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Subject: New Directions in Russian Foreign Policy: Is the East Wind Prevailing over the West Wind in Moscow?
Date: Tue, 6 Dec 2005
From: "Andrew Kuchins" <AndrewKuchins@CARNEGIE.RU>

New Directions in Russian Foreign Policy: Is the East Wind Prevailing over the West Wind in Moscow?
Andrew C. Kuchins
Director, Carnegie Moscow Center
November 29, 2005
Wilton Park conference on “Russia, the G-8 Chairmanship, and Beyond”

At the outset of the 21st century, the Russian Federation faces a number of daunting geopolitical challenges including: to its West an expanding and deepening EU, a more ideologically driven global hegemon in the USA, rapidly developing regional and potential superpowers to the East in China and India, and a very soft underbelly to the South with a perimeter of weak states in Central Asia and the Caucasus bordering on the Muslim world. Russia’s vast Eurasian geography naturally creates diversified challenges West, East, and South—they always have for Russia during Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet periods—but these geopolitical challenges recently have been complicated by an historically extraordinary diminution of state capacity and international influence during the chaotic 1990s following the collapse of the USSR. The Russian Federation is undoubtedly recovering from its most recent Time of Troubles (Smutnoe Vremya), but there are reasons to question how sustainable this recovery is and to what extent the Russian Federation will be able to meet challenges in a rapidly globalizing world.

Much of the discourse about Russian foreign policy over the last 15 years has been framed in terms of it being pro- or anti- Western. What is eminently clear now is that it is pro-Russian; how Russia defines its national interests, however, may not always be clear—and like any country may change over time. In thinking about Russia’s foreign policy orientation, I am reminded of the famous line of Mao Tse Tung in the late 1950s about the East wind prevailing over the West wind—i.e. the socialist camp then would dominate over the capitalist camp. The question as to which wind, the East or the West, is prevailing in Moscow is both difficult and easy to answer. Students and observers of Russia seem to perpetually raise the question Whither Russia? Is it European? Is it Asian? Is it a unique Eurasian amalgam? If I were forced to answer this question in a multiple choice (ABC) format, I would probably be forced to choose D, or all of the above. The famous emblem of Tsarist Russia and restored again today is the double headed eagle that faces both East and West and it symbolizes the geopolitical challenges and orientation of Russia in both directions, although likely a triple-headed eagle would be more appropriate with the third head facing down to the soft southern underbelly as Winston Churchill described Russia’s south, a description that holds true today many decades later. (as is his saying that Russia is “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”—October 1939 radio broadcast)

The easy answer to the question is that the West wind continues to prevail in Russia’s foreign policy orientation. Looking at Russia’s Western orientation today towards Europe and the United States, and I do not really want to get into an extended debate over the question of the extent to which the West still exists—or the extent to which the trans-Atlantic community remains and will remain a community, clearly there are a number of compelling reasons why Russia’s foreign policy orientation, beyond historical and cultural legacies, leans West. Also echoing Mao, I have argued and will continue to argue that Russia’s foreign policy “leans to one side,” and that side is to the West. Why? Well, one explanation is economic geography and demography. More than 2/3 of the Russian population and its economic production lie in areas contiguous with Europe. From a domestic economic and demographic perspective, the Russian Federation is very lopsided. More than 50% of its economic trade goes to the 25 countries of the expanded European Union. Despite its comparable GDP, the US remains a far less significant economic partner for Russia.

However, the United States plays a huge role on international security issues and to a somewhat lesser extent in multilateral organizations and regimes by dint of its military and economic power. While Europe is Russia’s most important economic partner, the United States plays the greatest role on security issues of interest to Russia (and I would argue vice versa). Russia’s Soviet legacy as a nuclear superpower endures, and this makes the United States’ still Russia’s principal interlocutor on issues related to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear security. As the terrorist threat to Russia grows, most Russian political elites recognize that the United States can play the most significant role, other than Moscow, in mitigating or exacerbating that threat.

But while Russia’s ties with both Europe and the United States are today obviously far closer than twenty years ago when Mikhail S. Gorbachev took over as General Secretary of the CPSU of the USSR, several things have become more clear as Mr. Putin’s presidency is now well into its second (and what I believe will be final) term.

• One, Russia will not play the role of “junior partner” to the United States as some had hypothesized in the fall of 2001 when Mr. Putin made the bold decision to fully support the U.S.-led coalition effort to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. In addition to cooperating with the US coalition in Afghanistan including the establishment of US military bases in Central Asia, Russia accepted without supporting the expansion of NATO and the US decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. The next major test of the US-Russian relationship came with the decision to support or oppose the war in Iraq, which Russia for a number of reasons in the end decided against. Although I think this was a very difficult decision for President Putin as I do not believe in the end he wanted to have to choose between Chirac/Schroeder versus Bush/Blair.

• Two, While Russia is and certainly will interact more with Europe, it seems far more ambivalent about the notion of integrating with Europe, and especially the European Union. For one, the EU is more internally focused on the dual tasks of broadening and deepening the Union, and Russia is a secondary priority. Russia’s domestic transformation has stalled, and this has complicated ties with Europe. Still, the importance of Russia as an essential energy supplier to Europe, a card that the Kremlin understandably emphasizes increasingly both as a carrot and a stick for its European neighbors, cannot be ignored by European policymakers.

• Three, Russia feels very much on the geopolitical defensive in face of the Westward expansion of both NATO and the EU. Russia feared the former more than the latter, but the more it knows about the EU, the more concerned it is. While Europeans and Americans (and lets not forget that there are many intra-European differences) disagree on a number of major international questions, they do broadly agree about the importance of maintaining and promoting the sovereignty of the states formerly part of the Soviet Union (not to speak of those formerly part of the Warsaw pact). The dramatic forced geopolitical retreat of the Russian empire in Europe after WWI was fairly rapidly reversed after WWII and held for nearly half a century. The dramatic defeat for Russia in the Cold War is not likely to be reversed in any foreseeable future, but rather as recent developments in Georgia and Ukraine and Moldova suggest, is still ongoing. What happened in Uzbekistan this year, however, may indicate the turning point for decline of Russian power in Eurasia has arrived—more on that later.

The dramatic showdown at the end of last year over the Ukrainian presidential elections highlighted the complications that have emerged in Russia’s ties with the US and Europe in the last year or two. The caveated but relatively positive view of Mr. Putin as a force for stability, economic reform, and pro-Western foreign policy if an at best ambiguous democrat has come under far greater attack as a result principally of the Yukos case, backsliding on democracy, and the pitched battle over the Ukrainian elections. While perhaps the previous view of the Russian president was overly rosy, today the pendulum may have swung too far in the negative direction as the principal characterization of his regime by many observers and the media in the West is of an authoritarian and neo-imperial nature. My view is that Russia has probably moved from the status of a quasi-democracy to a semi- or very mild authoritarian state. Russia was at best a very weakly institutionalized democracy at the outset of Mr. Putin’s leadership, but he has systematically weakened other independent and quasi-independent political actors and weakened democratic political institutions. To categorize Mr. Putin’s Russia as neo-imperial is not only an exaggeration but erroneous since as I noted earlier Russia is still dealing with, after nearly 20 years, geopolitical decline. That does not mean that aspirations that for some may be called neo-imperial do not exist—certainly they do. But the balance of power is a powerful and sobering inhibitor on more grandiose projections of Russian power. Perhaps the most worrisome byproduct of Mr. Putin’s efforts to consolidate and centralize power, which he and his colleagues justify as restoring state power after its virtual collapse in the 1990s is what seems to be a less effective policymaking process which may be making his regime actually and weaker rather than stronger and more effective as the Kremlin claims. That is a matter for debate, and history will judge. But for an energy exporter like Russia, $50-60/barrel oil prices can cover a multitude of sins.

Russia’s increasingly contentious engagement with some European and Transatlantic multilateral institutions also reflects the colder wind today in Russia’s ties with the West. Much of the contention is over states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, and the roots of these differences go back to the Soviet collapse in 1991. Nevertheless, it was particularly striking almost a year ago when the Russian government and the OSCE reached diametrically opposed conclusions about the parliamentary elections in Belarus and the first run of the Ukrainian presidential elections and now just recently, to a lesser extent, the Azeri elections. In these cases the Russians applauded the elections and reported no serious transgressions while the OSCE identified a myriad of transgressions and problems. For one group the conclusion is white, and for the other it is black. Continuing critique and concern from the OSCE and the PACE over human rights violations in Chechnya , over the legal deficiencies in the Yukos case, and criticism from the OSCE and the EU as well as many state leaders of political reforms announced in the wake of Beslan have led the Russian government and its spokesmen to repeatedly decry what they perceive as “double standards” in the treatment of Russia. It would be deeply incorrect to suggest that we are on the verge of a new cold war, but the style and tone of engagement between Russia and the West is more reminiscent of the Cold War. The West wind in Moscow today is a lot frostier than just a few years ago.


A major conclusion from our discussion of Russia’s ties with Europe and the United States is that Russia will neither play the role of “junior partner” a la Tony Blair’s Britain, nor will it seek anytime soon really deep intergration, i.e. membership, with the European Union. It will be one of the few countries in the world, like China, that will pursue an independent foreign policy. It will play a significant role in a number of key regions, Europe, NE Asia, and what the Russians call the “Greater Middle East.”—basically Muslim dominated regions to its South from Afghanistan to Egypt. Russia will also have a number of niche capabilities allowing it to play a broader global role—these include energy, WMD, and UN veto. As such, Russia will pursue what it calls a “multi-vector” foreign policy designed to promote Russian national interests and a “multi-polar” world.

Outside of a unified Europe and the United States, the most significant “pole” in any 21st century multipolar world will be China. (Parenthetically, Russia’s overall greatest challenge will be to ensure that it will indeed develop as one of the significant centers of global power and influence. Skeptics about Russia will point to unsustainable economic growth, brutal demographic trends, incompetent and corrupt governance or combinations of all the above to support their doubts about Russia’s future.) China presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities for Russia that naturally are very different from those posed by the United States or Europe. Often Russian and foreign observers simplistically pose a “China option” for Russia if relations to its West with Europe and the U.S., especially the US, go badly. This “option” was raised on a number of occasions in the past decade as a response to the perception of an overly domineering United States, to the expansion of NATO, or to the expansion of the mission of NATO as exemplified by the war in Kosovo. Some analysts in the West will point to the burgeoning Sino-Russian arms trade and growing collaboration on security issues through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as well as through bilateral military-military ties as forming the seeds of an emerging military alliance or at least security relationship designed to counter US military hegemony. The unprecedented Sino-Russian military exercises at the end of the summer attracted a great deal of attention and commentary along these lines.

Conversely, others view China’s rapid economic growth and naturally accruing international power and influence along with its massive population as threatening to Russian interests, especially in the resource rich Russian Far East and Siberia with its small and declining populations and ongoing governance problems. Russians worried about China’s growth point to the inexorably growing influence of China in Russia’s Eastern regions through trade and economic ties. Often the number of legal and illegal Chinese migrants is exaggerated to support the view that China threatens Russia, maybe not with a military threat to reacquire its lost territories but rather through more subtle means akin to a growing “fifth column” emerging from economic influence and migration.

In my view both theses of the China “option” for Russia and the China “threat” to Russia are exaggerations or distortions of reality today. Russia’s ties with the United States and Europe would have to greatly worsen before Russia would consider upgrading its relationship with China to something more like an alliance. And let’s remember also that China’s ties with the U.S. would have to greatly deteriorate for China to think it worthwhile to ally with Russia. The United States is more important for China than Russia, and the US is more important to Russia than China. For the foreseeable future, this seems unlikely to change, even in the catastrophic event of conflict between the US and China over Taiwan. What incentive would there be for Russia to destroy its relationship with the US over Taiwan?? The old logic driving the strategic triangle during the latter stage of the Cold War, especially in the 1970s, simply does not apply to today’s reality. Tomorrow’s reality may be different… However, the reality today for Russia is that China is neither a threat nor an option, but rather an extremely important bilateral relationship given their long border and China’s rapidly growing economic power and influence.

While at a psychological level some of Russia’s sense of vulnerability towards its rapidly growing Eastern neighbor is understandable, the existing evidence simply does not support the conclusion that China poses any real threat to Russia. On the contrary, it is far easier to make the argument that the Sino-Russian relationship today is more positive than at any time in the last century perhaps with the exception of the 1950s. The Russians and the Chinese last fall made final agreements about the adjudication of their border, the longest in the world. Sino-Russian trade and economic ties are rapidly growing, and China and Russia agree on many major international and global issues and are cooperating on security issues to a greater degree. Now, obviously everything is not just “hunky-dory,” there are disagreements and disappointments in the relationship that are natural to a certain degree in any bilateral relationship.

One of the major disappointments for China is that energy cooperation with Russia has not developed faster. China’s energy policy with Russia, like that of the US to a lesser extent perhaps, placed too much emphasis on ties with Yukos and its now jailed CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Russian energy policy has been in disarray for the past two years while the sad Yukos affair ran its course and the Kremlin consolidated state power over the energy, and in particular the oil sector. But in the longer term, the reality is that assuming continued robust Chinese economic growth, China’s demand for energy—oil and gas, but also nuclear and hydroelectric power —and other natural resources including metals and minerals will be—all the stuff Russia has in spades—will be virtually insatiable. Given its geographic proximity and vast resource endowments, especially those that have not been developed in its Eastern territories, the Sino-Russian trade relationship which hit $28 billion this year (more than quadrupling officially since the Russian financial collapse in 1998) may well reach the level of $100 billion by 2020 as the Chinese ambassador to Russia predicted last year and the more recently announced goal of $60 billion by 2010. Russian energy supplies to China, as well as to other major Asian powers including Japan, Korea, and India will grow tremendously and bring somewhat closer into balance Russia’s foreign economic engagement to its West and to its East. This is inevitable since the major sources of global economic growth in the first half of this century will be in Asia, especially in China and India, and Russia—although obviously not only Russia as it will not surplant the Middle East as the primary global energy supplier—has many of the resources these energy hungry economies will need.

Europe will remain Russia’s #1 economic partner, but its position will erode as Russia’s ties with Asia as well as the United States will relatively grow—it is possible, for example, that Russia could supply up to10-15% or US energy needs through oil and LNG exports. In effect the changing structure of Russian foreign economic ties will reflect to a considerable degree the changing structure of economic power in the world with the growth of China and India being the most obvious changes. These developing vectors, or winds to use the analogy I chose for this talk are unlikely to supercede or overtake those of the West for Russia in the next two decades, but the balance will be different. And while there may be more economic activity in the Eastern (and Northern) regions of Russia, this does not mean there will be significant demographic change. The development of natural resources, and especially energy, will remain the comparative advantage of this region, and these industries are not labor intensive. To the extent that Russia will be able to successfully further diversify its economic growth, that will come in the Western regions of the country that are already the centers for consumer, services, and high-tech industries.

The growth of Chinese, Indian, and other Asian economies in the first half of this century will exert tremendous gravitational pull, if you will, on the Russian economy and thus its foreign policy. The most significant geopolitical and geo-economic phenomena of our times are the expansion and the unification of the EU and the rise of China and India. A much quoted Goldman Sachs report on the BRICs published in the fall of 2003 predicted that by the year 2050, China, USA, and India would be the three largest economies in the world (44,35,28 trillion gdp) with Japan, Brazil, Russia falling far behind all around 5 trillion. The report did not look at unified EU numbers, but most probably the aggregate EU figure would certainly be at least on a par with the top 3. If these predictions are anywhere close to accurate, we will be talking about a very different kind of distribution of power in the world—genuine multipolarity, and the energy and natural resource demands will be a powerful stimulus for continued economic growth for Russia, but perhaps not a strong stimulus for diversification. We only need to look at the experience of the last couple of years of very high oil prices, which have correlated with stagnation in structural economic reform in Russia—the kinds of reforms that might encourage more diversification and value-added economic growth. Energy export led growth can be a hard narcotic to kick, but there may well be little pressure for Russia to kick it.

And while Russia has exhibited sustained and robust economic growth for 7 years now since the financial crash in 1998 (albeit there are a number of worrisome signs of slowed growth and inflationary pressures and potential fall in oil and gas production in the near term), this sustained economic growth has also occurred at a time of weakening of Russia’s already very fragile and weak democratic institutions that emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many people, including myself, have argued that for a mature Russian democracy to emerge, there must be a large middle-class that increasingly will demand democratic political institutions, or perhaps initially simply more efficient and transparent institutions including and maybe first of all a far less corrupted and more independent legal system. So far this is not happening in that the middle class is growing while democratic political institutions are weakening.

I did not prepare a talk for today on Russian domestic political situation. Suffice to say that it has been a consistent operating principle for U.S. and European policy since the end of the Cold War that the stronger democratic institutions and practices are in Russia, the less likely that Russia will pose a security threat to Western interests. But since we are talking about the balance of power, I would argue that the balance of power within the Kremlin in the last two years has shifted to some degree to the favor of those who are not such staunch advocates of open market democracy as the underpinning vision of Russia’s future as were their predecessors. Clearly this shift in the internal balance of power has an impact on how the Kremlin views the external world. It is a truism that domestic and foreign policies are linked to some degree, and certainly Russia is no exception in this regard. Furthermore, as the political system has become more closed here, the tendency to search for internal and external enemies has increased.

The evidence of the past year or two is particularly powerful in this regard. With each political crisis—Yukos case, Beslan, Ukrainian elections—have been biggest three, this has been accompanied by growing finger pointing to external and internal enemies that are supposedly looking to weaken Russia. And while some of the external enemies are international terrorists, for some the West is still viewed as an enemy. Even President Putin himself on September 4, 2004 referred to those that “use terrorism as their instrument to weaken Russia…those that fear Russia’s nuclear weapons.” Here the president was clearly insinuating that some of Russia’s enemies are in the West, and especially the United States. He is not entirely wrong in that regard as there are people in Washington that would be perfectly happy to see Russia remain weak, but they are a minority and have not been major players in either Bush or Clinton administration policy toward Russia for the last nearly 15 years. I should note that while President Putin did allude to enemies in the West, he did devote most of his remarks correctly to the deficiencies in Russian policy in the Caucasus (although never pointing to Chechnya as the core problem) and the problems in Russian military, security, and intelligence forces in addressing the threat—including the problem of corruption of Russian forces. Whether Russian government policy is containing or exacerbating the problems emerging from the Northern Caucasus is a wholly different question and a matter for debate. But while Russian officials may talk about so-called threats West and South—real or imagined--, they do not refer, at least for now, to threats real or potential to Russia’s East.

Not only does the East—let’s focus on China—not present a real military threat to Russia now, but China will also not criticize the Russian government for human rights violations in Chechnya or anywhere, backsliding on democracy, renationalization of parts of the economy, etc. China will not in any foreseeable future make the spread of democracy a major feature, let alone the focal point of its approach to the rest of the world. All China cares about with Russia is that its border is controlled, that the energy and natural resources flow in greater magnitude, and to a lesser extent that weapons and weapons technology trade continues.

Are the West’s military forces and nuclear weapons a threat to the current Russian state? Not really. The threat, if that is the right word, the West poses to the Kremlin today is of a political rather than a military nature. Judging by political developments in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and even Kyrgyzstan this year, there appears to be a second wave of democratization gaining momentum in Eastern Europe (first wave 1989-91). One can argue to the degree that these events were revolutions or simply regime changes, but in all cases they were motivated by popular dissatisfaction with corrupt regimes and catalyzed by falsified election results. An impulse to democracy cannot be denied. While Europe and the US disagree about a number of things, they are reasonably united on this front as we saw with Ukraine at the end of last year. Russia is resisting this wave, and in doing so it has been losing influence on its periphery. Or at least that seemed to be the case until the brutal suppression in May of riots in the Uzbek town of Andijan.

President Karimov, leader of Uzbekistan since its independence in 1991, claimed that Uzbek police and security forces took justified measures to quell a public uprising that was supported by terrorist forces seeking to destroy the Uzbek regime. Human Rights Watch and other international NGOs claim that Uzbek security forces massacred hundreds of innocent civilians. Of course, these two explanations are not mutually exclusive, and in fact both carry elements of truth. President Karimov has refused to allow for an international investigation called for by the US government, OSCE and others of what happened in Andijan. After Andijan, President Karimov first flew to Beijing where he received full support of the Chinese government for his actions taken. The Russian government has also fully supported Karimov in this case. Karimov, now for more than a decade, has been eliminating any independent or oppositional political force in Uzbekistan, usually in the name of promoting state stability and fighting terrorists and Islamic extremists.

The Chinese, Russian, and U.S. governments have shared interests in opposing the three “isms” in Central Asia—terrorism, extremism, and separatism and in fighting the three “traffickings” —drugs, arms, and people—and while each country naturally seeks to increase its influence, they have an overriding shared interest in regional stability. But in the wake of the series of colored revolutions in recent years, the differences that Beijing and Moscow have with Washington over the importance of promoting democracy in the region have grown much sharper. The US sees democracy and its role in promoting democracy as a long-term force enhancing regional stability while the Chinese and the Russians see it quite differently, and other Central Asian leaders are more inclined to agree with Mr. Hu and Mr. Putin rather than with Mr. Bush on this score. This was made eminently clear over the summer first when the Shanghai Cooperation Organization called for the United States to clarify when it would be closing its military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and then even more pointedly when the Uzbek government called for the United States military to leave Uzbekistan altogether. All this added up to a victory for Moscow and Beijing in the region and a defeat for the United States. Looking at this more narrowly in the context of the US-Russian competition in Eurasia, it marks the first reversal for US power in the region where it had been on a twenty-year geopolitical roll.

It may be premature to judge to what extent this development is a harbinger for the future. Authoritarian regimes are inherently unstable, and generational turnover in other Central Asian states including Uzbekistan could result in change of regime type. The irony is that the brutal repression of independent political forces often can trigger unintended consequences that may hasten the day for regional “colored revolutions”. But as regards any notional triangular relationship between the USA, China, and Russia, there is increasing momentum behind a set of economic and political—to some extent ideological—drivers that push Moscow and Beijing closer and at least for the moment paper over the inherently competitive nature of the Sino-Russian relationship. For now the Shanghai Cooperation Organization remains weakly institutionalized as it is still in a fairly nascent stage. But the joint declaration this summer calling for the US to clarify its plans with military bases in Central Asia marked a significant step that reflected both a growing confidence as well as perceived coincidence of interests among its largest members, China and Russia. The recent meeting of the SCO last month included as observers India, Pakistan, and Iran among others; and as President Putin triumphantly announced, the representation of countries at this meeting included 3 billion people, or about half of the population on the planet. Russian statements about the SCO as well as about ties with China continue to emphasize that the organization is not a military alliance, and that these ties are not directed against any third parties. The first statement is certainly true, but the second is at least slightly disingenuous. We may now not be seeing the reemergence of a strategic triangular relationship between China/Russia/USA which existed virtually throughout the Cold War with at any one time distinctly adversarial relations in at least one leg of the triangle, but geopolitics is returning to Eurasia with a shifting balance of power, new emerging powers, and bilateral and multilateral relations in flux. Efforts to provide a counterbalance to unilateral US power in the world has been a consistent theme for the last decade in the Sino-Russian rapprochement.

Combined with the shifting balance of power is the return of an ideological component to Sino-Russian-US relations—in this case the resistance of Russia and China to the U.S. (and European) democracy-promoting role in world affairs. Beijing and Moscow are concerned that a spreading wildfire of “colored revolutions” could delegitimize their own political authority. An authoritarian ruler like Karimov before Andijan was more inclined to look at improved ties with the U.S. as a useful balance against Russia (and perhaps eventually against China) and a source of assistance in waging battle against radical Islamists—a category that came to include virtually anyone who opposed Mr. Karimov. Mr. Karimov and others find increasingly eager support from Beijing and Moscow in the quest for “regional stability” as the leadership in Russia and China is more inclined to view democracy promotion, especially in Central Asia, as a dangerous force for political instability increasing the possibilities of radical Islamists to assume power and promote separatist, extremist, and terrorist groups on their own terroritory from Uighurstan to the Northern Caucasus. Earlier this month Russia and Uzbekistan signed a security alliance. Instead of the old Marxist saying “Proletarians of the world unite,” the modern-day Eurasian variant may be “Authoritarians of the World Unite!”. I think there are clear limitations as to how far this nascent entente will go, but to return to the initial wind analogy of my talk this evening, in 2005, the East wind is blowing more strongly in Russian foreign policy as the West wind has chilled.