As the world’s largest country and ninth most populous one, Russia is a member of numerous major international alliances: it is part of the G8, the G20, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and it holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
At the same time, Russia also lays claim to a grimmer set of accolades: it is ranked as the 154th least transparent country in the world, the 4th deadliest country for journalists, the 3rd most common country to be brought to the European Court of Human Rights (where it nearly always loses), and, according to Freedom House, is simply “not free.” Its elections are consistently and widely condemned as fraudulent and corrupt, and it is routinely criticized for cracking down on peaceful acts of protest.
According to Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, a former senior policy advisor for the Canadian government, countries around the world need to seriously consider the cost of accommodating Russia’s criminal behavior in the name of good relations.
Russia’s lawlessness is evident. It invades sovereign territory, issues passports to citizens of other states and fails to honor agreements to withdraw troops. It ranks in the top 10 percent of the world’s most corrupt states; the only G-20 country with such a distinction. There’s mischief-making in Transdnistria, cyber attack on Estonia, interference in Kyrgyz Republic’s internal affairs. Relations with neighbors are consistently confrontational. It even uses orthodoxy to spread 19-century pan-Russianism worldwide.
The state, under President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, controls virtually all aspects of domestic affairs: Political opposition in the Duma; parliament is stifled. Much of the Russian media serve its oligarch — read government –owners. Insubordinate journalists are murdered; the leading independent paper Novaya Gazeta lost five, including Anna Politkovskaya; three others have been killed in the last few weeks.
Business shenanigans are legion, best exemplified by the lengthy incarceration of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s former energy czar. Most of Russia’s wealth is controlled by oligarchs favoring the state. Those who do not, like Boris Berezovsky, must flee.
And matters are getting worse. Liberties at home are declining and aggression towards neighbours is rising as Russia, once again, pursues its 19th century imperialist doctrine of Czar Nicholas I “autocracy, orthodoxy and nationalism”.
Yet, Russia is accommodated by Western powers.
Hepburn argues that international appeasement of Russia is a tradition that has persisted since Stalin’s times, when the dictator called such apologists “useful idiots.” Today, this includes governments across the Western world:
Russia appeasement is alive and well as short-term interests get in the way of principles and strategic goals. This gets France technology transfer contracts for Russia’s naval fleet enlargement. Germany’s Angela Merkel–with roots in East Germany where Mr. Putin served as a KGB operative, speaks Russian at official bilateral meetings and works hard to be on the right side of Russia’s energy policies. The United States may have a new START agreement, open bases in Kyrgystan [sic] and cooperation in dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat but at what price?
Meanwhile, Russia’s strategic goals are gaining ground. It is expanding its hegemony in the neighborhood; participating in Europe’s security deliberations; increasing control of global waters; seeking trade access via WTO membership; and demanding respect while expanding its criminal empire. Cold War victors applaud– da, da kharasho–and throw in the Winter Olympics and the World Cup into the bargain.
Moreover, there is no room for optimism that Russia’s foreign policy is about to improve on its own:
A good predictor of future behavior is past performance. The United States and Canada, for instance, should continue to have good relations, given some 200 years of peace and prosperity. The future in Russia’s neighborhood and the rest of the world will be turbulent unless pressured to change. In the last century, Russia invaded the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Georgia. There is mischief making in Armenia and Transdnistria, cyber attacks on Estonia and interference in the Kyrgyz Republic. Gratuitous butchery in Chechnya contrasts sharply to the way Canada, for example, handled Quebec’s independence aspirations.
Russia’s aggression calls for deterrents rather than rewards. Yet in April, Obama and Medvedev signed the New START Treaty to reduce nuclear power of both countries. Some fear it will ensure the U.S. nuclear arsenal cannot overwhelm Russia’s and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia reserves the right to drop out of the pact if it believes U.S. missile defense plans for Europe threaten its security.
Of course, having Russia closer to Canada, NATO and other Western democracies is desirable and current convergences would be good news were they accompanied with democratization. The reality is different. Russia glorifies its bloody imperial and Soviet past and shows little progress in becoming a rule of law state. It remains a repeat offender, a danger the West dismisses at its peril.