How to Handle Russia

Europe and America, working together, can engage Russia more effectively to address troubling issues, mobilize energies, and solve problems.

That Russia and the West are cooperating to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons has caused surprise. It should not. Despite the Kremlin's rejection of Western liberal values, some practical cooperation takes place. To make more headway, America, Europe and Russia must interact in new and more realistic ways.

The Russia ruled by President Vladimir Putin is carving out a distinct Eurasian, not European, identity. It is not the democratic Russia for which the West hoped after the Soviet collapse two decades ago. Putin’s Russia relies on centralized authority, nationalism, and energy exports. It draws strength from control of a vast landmass and transport linking China, the Middle East, and Europe. Russia seeks a shift to a more multipolar world in which it will hold greater sway.

Russia sees itself as an independent great power, but its foreign policy is often contentious. Russia has invaded neighboring Georgia, and bullied Ukraine, Armenia and Moldova not to sign trade and association agreements with the European Union. Yet Putin lambasts Western intervention in other states. Support of Iran and Syria gives Russia a regional role, but for over two years it blocked United Nations sanctions against Syria. In August, U.S.-Russian relations hit bottom over human rights and political abuses in Russia and Moscow’s giving asylum to Edward Snowden, who has leaked U.S. intelligence data. With reason, President Obama cancelled a planned Moscow summit.

Augmenting its Eurasian thrust, Russia has forged a multitude of pragmatic ties with the West. It is the European Union’s third-largest trading partner and a major energy supplier. Three-quarters of all foreign investment in Russia comes from the EU. Russia and America control over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, and conclude treaties to lessen threats. Joint exercises take place to combat terrorism, nuclear theft and airplane hijackings. Much of NATO’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan traverses Russia.

The effort to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons is Russia’s most important and constructive diplomatic initiative. Moscow will deserve substantial credit if Syria surrenders its chemical weapons by mid-2014 and abides by the international Chemical Weapons Convention, a diplomatic option that emerged after America threatened force against Syria. Elimination will be a challenge, and Russia may have to apply more pressure on the Assad regime to force compliance.

The West should probe whether the new collaboration can be expanded into other areas. What is needed first is a frank, broad-based dialogue at the policy level between Russia, Europe, and America.

The discourse should begin with Syria and Iran, and cover Afghanistan, the broader Middle East, Russia’s Eurasian neighbors, and the North Pacific region. Dialogue will not be a cure-all, but it can help clear the air and avert some tensions on troubling issues. Security and narcotics threats in Afghanistan and Central Asia as NATO forces leave Afghanistan are urgent issues. Preventing terrorist attacks at the 2014 Sochi Olympics is another.

This is not an argument to ignore the Kremlin's human-rights violations, most recently its reversion to the Soviet-era practice of forced psychiatric treatment of political opponents. Westerners are dismayed at the crackdown on foreign-funded independent groups seeking to advance human dignity in Russia, seen by Putin as outside interference in domestic affairs.

Despite these pressures and an uncertain business climate, potential exists for cooperation in several areas. Examples are scientific research, technology commercialization, energy and consumer products, education, and medical care. Over the long term, such activity will help develop civil society in Russia.

Increased practical collaboration will not, however, weaken Western resolve on issues of principle. One is strong support for the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics and their right freely to choose alliances and partners.

Europe and America, working together, can engage Russia more effectively to address troubling issues, mobilize energies, and solve problems. A 1990s US-Russian commission headed by Vice President Al Gore and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin tried, but disagreements over Iran and other issues, along with meager economic links, sapped momentum. The current US-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission has yielded uneven results.

A trilateral approach, with Europe fully integrated, would bring greater resources and might achieve more meaningful results. Europe’s substantial clout with Russia is reflected in twice-yearly EU-Russia summits and numerous bilateral meetings, such as Putin’s last June in Germany with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Europe’s keen interest in human and political rights in Russia would strengthen dialogue on these issues.

It will not be easy to bolster relations with Russia, but combining American and European energies may add valuable heft at this time of political tension.

Denis Corboy served as European Commission ambassador to Armenia and Georgia. William Courtney was special assistant to the President for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, and U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. Kenneth Yalowitz served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.

Image: White House Flickr