Moscow Offers a Zero-Sum Trade-off on Contentious Issues

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 18

This week, the First Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff Army-General Nikolai Makarov attended a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) in Brussels and accepted a framework agreement to resume full-scale defense cooperation with the Alliance. This was the first meeting of the NRC at the level of chiefs of staff since the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008. After the short war with Georgia, NATO announced that it would not resume military cooperation before Russia withdraws its troops to the positions they occupied antebellum, in accordance with the ceasefire agreement President Dmitry Medvedev signed on August 12, 2008. Of course, since then, Russian troops have stayed within Georgian internationally recognized boundaries and have constantly reinforced their positions, building roads and military infrastructure, deploying additional tanks, heavy guns and missiles (Kommersant, January 27). In any case, the West tacitly accepted the occupation of the former Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and now has gone further by resuming military “business as usual.” One NATO official declared this as marking “an important step forward,” and added that an agreement has been reached for another meeting with Makarov next May to further promote important military cooperation (RIA Novosti, January 26).

This apparent Western concession was interpreted by Moscow as a major political victory and a sign of Western indecisiveness. NATO does not accept Moscow’s “hegemony over the post-Soviet space,” but lacks the will to openly resist Russian intentions and can only respond by issuing empty statements. NATO is a divided organization with Russia enjoying special relationships with key members such as France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Slovakia. This is a weakness that must be fully exploited (Kommersant, January 27). The defense ministry announced that the “period of business-like military cooperation is over,” and that Russia will work together with NATO only in those fields that it is particularly interested in. The permanent representative in NATO headquarters, Dmitry Ragozin, announced that Russia may help NATO in Afghanistan, but only in exchange for due compensation (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, January 27).

The West has asked Russia to provide the Afghan security forces with training and transport helicopters for gratis. The request was flatly rejected by Moscow, which demanded that Western governments pay in full. Ragozin announced that Russia is ready to rebuild factories and other infrastructure in Afghanistan that was once constructed by the Soviet Union, but the West must pay. He said that Moscow demands Western acknowledgement in writing that Russia has the right of full access to carry out repairs, using Western budget money, “without any international public contest.” According to Ragozin, Moscow is not ready to begin discussing the terms of the transit of Western “lethal supplies” and weapons through its territory into Afghanistan before it gets further concessions and “NATO must first figure out the terms of the transit of non-lethal supplies” (Kommersant, January 27). Ragozin’s comments seem to be the first official explanation as to why the agreement to allow US air transit of troops and supplies to Afghanistan through Russia, signed during Barak Obama’s visit to Moscow last July, is not working (EDM, January 13).

In Moscow, the term “zero-sum game” is seldom used, and the notion that the “zero-sum game must be abandoned” sounds ridiculous. In the Russian political culture there are no alternatives to the zero-sum game: if one party wins, the other is disgraced, or physically destroyed. In Russia, politics and business are “zero sum,” while Western calls to change that are seen as veiled attempts to obtain something for nothing, and cheap rhetoric.

Today, Russia has a long list of wishes it wants the West (Washington) to grant: to give Moscow the power of veto over NATO actions, and permanently stop the expansion of the Alliance. Other key objectives include, signing a nuclear arms control treaty on Russian terms and making a firm pledge to halt the development of strategic ballistic missile defense (EDM, January 7). Moreover, it wants Western acceptance of Moscow’s hegemony in the post-Soviet space, and rapid WTO membership for Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus together as a customs union and a prototype of a restored Russian (Soviet) empire.

To have its wish list realized, Moscow is gathering appropriate bargaining chips by linking the resolution of existing issues and creating new ones. It is stalling on cooperation over Iran and Afghanistan. A possible trade war with the US over chicken meat is currently developing. The US has a quota to sell 600,000 tons of poultry this year in Russia worth $800 million. However, since January 1, the Russian authorities have imposed a sanitary ban, citing the use of chlorine baths by American companies to disinfect chickens after slaughter. There is no scientific evidence that this may cause health problems and the ban might result in price rises that will hurt consumers. Nonetheless, trade negotiations with US officials have thus far failed (Interfax, January 25).

The pileup of problems has led to Obama and Medvedev holding a telephone conversation yesterday. It was announced that the presidents have instructed their negotiators to rapidly resolve the “technical problems” and prepare the text of the new START treaty. Other issues were also discussed (Interfax, January 27). A zero-sum trade-off might be considered in relation to Afghanistan and Iran, if the Americans at last recognize the Russian way of doing business.