian power politics under Vladimir Putin, to the detriment of the rule of law in domestic and foreign policy, does indeed speak for it – then the west should fundamentally change its agenda.
While Russia is no longer the superpower it was in the Soviet era, militarily it is still a great power, at least in Europe and Asia. To address the numerous regional conflicts (Iran, Middle East, Afghanistan/Pakistan, central Asia, North Korea) and global challenges (climate protection, disarmament, arms control, nuclear anti-proliferation, energy security) that have high priority on the western agenda, co-operation with Russia is necessary.
A strategic confrontation with Moscow, ie a new kind of "mini-cold war", would undermine this agenda, or at least complicate its implementation significantly. So the question is simply whether the threat emanating from Russia is so grave that this kind of strategic reorientation on the part of the west is required? I believe it is not.
Putin's claim to great-power status and his great-power policies are structurally very vulnerable. This is especially true at times where the price of oil has fallen below $40 per barrel. And he knows that.
Demographically, Russia is in a dramatic nosedive; it remains economically and socially backward; its infrastructure is underdeveloped, as are its investments in education and vocational training. Economically, it mainly relies on energy and commodity exports, and in its modernisation efforts it is largely dependent on the west, particularly Europe.
Due to its geopolitical position and its potential, however, Russia will remain a permanent strategic factor in Europe and Asia that cannot be ignored. To integrate the country into a strategic partnership is therefore in the west's interest. But this would require a western policy based on long-term thinking and a self-confident and strong power position, because the Kremlin will perceive any sign of division and weakness as encouragement to return to Great Russian power politics.
A few months ago, the Russian government came up with a proposal to negotiate a new European order within the framework of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Russia considers the agreements from the 1990s unjust, based as they were on its weakness at the time, and it wants to revise them. Moscow's main strategic objective is the weakening or even rollback of Nato as an anti-Russian military alliance and the re-establishment of its east European and central Asian zones of influence.
But Putin is making a big mistake here, because all these aims are unacceptable for the west, and the Kremlin still doesn't seem to understand that the best and most effective guarantee of Nato's existence was, is, and will continue to be an aggressive Russian foreign policy.
In the former mother country of Marxism-Leninism, the leaders still don't seem to understand dialectics. After all, if Russia's government really wanted to achieve a change in the post-Soviet status quo, it should, first and foremost, pursue a policy vis-a-vis its neighbours that reduces rather than increases fears.
But this applies similarly, if in reverse, to the west: on the one hand, the principles of a new Europe as defined by the OSCE after 1989/90 don't allow decisions about alliances to be subject to the veto of a large neighbour. The same is true for free and secret elections and the inviolability of borders.
On the other hand, the missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, and the prospect of Nato accession for Georgia and Ukraine, assume confrontation where this was not at all necessary.
The west should not reject Russia's wish for new negotiations on a European security system. Instead, it should be viewed as an opportunity finally to answer the key question of Russia's place within Europe.
Nato must play the central role here, because it is indispensable for the vast majority of Europeans and for America. The possible trade-off could be that the existing principles and institutions of the post-Soviet European order, including Nato, remain unchanged and are accepted and implemented by Russia, which would get a significantly enhanced role within Nato, including the perspective of full membership. The peripheral nature of the Nato-Russia Council was clearly not enough and did not work.
But why not think about transforming Nato into a real European security system, including Russia? The rules of the game would be changed and a whole variety of strategic goals could be achieved – European security, neighbourhood conflicts, energy security, arms reduction, anti-proliferation, etc. Yes, such a bold step would transform Nato. But it would transform Russia even more.
If the west approaches these discussions with Russia without illusions, with a clear understanding of its own strategic interests and with new ideas for partnership and co-operation, the worst to be feared is failure.
Of course, this approach presupposes two things that don't exist at the moment: a common transatlantic approach to dealing with Russia, and a European Union that acts in much greater unison and is therefore stronger. Nonetheless, the challenge posed by Russia does not allow any further procrastination. There is simply too much at stake.
Joschka Fischer, a leading member of Germany's Green party for almost 20 years, was Germany's foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 until 2005
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2009
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