Russia making a steady comeback

By Brenda Kay Zylstra

In any country in the world, open a newspaper and you will surely find North Korea, China, India and of course that perpetual place of unrest, the Middle East. In the past six years, the United States has increasingly alienated international allies, burning bridges with unilateral policies and often disregarding diplomacy for other avenues of action.

Only a few weeks ago Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made headlines as they went so far as to declared their disdain and distrust of the Bush administration and the U.S. on our own soil, and the sad truth is that while most countries would not go as far as Venezuela and Iran, we also have few truly staunch allies left. If there were ever a time to shore up our national pride and make amends with any and every nation we can, it is now.

And while the aforementioned regions could undoubtedly use plenty of diplomacy, I would caution against forgetting one other region that deserves to garner far more attention and consideration than it is currently receiving: Russia.

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a conference hosted by Chancellor Richard Herman and the Russian, East European and Eurasion Center on Russia’s current business and political status. Even as someone who has always had a great personal interest in Russia, I was forcibly struck by the strength, resources and most of all, the potential of this enormous nation.

Russia’s mass spans eleven time zones and holds vast supplies of oil, natural gas, coal, timber and most of the periodic table. According to the CIA World Factbook, in the past seven years their economy has been steadily growing, averaging at 6.4 percent a year (not too far behind the global market’s current wunderkind India, which finished off 2005 with a growth rate of 7.4 percent). Poverty is declining steadily, the middle class is expanding and investors from all over the world have been sinking millions of dollars into Russia to grab for themselves a piece of this piping hot capitalist pie. Russia is also the only power besides the U.S. that actually has the nuclear capacity to destroy the world. Although other nations may have the technology or even a few warheads, we are the only two with any significant amount of weaponry.

Furthermore, Russia is geographically in a much better position to deal with the aforementioned hotspots. It shares a 3,605 mile long border with China, is just a hop across Azerbaijan away from Iran and is simply closer to just about every present international concern (Chavez may talk big but few take him seriously, and much less worry about him). Russia’s global position means that it needs to be involved in addressing important worldwide issues.

The European Union, an international ally in many ways and easily our strongest economic relationship, has already made many endeavors at strengthening their relationship with Russia ranging from “most favored nation” trading status, to grants of over a billion euros through the Technical Aid to the Commonwealth of Independent States program, to backing Russia’s quest for World Trade Organization membership. Russia also has over 2000 miles of borders with the European Union, thanks to Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

Yesterday I attended an address sponsored by the European Union Center given by Ambassador Pekka Lintu, representative to the U.S. from Finland. One of his main points dealt with the EU continuing working on improving its relationship with Russia. An earlier meeting this year between EU Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso and Russian President Vladimir Putin resulted in both men agreeing that, “The EU and Russia need each other.”

One of the many extraordinary speakers at the Center’s convention was Ambassador James Collins, who represented the U.S. to the Russian Federation from 1997-2001. In his closing address, he gave an overview of Russia’s problems and promise, but emphasized that “simply for pure safety and survival, we need to figure out avenues to work with Russia and not disengage or withdraw from it.”

It’s a lesson the EU has already learned and one the U.S. needs to learn quickly, before our list of international friends dwindles even more and before the old Cold War mentality of mistrust and evasion loiters and embeds itself past repair.