Russia’s peace offensive

President Dmitri Medvedev’s speech in Evian, France last week has been portrayed as a broadside against the United States. Indeed, much of the speech amounted to a gratuitous rant reminiscent of his predecessor, now prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

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However, Medvedev also made important gestures of cooperation, offering a five-point plan to address the financial crisis in a multilateral context and a proposal for a new common Euro-Atlantic security architecture.
He may have used overheated rhetoric, but the substantive ideas in the speech represent concrete means of deepening Russian-Western ties.
The speech comes as Russia’s stock market has essentially collapsed. Last Monday the Russian Trading System, Russia’s main index, dropped 19 percent, the largest single-day loss in its history. It lost another 11 percent on Wednesday.
Overall, since its peak in mid-May, the RTS has lost more than two-thirds of its value. Meanwhile, according to a top investment house, capital markets are «broken,» with the bond, derivative and money markets simply not functioning.
Oddly enough, the crisis — in plainly demonstrating the financial interdependence between Russia and the West — has presented an opportunity to revive Western-Russian relations from their current post-Cold War low.
Only last week the Russian government approved an ambitious economic development plan to the year 2020. Even a cursory reading of the plan makes clear that trade, investment and broader economic cooperation with the West are far and away the most important prerequisites for higher growth scenarios.
Deepening political tensions with the West are not compatible with this, something the Kremlin has evidently come to realize in recent days. The cooperative measures proposed in the Evian speech reflect this.

The crisis in Russia is a result of multiple factors, including the drop in the price of oil, the August war in Georgia and heavy-handed state intervention in the economy. But the main driver has been the global credit crunch and the effect it has had on foreign and Russian investors, who have pulled their money out of the country at unprecedented rates.
Since Aug. 8, there has been a capital outflow of $40 billion from Russia. Although Russia is still sitting on more than $550 billion in foreign currency reserves, the notion promoted by the government that Russia could remain a «safe haven» during a global financial crisis has been exposed as hubris.
This need for economic cooperation stands in stark contrast to the political conflict over Georgia. After the invasion, Russia continued to ratchet up its confrontational policy course.
Moscow recognized the two breakaway Georgian republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a move that seemed to be a direct snub to the West. It appeared to take advantage of loopholes in the Medvedev-Sarkozy peace plan to prolong its presence in Georgia. It claimed a «privileged relationship» with its immediate neighbors and categorically ruled out NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

There seemed to be no end in sight for the downward spiral in Western-Russian relations.
But since the financial crisis began to hit Russia hard in recent weeks, things have begun to change. In addition to the Evian speech, Russia has reportedly offered $5.4 billion in credit to Iceland, a NATO member, to prop up its floundering banking sector.
Although Russia might have ulterior motives such as gaining leverage over a member of the alliance and a player in the race for control over Arctic natural resources, the loan, if it goes through, appears to be a gesture of cooperation, a demonstration that Russia wants to be a responsible stakeholder in the international economic system.
Meanwhile, Russia has completed its drawback from the so-called buffer zones around Abkhazia and South Ossetia and allowed European Union monitors access.
The economic crisis in Russia thus presents an opportunity for Europe and the United States — one that we must seize. It would be wrong to forget the fundamental challenge to international law and the international system posed by Russia’s attack on Georgia. But it would also be a mistake not to take advantage of an opportunity to return our relations with Moscow to a more constructive track.
After all, we share key interests with the Russians, such as cooperation on nonproliferation, fighting terrorism and curtailing Iran’s nuclear program.
Now that the Russians have apparently realized that their national interests lie in greater cooperation and not confrontation with the West, it is time to reach out to the Russians.

(Andrew Kuchins is a senior fellow and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, where Samuel Charap is a visiting fellow.)

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