Sunday, October 29, 2006

Russia: Keep an eye on US automakers...

From Moscow Times:

Monday, October 30, 2006. Issue 3529. Page 10.
Adjusting Russian-U.S. Relations in 2008
By Richard Lourie

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In 2008, Russia and the United States will have new leaders after eight-year presidencies. Vladimir Putin will leave behind a Russia richer and more stable, feared and respected than the one he inherited from Boris Yeltsin. George W. Bush will leave behind a country poorer (remember the trillion-dollar surplus?), more polarized and feared, but less respected than the one he inherited from Bill Clinton.

2008 will provide an opportunity for the new leaders of both countries to reassess their relationship. What could, or should, that readjusted relationship look like?

First, the United States needs to depersonalize its relationship with Russia. We've had too much of "good ol' Boris" and Putin of the soulful eyes. It is preferable when leaders get along, but interests always trump sympathies.

Second, the United States needs to define its interests in relation to Russia. During the Cold War, the essential U.S. goal could be summed up in a single word: containment. Today's world is less starkly clear, but there still have to be priorities. Is the United States' most important goal to manage Russia's nuclear stockpile? Or is it encouraging democracy? Or integrating Russia into the world economy so that it will have a vested interest in moderating its behavior?

Third, energy independence has quickly to become central to both U.S. domestic and foreign policy. It is, in the medium to long term, the best way to offset Russia's clout in the international arena, which is almost entirely related to oil and gas. Energy independence may be an illusion when Lukoil already owns all the Getty service stations in the United States. Still, independence may be the sort of unattainable goal whose pursuit creates new technologies and uncovers new energy sources.

Though the Russians have a reputation as chess-playing realists, their relationship to the United States is in fact clouded by emotion.

Russia's tendencies toward xenophobia and paranoia were exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Resentment, envy, Dostoevskian self-flagellation and suspicion have distorted Russia's view of the United States at all levels.

Then again, the United States did display haughtiness in its triumphalist relationship to post-Soviet Russia, pushing for Russia's neighbors to join the European Union and NATO. Even the paranoid have real enemies.

Russia should realize that Iran is the issue most likely to bring U.S.-Russian relations from low-grade hostility to open crisis. Iran's history -- its oil exploited by the British, its Shah deposed and the country occupied by the British and Russians in 1941, its government overthrown in a CIA-backed coup in 1953 -- make the protection and prestige offered by nuclear weapons seem essential. But it is Iran's relationship with Hamas and Hezbollah that make a nuclear Iran especially worrisome in the future. Russia does not want to find itself on the wrong side of an issue involving nuclear weapons, terrorists, oil and Israel.

Russian foreign policymakers should also keep a close eye on Ford and other ailing U.S. automakers. U.S. business and society have often proved highly flexible and creative. If the United States concentrates seriously on energy independence, Russia might find its clout waning as the first quarter of the 21st century ends. The choice for a highly centralized, authoritarian government dependant on gas and oil for income and influence will then no longer appear the wisest choice and Putin will end up among the reviled along with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."


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