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Fear of a Russian Planet

An assertive Russia does not a Cold War make

By Joshua B. Lipson

For us Gen Y-ers, children of America’s “unipolar moment,” it is nearly impossible to relate to the Cold War zeitgeist of desk drills, space races, and Daisy Girls. Except for some brief, frenzied moments in 2001-2, the jihadists lurking between the cracks of 21st century state authority have never seemed to threaten our collective existence; from where we stand today, the threat of Chinese ascendancy is distant and mostly economic.

On the news of a Russian takeover of Crimea in the wake of a pro-Western revolution in Kiev, American commentators have been abuzz with speculation that thanks to Vladimir Putin’s megalomania and Russia’s timeless complexes, the Cold War never genuinely ended. To be sure, the current crisis in Ukraine represents a definite nadir in U.S.-Russia relations—a nightmare scenario that Western policymakers, convinced that Russia could be domesticated into a peaceful Euro-Atlantic order, more or less assumed would never come.

Though ensuring Ukraine remains free from Russia’s orbit is by no means a vital American interest, Moscow’s violation of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty ought not to be taken lightly. Our NATO allies to Ukraine’s north (skipping, of course, over Kremlin-bound Belarus) and west have fair reason to be concerned: standard-fare Russian bullying is to be expected from a regional power, but territorial revisionism at the expense of sovereign states is a clear repudiation of international consensus.

For the sake of Ukraine’s integrity, Western powers should work doubly hard to weigh against Russian aggression with financial guarantees and veiled threats—though nobody can pretend Washington has as much skin in the Ukrainian game as Moscow, narrowing the gap will do much to shore up trust in the global order.

All things considered, however, we must drop the pretense that a new Cold War is brewing in Maidan Square and Simferopol. True, it seems at this point that the Obama administration’s reset policy, which I treated optimistically in my article at the Harvard Political Review in 2010, has no legs: few great powers have successfully opted for strategic partnership over competition. But the lesson to take away from Kiev is not that Russia will be Russia, or that the fall of the wall has been undone. Rather, it is a reminder that no matter how pure the intentions of liberal internationalists, great powers will be great powers.

Regardless of whatever in particular emerges from the standoff in Ukraine, the United States and NATO must rewrite their Russia policies around the expectation that Moscow, like Washington, will seek to dominate its near abroad regardless of how much diplomatic pressure is brought to bear from afar. No need to divine any Tsarist or Soviet legacy in Crimea, Ossetia, or Transnistria—consider for a second: how many times has the United States, ostensibly guided by a liberal vision of the world, invaded and occupied lesser states in its own backyard?

We should stop short, however, of concluding that Russia acting like the Eurasian power that it is is entirely bad. While the struggle over Ukraine does indeed pit Western interests against Russian interests however one slices it, America should recognize that Russian realpolitik, when its strategic goals intersect with ours, is a force to be harnessed, rather than repelled altogether.

For one, despite the precious political capital wasted by neoconservative elements in the American foreign policy establishment on turning the Syrian civil war into a geopolitical proving ground, there is plenty to be gained vis-à-vis Syria by allowing Russia its stake in the East Mediterranean. Among the doomsday scenarios foreseeable on Syria’s horizon—a jihadist takeover, a violent redrawing of century-old borders, the roiling status quo—seeking Russia’s cooperation by respecting its naval interests in Tartus and Latakia hardly registers as menacing.

Moreover, it is worth noting that Russia’s fear of a rebel takeover in Damascus has to do just as much, if not more, with concerns about regional jihadist spillover, which could ignite the autonomous republics of the North Caucasus and threaten Moscow with yet another wave of Islamic-tinged Chechen terrorism. In Russia’s support for “the devil you know” in Damascus, America—however it calculates its interests in the Syrian struggle—ought to recognize a power motivated by familiar concerns about radical insurgency and global terror, and find within it a basis for collaboration.

Moreover, for Americans concerned about a maximalist Chinese rise, full of designs on both the Eurasian heartland and the Pacific Rim, there is good reason to be optimistic about Russia’s ambitions to dominate its historical near abroad. In a remarkable geopolitical twist, Russia’s fear of Chinese domination of Central Asia has transformed the northern giant’s presence in the former Soviet “stans” into a strategic complement, rather than a direct challenge, to America’s overstretched military presence. As China dawns as the only possible Cold War-style rival on America’s horizons, Moscow can become, in pursuing its own narrowly construed self-interest, an unintentional contractor for Washington in the Asian interior.

Let us hope that the crisis in Ukraine is resolved peacefully—not only for the sake of Ukrainian national aspirations and the post-Cold War territorial order, but perhaps most importantly, for the sake of a rational adjustment of America’s approach toward 21st century Russia. For what it’s worth, recent events in Crimea have finally laid to rest the notion that Russian regional ambitions can be neutralized by diplomatic inducement. It is now up to us not to avoid falling for the opposite canard: that Russia remains implacably captive to a Cold War mentality of world domination. The truth lies somewhere in the middle; an overburdened America should do whatever it can to harness Russia’s self-interest where it intersects with our own.

Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House.

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