03 September 2008

What does Russia want?

With the recent flurry of concern in the West about Russia's muscle-flexing in Georgia, we might well wonder what is motivating Moscow's foreign policy these days. In a speech on Russian television last week, President Medvedev explained. He tells us Russia will found its international relations on five principles:

Russia will
1. observe international law.
2. reject United States dominance of world affairs.
3. seek friendly relations with other nations.
4. defend Russian citizens and business interests abroad.
5. claim a sphere of influence in the world.

One and three are reassuring, if Medvedev is serious. The Russian manhandling of Georgia would seem to contradict number three, even if Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, did his utmost to provoke the bear. As for number two, rejecting world domination by the United States will meet with no objection from those growing weary of the American empire.

Number four seems reasonable and natural, although it's the kind of statement that always sounds a little ominous coming from a nation inclined to empire. Russia justified their manhandling of Georgia as a defence of Russian citizens, however it seemed to be more a case of number five. One wonders if the American occupation of Iraq in defence of its oil interests isn't, in Medvedev's mind, a precedent that might be useful to Russia.

And number five is disturbing. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union's foreign policy was principally concerned with maintaining a shield of "friendly" countries to protect it from the West. Is this what Medvedev is talking about? Or something more expansive. His comments suggest the latter. Asked if he was referring to Russia's border areas, he elaborated, “It is the border region, but not only. ... Russia, like other countries in the world, has regions where it has privileged interests. These are regions where countries with which we have friendly relations are located.” His reference to "like other countries" no doubt means the United States. Indeed if four and five are combined, we get a pretty good description of American foreign policy.

Too bad the president didn't stop with the first three principles, or at least the first four. That last one is arrogant and unsettling, the principle of a would-be empire, not of a nation committed to international law and friendly relations with other countries.

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