My turn: U.S.-Russian relations: Looking back and forward

Posted: Monday, September 08, 2008

The post-war history of Soviet-American relations, seen from an American perspective, can be summarized as series of Cold War cycles.

The first cycle (1945-1955) might be called the Truman-Stalin duel. This period coincided with the division of Germany and Europe, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, the Warsaw Treaty and the Korean War.

The second cycle (1956-1973) featured Khrushchev's nuclear threat, the expansion of socialist ideology into developing countries, the development of Soviet space technology as punctuated by Sputnik, and the Soviet-Egyptian arms deal.

The third cycle (1974-1986) began with the self-destruction of an American president, Richard Nixon, via Watergate, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The United States then imposed a trade embargo, and otherwise tried to isolate the U.S.S.R. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan challenged the Soviet government by increasing the U.S. nuclear and conventional military arsenal. Attempts by the Soviets to compete with the military production of the United States eventually devastated the Soviet economy and impacted its physical environment.

In spite of all the mutual animosity of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union never went to war against one other, fighting, at worst, by proxy. In fact, both American and Soviet leaders did a fairly good job preventing the "Hot War" between these two great nations, thereby preserving humankind for subsequent global challenges.

Because of the recent conflict in the Caucuses between Georgia and Russia, the West may enter into another Cold War cycle, unless we understand the complexity of thesituation in the Caucuses and rationalize our actions andattitude derived from thisunderstanding. It is a well-established fact that on Aug. 8, Georgian military invaded South Ossetia, killing nearly 2,000 Russian citizens who resided in this republic. The Russian military quickly responded to this invasion and forced Georgian military out of South Ossetia. Both sides suffered severe losses during the five-day war.

I question, how would the U.S. government respond if the 2,000 U.S. civilian citizens would be killed in one day without prior warning in any place in the world for any reason?

The U.S. political leadership and the media quickly condemned "Russian aggression against Georgia." Sen. John McCain stated that the "We are all Georgians," and Sen. Joe Biden immediately requested from the U.S. Congress $1 billion to aid Georgia against "Russian aggression." The U.S. Navy moved into the Black Sea and the Russian Navy responded accordingly; the joint NATO/Russia military exercises were canceled; and the U.S. State Department demanded Russian military withdrawal from South Ossetia and Abkhazia - two independent republics in the Caucasus region.

In foreign affairs, just like in business, the parties need to pick sides and partners who will benefit their domestic interest. In simple terms, in foreign affairs one country wants other countries to do something for its own interest and for its own domestic needs; domestic needs determine foreign policies.

Russia is a major U.S. partner in the war against terrorism. Russia provides the U.S. with a transportation corridor to central Asia and its strategic bases to fight the war in Afghanistan; it provides the U.S. with intelligence information to fight a common enemy. Russia does not support, but also does not undermine the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Today's Russia is a major player in any field and in any place in the world. They are not afraid of empty threats and, if necessary, will create their own alliance with the countries that are hostile to the United States, such as Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, etc. In addition, Russia enjoys the more than $174 billion of surplus of the trade balance annually vs. the U.S. deficit of $836 billion. In 2008, the Russia's gross domestic product grew 6 percent when the U.S. GDP declined 4.8 percent.

We should also remember that 40 percent of energy that is used in Europe comes from Russia; their Oil Stabilization Fund (similar to the Alaska Permanent Fund) is nearly $300 billion. It is estimated that Russia may become the largest treasury in Europe by the year 2017.

Politically, economically, and militarily, the United States cannot afford to be engaged in the conflict in the Caucuses for unclear and complex ethnic reasons in the region.

• Alexander Dolitsky is chairman of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center and lives in Juneau.

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