Russia-NATO: Return of the Great Game

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, many intellectuals in Russia and the West announced "the end of history". It seemed that the United States' complete domination of the world was not disputed by anyone.

The subsequent decade, during which Russia lost its foreign policy positions, and its former satellites and even provinces became US and NATO allies, seemed to have buttressed this idea.

The first signal that the situation was changing came Sep 11, 2001, when it appeared that US domination did not guarantee Washington absolute security.

For the first time since the Soviet Union's collapse, the US had to bargain in order to guarantee the loyalty of its allies. With the start of the Iraqi conflict, US domination was called into question even more openly, despite obvious successes in the post-Soviet space such as the admission of the Baltic nations into NATO and permission to use bases in Central Asia.

In the second half of the first decade of the new century a new trend has become visible. Russia's consolidation, buoyed by a favorable economic situation and political stabilization, raised the issue of spheres of influence, at least in the post-Soviet space and Eastern Europe.

The issues of missile defence and the Kosovo problem proved the Rubicon of East-West relations. The West demonstratively ignored Russia's position, and this was bound to evoke response. Russia had to face military confrontation and settle disputes in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to its own benefit, without looking to the West.

Almost as soon as Mikheil Saakashvili came to power, many observers began to see Georgia as the most probable arena of an armed conflict with Russia. All the prerequisites for this were in place - Georgia's conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the presence of many Russian citizens in these republics, and Tbilisi's open desire to subjugate the rebellious territories.

There is no need to describe the history of the five-day war again. Its main geopolitical result is not the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia but the return of political confrontation between Russia and the West.

What could it lead to?

Nobody wants a military solution to the conflict, which could be fatal for the whole world. Both sides will have to prove their cases by political and economic means.

Russia's integration into the world economy over the last 15 years has led to a situation where the West cannot inflict serious damage on it without hurting itself as much, if not more.

As a result, Russia's main lobbyists to Western governments are the Western companies, for which a quarrel with the eastern neighbor could be financially ruinous.

Apart from oil and gas, there are agreements on the supply of Russian titanium spare parts for the world's biggest aircraft-builders, the Russian market for cars and other hardware, and many other spheres where cessation of economic cooperation will deal substantial damage to Western interests.

And there are political, as well as financial, interests that would be damaged by confrontation with Russia.

Space cooperation between Russia and the United States, the air corridor granted by Russia for NATO flights to Afghanistan and some other programmes are not as obvious as oil and gas supplies, but are too important to be jeopardized over Moscow's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

What will global confrontation be like now? It is clear that the point of no return has already been reached. Russia is not prepared to renounce its positions as it did in the 1990s. The West may be indignant, but it will have to face reality - it has become too expensive to risk.

Where will the next round of confrontation after Georgia take place?

It is hard to predict with certainty, but it is likely to be in Ukraine, where not only the destiny of the Black Sea Fleet but also Russia's influence in Eastern Europe is at stake. This round will be bloodless. At any rate, I would like to hope that Ukraine is not going to oust the Black Sea Fleet from the Crimea by force.

However, the propaganda confrontation will be much more intense than in Georgia. A world event is not the one in which 10,000 take part, but the one which is being filmed by 10 TV cameras.


More by :  Ilya Kramnik

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