by Michael ScammellNews Weekly
'Kursk' disaster timely reminder to next US President
, September 9, 2000
Michael Scammell is a Melbourne writer and was Media Officer with the US Consulate in Melbourne between 1989 and 1995
Symbolism is all. The image of a Russian submarine lying crippled at the bottom of the Barents Sea is a major humiliation for a Russian Government intent upon regaining some lost global cache.
There was no real surprise in the Russians’ reluctance to accept US and European offers of help — even at the loss of Russian sailors’ lives, nor even in early admissions by the US Government that US nuclear submarines routinely shadow the Russian navy.
It shows that despite a general thawing, US-Russian relations remain, as always, on edge.
While nuclear Armageddon may not be the hot issue it was, the tragedy off the north-west coast of Russia nevertheless shows that the underfunded, dilapidated state of the Russian military is a potential crisis waiting to happen for an incoming US President.
Neither US presidential candidate has said much about US-Russia relations. George W. Bush is an international affairs lightweight, who has made clear that a Bush Administration intends to treat Russia as an autonomous superpower and deal with it mainly at a strategic level. This is a clear break with the ongoing agenda of the Clinton-Gore Administration.
The Gore position on US-Russian relations is already on record. The Clinton-Gore administration made a heavy investment in trying to nurture a market economy and transition democracy in Russia.
But, if elected, Gore may find this interventionist philosophy cuts no ice with the Russians. Vladimir Putin has stated his priority as President is to restore Russian power and prestige. It is quite clear he would regard American fingerwaving on what he regards as internal Russian affairs as ill-placed.
Ironically, Bush Jnr., despite his inexperience, may find himself much better placed to work with the Putin Presidency. His willingness to accept Russian power and autonomy as a given may assist in fostering a more realistic relationship with Russia.
Both candidates may find the opportunity to “think big” thrust upon them sooner than expected. The signal coming from the Russian Government is that they are keen to reduce their nuclear forces. The cost of maintaining an offensive nuclear capacity must be draining billions of dollars away from domestic Russian needs and Putin knows that his ability to reinvigorate Russia is dependent upon kickstarting the Russian economy. The recent passing of the long-stalled START 2 Treaty is a move in that direction.
The incapacity of Boris Yeltsin in the final years of his presidency, along with Bill Clinton’s preoccupation with Monica Lewinsky, ensured that other than START 2 not much was achieved in US-Russian relations in recent years. This, along with a general post-Cold War perception that “things would look after themselves” has ensured that localised firefights such as Bosnia and Iraq, rather than superpower strategic affairs, have dominated US foreign policy.
A crashed Russian submarine is a timely reminder that a crisis can arise at any time between these two superpowers and that American presidents ignore US-Russia relations at their peril.