Russia’s judo diplomacy has the West’s policy on the mat
In judo, which is Japanese for “the gentle way”, there are no knockout blows, only a series of points scored against an opponent that add up to a victory.
Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, as a skilled practitioner of the sport, knows this well. For several years, he has gone toe-to-toe with the West – and won. Battle after battle has gone his way, without resorting to a war.
The tussle over Ukraine is only the most recent manifestation of this. Ukraine is a pivotal country for both Russia and the West, especially the European Union. Both want preferential trade deals with the country, as a prelude for greater integration. The EU has proffered its trade deal – years in the making – as a prelude to the country joining the EU. Russia wants Ukraine to join its own customs union, which already includes other former Soviet Union countries and is likely to include many more.
And both are willing to play tough and dirty to get what they want: Russia has repeatedly threatened to cut gas supplies to Ukraine, while US senator John McCain, in Kiev yesterday to join tens of thousands of protesters calling for closer EU ties, warned that the US might place sanctions on Ukraine if the trade deal with the EU fell through.
The US’ sudden concern for the states of the former Soviet Union is not, as one might infer from Mr McCain’s words in Kiev, to do with support for freedom or the right of the protesters to protest. Rather, it stems from hard political calculations of the extent – and ambition – of Russia’s power.
Earlier this month, unremarked by most analysts, secretary of state John Kerry touched down in Moldova – the first visit by such a senior US official for more than two decades. (“Touched down” is the right phrase, since Mr Kerry barely stayed for four hours.) The purpose of Mr Kerry’s visit was, as with Mr McCain’s in Ukraine, to put steel into the spine of the West’s supporters in the country. The Kremlin has vigorously opposed Moldova’s signing of a free-trade agreement with the EU. Again as with Ukraine, Russia used economic leverage to try to pressure the country, banning the import of Moldovan wine – Moldova’s largest export to its largest market.
And yet Mr Kerry, as with Mr McCain, offered little except words. And that is the root of the problem with the West’s relationship with the countries of the post-Soviet space. While Russia holds out economic carrots and wields large sticks, the West can offer little except comfort and the promise of more.
The European Union cannot even offer membership – it is convulsed with internal problems, and its largest countries, such as the UK, don’t even want the people of its current members to be allowed free movement. The idea of enlarging the EU to countries with the populations of Ukraine (45 million) or Turkey (75 million) is dim and distant.
In the long run, Europe and the West will probably lose the confrontations over Moldova and Ukraine. If they don’t lose over the headlines – Ukraine’s president may well be replaced by one more open to the EU trade deal – they will likely lose in the details. Russia under Mr Putin is committed to the customs union and enlarging the country’s sphere of influence. The West is merely interested in putting out fires.
This is precisely what happened over Syria. The West had been largely unconcerned with Syria, seeing its place in their calculations of Middle East policy purely in terms of its relevance to Israel. Russia, on the other hand, sees Syria as essential to its influence in the region and, since the mid-2000s, has been steadily expanding its influence in Damascus.
When the uprising became a civil war, Moscow was firmly behind Bashar Al Assad in marked contrast to the US’s relationship with its ally in Cairo, Hosni Mubarak, who was swiftly abandoned.
Slowly, Mr Putin is knitting together the past pieces of the Soviet Union. His display of force in Georgia in 2008 – when Russia bombed the capital Tblisi, with no real response from the West – was only the most forceful of his attempts to draw the former Soviet states back into Russia’s orbit.
Last month, Russia’s man in Tajikistan won another election (“won” might be too strong a word since he was the sole credible candidate) and the month before that the Russian-speaking president of Azerbaijan was re-elected for a third term albeit in a discredited election.
The states of Central Asia still rely on Russia to an enormous extent – millions of their citizens cross the border to work. China, which is also increasing its presence in Central Asia, is a big market but offers comparatively little access to its employment market. The legacy of the Soviet Union, which means many Central Asians speak Russian, still gives the old motherland a pull. China is not likely to replace Russia any time soon.
Similarly, it is true, as Alan Philps argued in these pages last week, that Russia will not replace the United States in the Middle East. But it doesn’t need to. By carving out its zones of influence and defending them fiercely, it is always going to carry more weight in those narrow areas than a global power. When Mr Kerry goes to Moldova, or Mr McCain goes to Ukraine, pro-West politicians in these countries enjoy a brief spell of attention and focus from the superpower. But America is far away, literally and metaphorically. Once the entourage leaves, so, too, does America’s attention – while Russia remains next door, watchful.
The crowds in Kiev’s main square will soon learn the same thing the Syrians shivering in the snow have had to understand: America has many things on its mind, but Russia has only one.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai
Updated: December 16, 2013 04:00 AM