Obama’s ‘reset’ button with Russia jammed beyond repair?

obama-putinThe Ukrainian crisis has highlighted the duplicity of great powers — that sovereignty and humanitarian intervention are concepts to be used only when it suits them. If the US kept quiet when the Saudis and the Bahrainis moved to crush Shia protests in Bahrain only a couple of years ago, Russia, which is forever protesting at the global high tables about the sanctity of sovereignty against humanitarian intervention, has used its concern about the plight of Russian language speaking people in Ukraine to intervene in the crisis.

For President Obama, the Ukrainian crisis is indisputably one of the toughest geopolitical challenges he has faced. He has come under pressure from his critics, particularly in the Republican Party, for not standing up to Putin. However, all said and done, there is little the US can do in this situation. If one were to consider sanctions, Russia is not an Iraq which can be brought to its knees through sanctions. It has the capability and the will to retaliate militarily and otherwise against any sanctions. Moreover, Europe is far too dependent on Russia for gas supplies. While some American analysts who have criticised Obama have said that the US should go ahead with Keystone XL Pipeline and allow exports of natural gas to Europe, it will take a long time for this to come to fruition. Eventually, the West has imposed travel bans and assets freezes on a few Russian and Ukrainian officials and leaders, something that is unlikely to really worry Moscow.

Retaliating at the diplomatic level would also not be easy. As a permanent member of the UNSC, Moscow can veto any resolution brought against it. Throwing Russia out of the G-8 might affect Russia’s stature in the world, but achieve little else.

As for the military option, Russia is the one adversary which can match US military might. More importantly, no country in the West wants a hot conflict and upset the economic applecart. Getting into a hot conflict at a time of so much economic and other interdependence is certainly not a good strategy. There are no “vital” American interests at stake in Ukraine, certainly none which would justify a conflict with a nuclear armed adversary. If Ukraine had been just another country, it might have been easier for the West to intervene and have its way. But the problem is that Ukraine lies in Russia’s “near abroad”, which it considers to be in its sphere of influence. The US would have to be cautious about getting into a hot conflict with Russia over something that Moscow seems determined to protect.

In fact, the US has far more to gain through cooperation with Russia than a confrontation. Though Obama’s “reset” button with Russia seems to have jammed beyond repair, the US and Russia need each other. The two countries are part of the P5 plus One group which is engaged in negotiations with Iran. Without the Russians on board, a permanent resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue is unlikely. The same is the case with Syria. Considering how dependent the US will be on the Northern Distribution Network as it draws down from Afghanistan at the end of this year, antagonising Russia might not be a bright idea. Also, one must not forget the terrorist attack on the Boston marathon last year by two Chechens. That incident served to underline the dangers of Washington and Moscow not working in close coordination against the menace of terrorism. The US economy is also in no shape to get drawn into another conflict and going to war might not necessarily work. In the recent past, one has witnessed two wars from which the US has had to withdraw unilaterally, without really accomplishing the goals it set out to achieve. Antagonising Russia would push it deeper into Chinese arms — something that could be a strategic disaster if the current tensions between the US and China continue in Asia.

ukraineIt is obvious that these considerations helped shape Obama’s response to the crisis and wisely so. Even veteran Cold War warrior Henry Kissinger says that Russia has genuine interests in Ukraine and warns that “to treat Ukraine as part of an East-West confrontation would scuttle for decades any prospect to bring Russia and the West — especially Russia and Europe— into a cooperative international system. It is clear that the West miscalculated Russia’s response to its actions in Ukraine”.

At the broader level, the crisis in Ukraine is just another reminder of the ongoing diffusion of power in the globe today. As the rules of the game evolve and get set, these kinds of conflicts will continue to happen across the world till the contours of polycentricity and spheres of influence are worked out. In the end, every great power will have to accept the spheres of influence or “special interest zones” of other powers so that there are no clashes in interests. The world will have to adjust to polycentricism and to big powers occasionally rubbing against each other, even if there are no hot conflicts. While in Russia’s near abroad, Russia will seek to continue its primacy, in East Asia, China and Japan would insist on their primacy as would India in South Asia. The other powers need to recognise this and refrain from meddling in these “special interest zones”. If the Ukrainian crisis helps to ensure that the new rules of engagement in a polycentric world are set, we might see less conflict in the years ahead and a more stable international system. The danger of course in Ukraine is that neither side is willing to be flexible in their approach.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: ORF

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