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A US-European strategy with Putin's Russia

Posted: October 9, 2011 - 12:10am

Western relations with Russia have improved since nose-diving after the 2008 war with Georgia, but they face new challenges with the return to the presidency next year of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is often critical of the West. A new strategy is required to achieve attainable and important interests while not jeopardizing key principles.

Gains with Russia since 2008 are notable. A new U.S.-Russian treaty limits strategic nuclear arms. Transit of supplies across Russia for NATO forces in Afghanistan has increased. Moscow has assented to incremental sanctions on Iran.

But difficulties lie ahead. Russia has condemned the European Union’s ban on oil imports from Syria, and it opposes a U.N. arms embargo or asset freeze. Last April, Putin likened the U.N. resolution on protecting civilians in Libya to “a medieval call for a crusade.” Further sanctions against Iran remain contentious. Putin has warned that Russia will deploy new “strike forces” absent a deal with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on missile defense. Russian hopes for visa-free travel to Europe and America are foundering. Many Russians do not qualify for visas today, so a visa-free regime would be unworkable.

Problems with Russia’s neighbors, however, are the most worrisome. Russia deploys military forces in Georgia’s separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and even further into Georgia. Russia is establishing a naval base in Abkhazia, and Putin hints that South Ossetia might join Russia. Ukraine seeks to renegotiate an expensive gas contract, while Moscow pressures it to join a Russian-led customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. It would take Ukraine further away from its ambition to move closer to Europe. Thus, risks remain of future disruptions in gas shipments to Europe. Moscow is turning the economic screw on Belarus; last month Putin called a merger with Russia “possible and very desirable.” Putin’s call this week for an even tighter “Eurasian union” will make Russia’s neighbors even more anxious.

A constructive dialogue with Russia remains important, but so are freedoms and principles. Europe and America should speak as one voice about Russia’s human rights violations; Germany downplays them. The European Court of Human Rights must remain a beacon for disenfranchised Russians, who mostly win their appeals. Russian acceptance of the principles of the European Energy Charter Treaty, which fosters the rule or law, ought to remain a priority.

There are vital common interests between the West and Russia. One is securing dangerous nuclear materials and averting illicit trafficking in them, an area in which cooperative threat reduction programs have made enormous progress. As NATO forces draw down in Afghanistan, America and Europe should step up efforts with Russia (and China) to strengthen security in vulnerable Central Asia republics and stem the northward flow of narcotics and Islamic extremists.

The new, multi-billion-dollar Exxon Mobil accord with a Russian state-owned oil company, Rosneft, for energy exploitation in the Arctic and Black Seas underscores the value of better cooperation to protect the environment, deal with potential oil spills, and lessen shipping risks. Collaboration with Russia to combat the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and other global health threats will lessen shared risks.

Despite the recent firing of the well-respected Russian Finance Minister, Putin increasingly needs foreign energy investment and closer economic ties with Europe. Last November he touted the vision of a free trade area from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

Vibrant mechanisms are lacking for “soft power” or non-military interaction with Russia. The U.S.-Russian bilateral presidential commission is nearly invisible. A new U.S.-European-Russian structure ought to replace it, adding Europe’s great clout and deep linkages with Russia. Last year almost half of Russia’s foreign trade was with the EU, over nine times more than with America. Europe is Russia’s largest market for gas exports, and by far its largest source of foreign direct investment.

America and Russia are no longer the main game; Europe has become much weightier. By combining their leverage, the United States and Europe will strengthen their hand to get more done productively with Putin’s Russia while helping protect the security of its neighbors.

• Corboy is director of the Caucasus Policy Institute at King’s College London and a former European Commission ambassador to Georgia and Armenia. Courtney is a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, and special assistant to the U.S. president for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. Yalowitz, former U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia and Economics Minister in Moscow, is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.

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