With the corona virus already infecting over a million people and severely impacting the global economy, there is a new recognition of a need to reduce global tensions, what John Feffer has called a coronavirus truce. The situation is particularly stressful for Russia which only initiated a lockdown the end of March and is probably just at the beginning of an infection curve. This coincides with an oil price war with Saudi Arabia, badly impacting a Russian economy heavily dependent on oil. President Trump spoke with both leaders, threatening to impose tariffs if there is no resolution. But with significantly reduced demand due to the coronavirus, prices will certainly remain low. This stressful period also coincides with an effort by Vladimir Putin to extend his presidency. Parliament has already approved necessary constitutional changes; a required referendum, originally scheduled for April, has been postponed and is already attracting significant political opposition. Overall, Russia already faces opposition over inadequate coronavirus measures, a major drop in oil revenue and a looming political crisis. Together these provide a significant opportunity for re-engagement.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 left America as the sole superpower. The situation was even seen as the End of History, with America the indispensable nation. But this was immediately followed by a major and largely unrecognized strategic blunder: the failure to integrate Russia into the Industrialized World. The Russian people had vague but optimistic hopes that the end of the Cold War would lead to a new era of peace and prosperity. But those hopes were immediately destroyed. The West stood by while the fragile democratic effort was overwhelmed as former elites seized the nation's assets. Under-employment was replaced with widespread unemployment. The population was encouraged to see democracy and market capitalism as Western ploys designed to humiliate Russia.
This blunder also had a military dimension. The collapse of the Soviet Union also collapsed the basic rationale for NATO as a military alliance. But instead of a drawdown and despite earlier informal assurances, NATO integrated several East European nations. Russia naturally took this as a military challenge and objected strongly.
Putin consolidated his position by blaming the West for Russian economic problems, skillfully appealing to traditional Russian ambivalence. Stressing the need to counter NATO, he rejuvenated the Army, a source of pride for the average Russian. Emphasizing Russia's rightful position as a world leader, his broadly confrontational stance gained domestic support. It also undermined democratic movements on Russia's periphery: supporting breakaway provinces in Moldavia and Georgia, annexing the Crimea and backing up an occupation of eastern Ukraine. Strong Russian support for Syrian President Assad resulted in thousands of deaths and major refugee flows into Europe. As the United States pulled out of northern Syria, abandoning its Kurdish allies, Russia surged in as the new power broker. Closer relations with an increasingly autocratic Turkey deteriorated as military elements came in contact. Across the globe, it is Russian support that allows Venezuela's Nicholas Maduro to remain in power. This effort is particularly sensitive to the oil market; one of Russia's major oil companies, Rosneft, is just recently exiting its investments there.
On a purely military side, Putin announced a major increase in defense spending, boasting of powerful new weapons that could make American defenses obsolete. His belligerent military emphasis is fundamentally a show for the Russian people. He needs a visible enemy to distract public attention from his plutocratic elite, from internal repression, and from actions undermining Russia's professed democratic ideals. His central fear is not some Western intrusion, but internal unrest. This is the basic reason he reacted so strongly to the Rose Revolution in 2003 and the Orange Revolution the next year that removed pro-Russian governments in Georgia and Ukraine. His central objective is retaining power, while provoking the West is his main approach.
Russian meddling in the 2016 US Presidential elections reached well over 100 million Americans with false, misleading and inflammatory postings on Facebook, messages on Twitter and over 1,000 videos on YouTube. While America is vulnerable to such deceptive postings, Russia is vulnerable to truthful ones. Russian meddling seems to have been retaliation for the Panama Papers, revelations from thousands of documents from a Panamanian law firm that exposed corrupt financial ties of several prominent Russians. A furious Putin attributed the papers to Western intelligence. This allowed him to depict it as simply Western propaganda, but demonstrated his sensitivity to exposure of corruption.
The United States has a considerable advantage in open broadcasting. For almost eighty years, Radio Liberty has been a major challenge to Russia, becoming the most listened-to Western radio station. In 2014, Radio Liberty launched a new Russian-language TV news program, Current Time. This has reported on such sensitive topics as Russian intervention in Syria, the poisoning of a Soviet refugee in London and the revelations of the Panama Papers. In 2018, its website had over 90 million visits, its Facebook page had some 600,000 followers, and it was active on YouTube, Twitter and other social networks.
Democratic ideals have strong resonance in Russia. The more difficult everyday economic situations become, the more the government has to suppress unrest over low living standards. Independent candidates make electoral politics increasingly contested and the government reacts with voter suppression; over 1000 people recently protested in Moscow over barring opposition candidates from the city ballot. Open broadcasts have a significant potential to influence developments in Russia. A current wave of arrests against journalists vividly illustrates the Kremlin's concern about popular protests, while thousands recently marched to mark five years since the assassination of an opposition politician. It is understandable that the Russian populace wholeheartedly embraced a strong leader who brought stability and pride back to Russia. But discontent over corruption and economic conditions have been growing. Health and demographic issues and a reliance on raw material sales downgrade the potential for economic development.
Presidents Trump and Putin have had a long-standing personal rapport but details of their phone calls have been carefully controlled by the White House. During their most recent conversation on March 30, 2020, they agreed that the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia did not suit either of them and Russia would be willing to reduce oil output. There was also discussion on Venezuela and the need for an eventual democratic transition. And they agreed to work together on addressing the coronavirus. Two days later, a Russian military plane with needed medical supplies landed in New York. A Russian spokesman said that "We can provide emergency equipment needed to save Americans....We are sure that the U.S., if necessary, will also assist us and we will gladly accept the aid." This is clearly an ideal time for re-engaging.
The core Western objective should be doing what it should have done thirty years ago: integrate Russia into the Industrialized World. Western open broadcasting can make Russian corruption and repression as transparent as possible, exposing the underlying reason for low economic levels and the total fiction of a Western threat. NATO now focusing on Russia as an enemy only supports Putin's threat narrative, while some misstep could actually result in armed conflict. It also drains huge amounts of resources from positive uses (including disaster preparations) to supporting interminable wars.
NATO should issue a strong statement deemphasizing military operations and focusing on Russian political, social and economic integration into the Industrialized World. NATO has to demonstrate that it is not a threat and emphasize economic collaboration.
Russian ambivalence towards the West has been a driving force for centuries. A real move to integration could have strong appeal to the Russian public increasingly dissatisfied with the internal situation. Russian protestors want democracy, but have nothing to rally around. We should give them something, actively inviting Russian to join in development efforts. Programs that promote real development and provide Russia its own position on the world stage can have a strong resonance with the Russian people.
Overall, it is economic pressures, opportunities and incentives that could most effectively move Russia toward a more democratic and cooperative posture. A NATO outreach policy needs to be supported by significant actions. The coronavirus will certainly pressure NATO to modify its standard of 2% of Gross Domestic Product supporting defense expenditures. A small portion, say, initially 0.25 %, could be dedicated for a new Russian Partnership Fund to improve Russia's internal economy and increase collaboration. The fund could work with Russian representatives to identify most attractive projects, ones that could have maximum impact for minimal cost while simultaneously demonstrating project transparency and accountability.
Creating a new approach to helping Russia become a true global partner with other countries is key. We already have an existing partnership in our joint operations on space exploration as well as continuing cooperation on securing nuclear materials and knowledge. We need to expand our approach to include assisting with infrastructure issues, medical issues, educational exchanges, environmental issues and other scientific matters. Russia, for example, has a totally inadequate highway system while the United States has deep experience building a nation-wide transportation network. Investment projects outside the oil industry are badly needed, but that has been a main focus for Russia for years. And, of course, the coronavirus is also making medical shortcomings increasingly visible. Diplomatically, collaboration with Russia could help resolve confrontations in Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Syria.
Rather than promote a new Cold War, now is the time to definitively end the last one.