Russia's Atlantic Moment?

It ought to be Russia's Atlantic moment.

It ought to be Russia's Atlantic moment. Disillusioned with the European Union, yet still oriented to the West, this is the moment when Russia could be anchored into a pro-Atlantic approach.

The EU is creating major problems for Russia at this time, as it expands to Russia's borders: basic trade and transit issues, ethnic issues, threats of sanctions, lack of a voice in EU decision-making. These problems reflect enduring realities: the EU is too small for Russia, and its borders too thick.

In this there is an important opportunity for America and for several trans-Atlantic institutions as well. However, they are not using it: they are not even aware of it. Instead they are receiving a drumbeat of advice to distance themselves from Russia at this time.

Anti-EU Americans in particular ought to see the EU-Russia conflict as an opportunity: a chance to "take Russia away" from Europe. One might think they would be looking for ways to do this, e.g., ways for Russia to give up its forlorn hopes in the EU and find its main role and identity through the G-8 and the NATO-Russia Council instead.

Pro-EU Americans ought to be doing this, too, albeit without the animus. They can appreciate the EU's role in lecturing Russia on human rights: it takes a burden off America, and Russians will probably take it better from Europe than from America. It is not in America's interest to fan the discord, since the EU-Russia relation is a link holding Russia to the West. Nevertheless, all Americans have an interest in Russians' drawing the logical conclusions from the discord, namely that:

(1) it is counterproductive for Russia to identify with "Europe" as a symbol against America; Russia's actual interests often come closer to America's; and

(2) the only "common European home" Russia has a chance to join, or to get a fair share of influence within, is the larger Atlantic one, i.e. the one that includes America for balance and that is institutionalized in NATO, the OECD and G-8.

These hard realities serve as an underpinning for the current opportunity for America and for the Atlantic institutions. It is an opportunity to make useful bargains with Russia. And an opportunity to lock Russia into a better relationship with America and the Atlantic system.

Yet Washington has been neglecting the opportunity. Instead of considering ways to make good on it, they have been talking about expelling Russia from the G-8. Congressman Lantos has even been to Moscow to make this threat.

This would amount to cutting off our nose to spite our face. The G-8 is the one Western "home" in which Russia has been allowed a respectable room. Its involvement has served several basic Western interests: (a) it has helped anchor Russia's identity to the West, (b) on a crucial occasion in 1999, after the "Primakov U-turn" away from the West, it gave Yeltsin the space to bring Russia back to the Western side of the Kosovo war without total humiliation, and (c) quite possibly this saved the Western alliance as well, since Russia proceeded to convince Milosevic to give up without dragging NATO into a ground war that could have shattered its cohesion. Also, the G-8  was a venue where Putin tried to warn the top Western leaders -- prior to 9/11 -- to take the terrorist threat more seriously, and where he made his first moves to help in dealing with North Korea.

Making use of the present opportunity would not require putting the relationship into a final, fully integrated form; this cannot be done as long as the ultimate shape of Russia's political system remains unclear. But there is a big difference between moving the relation forward where feasible (as it often is) and degrading it where feasible (as it always is). Moving it forward serves to reinforce Russia's Westernizing orientation; degrading it serves to push Russia's identity out to sea. Especially disturbing are the proposals for degrading it gratuitously, that is, in the absence of a practical need to do so or in ways that seem humiliating for its own sake.

Part of the motivation for the West's failure to seize the opportunity lies in concerns about Russia's political evolution. However, the way to deal with this is not by making threats that it would be against the West's own interest to carry out. It is also important for the West to have a decent understanding of the situation in Russia and avoid letting its compass get deflected by the exaggerations and distortions that appear in popular media accounts.

At times, Atlantic entities seem to be blindly following the EU into a harsher approach toward Russia. I say "blindly" because, unlike the EU, the Atlantic entities have no intrinsic need to become harsher toward Russia. They are not too small to include Russia, as the EU is. They would not find their democratic balance threatened, as the EU would, by including a Russia whose political system is a mixed bag. They are not a customs union and immigration union -- as the EU is -- which, upon expanding its border to Russia, must draw that border more thickly. Instead, they are alliance-centered, and their common enemy -- terrorism -- is one against which Russia could serve as an able partner.

What the Atlantic institutions need to do, in order to lock in Russia to their own benefit, is fairly simple. To stay the course with Russia, avoid rubbing Russia's nose in the dirt, use opportunities to do more with Russia and keep the door open to a deeper integration down the road. And to make some gentle public relations points for themselves in light of Russia's difficulties with Europe.

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