2010 01 07
The art of the statesman is to tell the difference between short-term interests and the demands of the future. The economic and financial crisis in which we have been plunged seems to have greatly reduced the ability of our leaders to think in the long term and measure the consequences of their decisions.
This remark does not only apply in the economic field. It is also true in strategic matters. The French decision to sell this year to Russia a Mistral class helicopter carrier is a striking illustration of that fact.
Is it very wise to arm a country which has been carving up the neighboring state of Georgia, and makes no mystery of its intentions to restore, willingly or by force, its hegemony over the whole former Soviet area?
Does France wish to imply that, in the name of a "Strategic Partnership” with Moscow, it is ready to condone the future wars of aggression prepared by the Kremlin, which will become possible once the vigorous military reforms launched since last September have been implemented?
The reasoning of our leaders and of many Western decision-makers goes approximately as follows. Russia has been permanently weakened by the economic crisis, it will eventually be doomed by its demographic problems and domestic difficulties. In that case, why deny the Kremlin an apparently profitable military co-operation?
In Europe, the temptation of a "Strategic Partnership” with Russia is particularly strong. We are being seduced by the alleged fabulous opportunities of the Russian market, by the complementarity between a manufacturing Western Europe and an under-developed Russia rich in raw materials. We believe that Russia, shaken by the economic crisis, has stopped being dangerous.
This reasoning does not take into account the world in which the Kremlin men live.
For them, domestic troubles are worthy of attention only to the extent that they threaten their power. And their grip on the country is so complete that a much longer collapse of oil prices would have been needed for the Putin regime to falter.
On the other hand, the crisis offers Russia’s leaders huge opportunities to achieve their overrarching ambitions in foreign policy.
It accelerates the U.S. decline, destabilizes most states in the “near abroad” and enables Moscow to neutralize the thin layer of pro-Western elites which had managed to coalesce in the previous years.
Far from being chastised by the evident failure of Putin’s domestic system, the Russian leaders feel closer than ever to achieving their neo-imperial scheme and their finlandization project for Western Europe.
Their priorities are obvious, as show by this recent example : at the very moment when the Russian government made it known it was postponing a population census in the Russian federation due to lack of funds, Putin announced that 15 billion rubles had been allocated for the construction of Russian military bases in Abkhazia.
Historical precedents should teach us caution. At Yalta in February 1945, the Western leaders capitulated to Stalin’s demands because they were convinced that an exhausted Russia would give priority to internal reconstruction, that it would need capital and Western technology for this and that accordingly, Moscow’s foreign policy would be more conciliatory. This reasoning gave Stalin half of Europe.
And on one point the current Russian leaders are not different from their Czarist and Communist predecessors: They are placing their power objectives ahead of any concern for the welfare of their fellow citizens.
Therefore, let us not delude ourselves when we sell Russia offensive weapons : we are sowing the seeds of future crises.
"A Mistral-type vessel will significantly increase the fighting and maneuvering capabilities of the Russian navy. During the events of August 2008 (the Russo-Georgian war), this ship would have enabled the Russian fleet in the Black Sea to carry out its mission in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours," the commander of the Russian Navy, Vladimir Vysotsky, declared recently.
At least we are forewarned. Russia already uses its gas and oil to bully the Europeans. Let us not foolhardly resurrect the Russian military threat which has loomed so long on our continent.
Françoise Thom teaches history at the Sorbonne University.
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