Time To Fundamentally Rethink Our Relationship with Russia

By Javier M. Piedra

The Euro-Atlantic world needs to see the strategic potential in working with Russia (as opposed to seeking her strategic encirclement), and must recognize that radical militant Islam is a much greater threat to our way of life than Putin’s Russia.

And yet there are some in Washington and Brussels who believe Russia constitutes a greater threat to U.S. security than ISIS, and other radical Islamist groups. This is nonsense.

Gen. Mark Milley, the Chief of Staff of the US Army, for example, says that “Russia is the number one strategic threat to the United States,” revealing a startling degree of ignorance about what is happening in the world, and what is really at stake for the United States. Likewise, Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, and his boss, Barack Obama, blunder badly when they surround Russia with troops, ships and missiles on the absurd pretext of fending off a non-existent threat to the Baltic States.

Would the US be content to look on benignly as Moscow made similar high stakes military moves in Cuba, Mexico and/or near our territorial waters.  Highly unlikely.  One shudders to think how our elite would react.

Take a deep breath – Moscow is more than willing to work with the US and Europe on issues of mutual  interest.  Towards this end, the ongoing menace of radical Islam (which proclaims death to infidels from London to Vladivostok and from Dushanbe to Gibraltar) presents an opportunity for immediate cooperation between NATO and Russia. The Euro-Atlantic Alliance must exploit this opportunity (and look for others).

Some world leaders, such as French President Hollande, are challenging existing paradigms towards Russia. “NATO has no role at all to be saying what Europe’s relations with Russia should be. For France, Russia is not an adversary, not a threat. Russia is a partner which, it is true, may sometimes, and we have seen that in Ukraine, uses force which we have condemned when it annexed Crimea.”[i] It appears that the Italians and Hungarians are also drifting away from the Washington’s anti-Russian position. Moreover, Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy, brilliantly executed, also does not see Russia as an existential enemy. It would seem that US President Obama, including Hillary, and former British Prime Minister Cameron, have overplayed their hand.

Fortunately, it seems that Boris Johnson, the UK’s new Foreign Secretary understands that the crises in Yemen, Syria, South Sudan and now Turkey constitute more of a challenge to global security than Russia.  He does not appear to share NATO’s obsession with a presumed Russian threat to Europe. While Whitehall (and the Quai d’Orsay) must play the sanctions card for the moment to placate Washington and its friends in Brussels, expect Johnson to engage the Kremlin with a respect and seriousness that Philip Hammond, his predecessor, was incapable of. Trump, if he wins the Presidency, will most likely have a solid partner in Johnson.

A growing number of analysts are figuring out that Russia is not the existential threat to the Euro-Atlantic alliance that some in Brussels and Washington say it is.  It is time for new thinking. If it is true, as Putin wrote in May 2016, that “Russia proceeds from the need to establish dialogue with the EU in the spirit of equality and genuine partnership on a variety of issues ranging from visa liberalization to the formation of an energy alliance,” then why not “believe that our relations with the EU do not face any problems that we cannot solve. To get back to a multifaceted partnership, the deficient approach of one-sided relationships should be abandoned. There should be true respect for each other’s opinions and interests.” Very sensible.

“I am convinced,” Putin says, “that we should draw appropriate conclusions from the events in Ukraine and proceed to establishing, in the vast space stretching between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, a zone of economic and humanitarian cooperation based on the architecture of equal and indivisible security. Harmonizing European and Eurasian integration processes would be an important step in this direction.”

To overcome the barriers to constructive dialogue, we must understand that a) Russia and the USSR are completely distinct realities, b) the U.S. and Russia have many interests in common – from defeating Islamist extremism, to stability in Europe and the Middle East, to curbing nuclear proliferation, to controlling “loose nukes,” etc. and c) there are many shared values between Russia, Europe and the United States based on our common Christian heritage.  The U.S., Europe and Russia have a common interest in preserving the cultural identity of the pan-European realm..

Russia has centuries of experience in dealing with Muslims, radical or otherwise, in Central Asia and the Caucasus.  Time to ditch irresponsible talk of Russia representing an existential threat to Europe in favor of forging a partnership to confront radical Islam. There is nothing less at stake than the future of pan-European civilization.Φ

Javier M. Piedra earned an M.A in international relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has over 35 years of work experience in finance and banking, and is the former head of M & A , corporate finance at KPMG in Central Asia. He has lived for the past 16 years in Kazakhstan. He is fluent in Russian and Spanish.

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