Russia needs to be respected

Russia is a peculiar country. Though it is no longer a communist state, Russia still continues to be the centre of attention when it comes to the West picking out the other countries they mistrust and see as a potential threat ti Europe and America.

Given how much mistrust and anger there is towards the Eastern European state, one would think that Russian troops were massing on Western Europe and that opposition activists in Russia were being executed by the hundreds. Some realities in Russia are indeed disturbing, but a sense of perspective is needed.

Domestically, Russia is a corrupt and semi-authoritarian country where citizens lack many of the protections that the West provides.  Indeed, recently the Russian state has carried out a number of activities that take it further away from becoming a free and a democratic country. First of all, the state has required all non-governmental organisations in Russia that receive foreign funding to be labelled as “foreign agents”, (a term that was used during the Cold War to describe spies). Additionally, Russia continues to find reasons to imprison political opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny. Furthermore, there was a case of Sergei Magnitsky, who died because he did not receive proper treatment in the Russian prison. His crime was to bring to light corruption in the Russian state. Putting these cases together, there is no doubt that Russia has a long way to go before it can be called a free and socially liberal nation.

That said, it is no longer the Russia where dissidents were routinely sent to psychiatric hospitals (as happened in the 1970s), shipped en masse to Siberian labour camps (the 1960s) or shot after show trials — real show trials, in which the accused confessed after torture and threats to their families (the 1930s). Russia has made a lot of progress since the collapse of the Soviet Union. One should also remember that Russia is still not completely stable. The state has seen what has happened to the Middle East after the Arab Spring (violence continues long after the protests began in 2011) and it does not want to suffer the same fate and that is why it keeps a closed lid on all opposition movements. This does not justify cracking down on political activists, but it is important to walk a mile in the shoes of the Russian state to understand some of the reasoning behind the state’s decisions. Russia has gone through a lot of revolutions during its long and colourful history. It is almost a certainty that the Russia state will do everything in its power to ensure that another revolution is not on the cards.

Likewise, Moscow’s foreign policy is not what it was in the 1980s, when Soviet forces occupied Afghanistan; or the 1960s, when the Soviets supported revolutionary movements around the globe; or the 1930s, when Stalin and Hitler eyed and then carved up Poland. Anyone tempted to call Syria’s civil war a “proxy war” should remember the proxy wars of the past, when Soviet and American “advisers” were providing vastly greater military assistance to their clients and were in combat, as during the U.S. war in Vietnam and the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Russia is trying to prevent a very nasty regime from collapsing in a conflict with more than a few pretty nasty people on the other side — some of whom are receiving arms from U.S. allies. One could even argue that in the last decade Russian foreign policy has been a lot better than Western foreign policy. Russia did not invade Iraq; Russia does not use unmanned drones to kill targets in Pakistan and Yemen. In general, Russia stays out of many international disputes (unless it has a geopolitical reason to do otherwise, as in Syria).

Those who want to “stand up” to Russia rarely, if ever, acknowledge the potential outcomes of such a course. The first is that Moscow might decide to stand up to the United States and the West. Think Vladimir Putin is already doing this? Think again: A hostile Russia could behave in profoundly different ways. Russia may be providing Syria with anti-ship missiles to deter outside military intervention, but by historical standards it is giving relatively little military or economic help to the Assad regime. Moscow is not sending combat troops or advisers, it is not offering grants or subsidies, and it does not appear to be sharing intelligence to shut down arms shipments to the rebels. On other issues, while Russia has blocked stronger U.N. sanctions on Iran, it has also supported several sanctions resolutions and refrained from delivering S-300 surface-to-air missiles or more modern S-400 missiles. Moscow is not supporting al-Qaeda terrorists in their attacks on the United States and its allies, and Russian authorities warned the CIA about the growing extremism of Tamerlan Tsarnaev well before the Boston Marathon bombings, even if they hoped to thwart an attack on their territory rather than ours. Russia is not aiding U.S. opponents in Afghanistan and has been a critical link in U.S. efforts to supply our forces and now in withdrawing them.

Furthermore, it is crucial to accept that Russia is a powerful player on the political international arena. It is a member of the Security Council at the United Nations, it has a strong military presence, and perhaps more importantly, it has natural resources that so many crave. For the West to isolate Russia is to push aside a potential vital nation that can provide the West with gas/oil, military assistance in other parts of the world and can also be the main link to the rest of Eastern Europe and perhaps China. Many Western leaders may not like Russia or President Putin, but for the sake of long term cooperation, it is crucial that they find a way to be civil with the biggest country on this planet. As the balance of power is shifting at a dramatic speed (Europe is no longer a powerhouse, the US is not such a strong hegemon as it was a few decades ago, the rise of China, India, Brazil and others), it is important for America and the West to treat Russia with respect.

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Categories: International politics

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