Was Brzezinski Right about Russia?

Was Brzezinski Right about Russia?

Zbigniew Brzezinski may have seen the writing on the wall. Fifteen years after the publication of The Grand Chessboard, Eastern Europe may see a stronger, resurgent Russia in the region’s future. While the world focuses on the ongoing crisis in Syria and Russia’s role in it, Moscow is also quietly pressing its claims on former Soviet states to bring them back into the fold.

A product of a post-Cold War world, The Grand Chessboard called for US politicians to fill the power vacuum left in Eurasia by a severely weakened Russia. Accomplished only through forced choices beneficial to continued US dominance in the area, Russia’s incorporation into a greater security umbrella could balance (then potentially) rising China. Failing this, Brzezinski encouraged the US to bring Eastern Europe into NATO and similar institutions to guarantee a more compliant Russia. Not doing either risked a diminished US presence as well as giving future Russia a license to rebuild its Soviet-era empire.

The US chose neither course. Meanwhile, Russia’s domestic economy was lagging badly in the wake of diminished consumption and falling production figures, but its foreign policy had rarely been more active. Since the mid-1990s, Russia’s foreign policy has usually been one of diplomacy masked by economics. Most easily shown in its Customs Union with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikstan, and the Kyrgyz Republic, trade policy and increased economic integration have presaged a revivified Russia as a more proximate alternative to the distant US.

Putin has only increased this perception by calling for a Eurasian Union (EuU) to more adequately formalize relations with all former Soviet states. In satellite states like Ukraine, this poses a unique challenge. Fiercely independent, Ukraine has long resisted both EU and EuU courtship. With President Viktor Yanukovich trying to create a balance between his state and both organizations, the question is quickly becoming one of lesser evils: can Ukraine maintain its neutral position towards everyone or must it choose an organization with which to align itself? A September 18 Draft of Association with the EU indicates a loose desire to join the majority of Europe, but it is premature to think of the process as a “done deal.”

Unfortunately, this has inspired Moscow to cut off several Ukrainian products and levy additional customs duties on others. With Putin confidante Vladislav Surkov appointed to lead Russo-Ukranian relations, the economic and political relations between the two will likely get worse before they get better. Surkov is known for his aggressive stance and a predilection for pressuring uncooperative opponents.

The case of Ukraine is a cautionary one, and serves only to emphasize Russian verve in reestablishing control over its neighbors. Lauren Goodrich of Stratfor notes that this proposed EuU is not a precise recreation of the Soviet Union. Instead, it would allow Russia a more heavily influential role in determining the general direction of the new EuU. Regardless, it would allow the Kremlin to taking a leadership role in both economy and security issues.

As the Russian 2008 foray into Georgia’s South Ossetia proves, Russia’s military may be behind in technology in some regards, but Putin does not shy away from using the existing parts to flex the nation’s muscles. A 2009 House of Commons report ranks Russia fifth in active military personnel, and first when reserve personnel are added into the calculations. An intensive modernization program and rearmament of forces gives Russia an even more superior position when dealing with neighbors, with the exceptions of China and North Korea.

Recent Russian military activity underscores this desire for superior positioning. The upcoming Zapad 2013 drills come at the end of a year of higher Russian military readiness. Coupled with increasingly aggressive air patrols over neighboring states – occasionally breaching neighboring Baltic and Nordic airspace – Russia is becoming increasingly assertive. Although recent economic concerns have slowed the speed of this increased militarization and have necessitated disbanding several thousands of army posts, the Russian military apparatus is still a highly versatile and effective political tool.

But there may yet be hope for Russia’s neighbors and the tenuous stability in the region. The Russian economy has been weak in recent years. Stemming from recent state corruption, a recovering global market, and diminishing domestic demographics, the state economy is in dire need of restructuring. It has not been clearly stated at this point, but the EuU may be Russia’s attempt to assume as much power as it is able utilizing current political capital.

The recent militarism can be read in a similar light as cases of more bluffing. Then again, with the Arctic potentially opening up as a major economic route, this may be the beginning of a new Russian effort to regain prominence by any means necessary. While this iteration would be attained in a less ideologically driven way than the preceding Soviet Union, the result would be the same.

No matter the situation, the US has two options. The first is following Brzezinskian policy and containing Russia. Future Russian influence is unlikely if this recent political aggression is mitigated by diplomacy. While this is currently difficult considering tensions between the two states, the US needs to seize the opportunity to create the strong ties that Brzezinski sought fifteen years ago. Better late than never, such a commitment could create a resonating sympathetic reaction in Moscow and perhaps lead to closer relations at a future date.

The second option requires the US to do one thing: nothing. In the wake of Putin’s diplomacy in Syria, and the US’s intended pivot towards China, this seems the prevailing political decision. The result? US influence in Eastern Europe will continually be eroded until Russia once again becomes a viable alternative to US leadership.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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