The Two Timetables

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Moscow Time

U.S. and Russian strategies in the space “east of Europe” and across the Eurasian plain are operating on two different timetables.

Washington’s approach—as summed up by Vice President Joe Biden—is to start with the long-term un-sustainability of Russia’s approach to the world. Any resurgence of Russian power as a result of the “Vladimir Putin model” rests upon unstable factors (energy and commodity prices,over-reliance on the bureaucracy and the coercive instruments of the state, etc.) while future trends for Russia look grim (especially when it comes to demography). So, sooner or later, the Russian wave will crest and then Russia’s ability—indeed, its very desire—to challenge U.S. interests will recede. To secure its long term economic and political future, Russia will have to change course and seek accommodation with, instead of confrontation against, the United States in the Eurasian space.

This is a useful model, because, on the one hand, it allows the United States not to have to abandon its ultimate goals of NATO expansion to the east (especially to Georgia and Ukraine), by putting an ultimate air of inevitability on the outcome. On the other hand, given severe resource constraints caused not only by the burden of two wars but also increased domestic pressure, it reduces the urgency of Washington having to do something “right now”.

Moscow doesn’t think in long term increments, at least not worrying about Russia’s standing as a major power come 2030. Its short term strategy is to maximize whatever benefits it now possesses into reshaping its neighborhood into something more favorable for its economic and security interests. If the U.S. offers a vision of a future down the road that is attractive to Russia’s neighbors, Russia is trying to focus their attention on the here and now—what concrete steps Moscow is prepared to take in the present. In other words, what can be banked on right now. The U.S. promises that at some point in the future, you’ll be in NATO? How about a deal on natural gas this year? (Look, by the way, at how Russia has successfully wooed Turkey in this regard).

The Russian strategy employs both carrots and sticks. Over the last year, we’ve seen Russia use pressure to try and demonstrate the hollowness of promises from the West. It is not accidental, in my view, that Yuliya Tymoneshenko has dropped some of her rhetoric about Ukraine joining the West and the need to “contain Russia” in favor of pragmatic talk about doing business with Russia and seeking mutually-acceptable outcomes with the Kremlin ever since the Russo-Georgian war of last year.

The elections in Ukraine will be an interesting bellwether. In 2004,the “Orange” coalition came to victory on the promise that Ukraine’s destiny would ultimately lie with the West. The elections now are about which politician can plan to deliver benefits to the country—and whether future promises are more valuable than present offers.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College.  The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. Photo by Flickr user punxutawneyphil under Creative Commons license.