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Globe Editorial

Russia's new (and old) plan

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July 20, 2008

THE NEXT US president will have to deal with an energy-rich Russia that bears little resemblance to either the vanished Soviet Union or the economic basket case of the immediate post-Soviet years. Though run by a mafia of Kremlin-connected moguls and KGB veterans, Russia has an abiding interest in cooperating with the West. Yet so far, John McCain and Barack Obama have paid too little attention to Russia and how it sees its role in the world.

On Tuesday, President Dmitry Medvedev released a document outlining Russia's new foreign policy strategy and gave a pep talk about it to Russian diplomats.

There are instructive differences between the new Russian doctrine and the last such statement eight years ago. The old strategy aimed at undoing America's unipolar dominance. The new document calls for "strategic partnership" with Washington and observes that the West has lost "its monopoly on global processes." (Left unnamed is the Western leader who threw away the aces he had been dealt at the beginning of this new century.)

But the new formulation also contains a familiar vein of grievance and assertiveness. The new document suggests a resentment of unilateral actions by the United States and a determination to shape a multipolar world order regulated by the United Nations and international law. Medvedev's political patron, former president Vladimir Putin, struck the same themes when he issued his initial foreign policy game plan in 2000.

The similarity is not coincidental. During Putin's two terms, foreign policy was the exclusive domain of the president. No longer. The new czar of foreign policy is not the president but the government Cabinet headed by the new prime minister - Putin.

Because the Bush administration's mishandling of relations with Russia may be easier to rectify than some if its other blunders, Obama and McCain ought to be talking about their plans for the future of US-Russian relations. Russia can act either as a crucial partner or a troublesome spoiler on nettlesome security issues - the safeguarding of nuclear weapons and materials, nonproliferation, terrorism, and energy security.

President Bush needlessly provoked Russian paranoia by rushing to recognize Kosovo's independence without UN authorization or a negotiated deal between Serbia and the Kosovars. Bush and Bill Clinton both broke promises made to Russia at the end of the Cold War by expanding NATO toward Russia's borders. And Bush insists on deploying a missile defense system in Eastern Europe that is crucially flawed but nevertheless frightens the Kremlin.

Bush's successors should relieve these Russian grievances. In return, the next president should be able to count on firm Russian support in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power, combating terrorism, and managing the transition to a global economy bereft of cheap oil and natural gas. That should be America's game plan.

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