Russia's Elections-The Day After

How should the West react to the resounding victory of the United Russia party? Some advice for dealing with Moscow.

United Russia's overwhelming mandate comes as a result of an electoral process most Western countries find to be neither free nor fair. So what to do now?

First, the U.S. will have to come to terms with the democracy paradox that is Russia-that in a country which cannot be described as a democracy in procedural terms (due to the way elections are carried out), the end results are still in general alignment with the popular will. This is not a case where state pressure and use of administrative resources frustrated the desires of the electorate. It is therefore a government whose policies are viewed by most people as legitimate. So the approach of "standing with the people, not the regime" is not likely to work.

Second, the methods the EU successfully used against Austria after the election of Jorg Haider-isolation and public pressure-are not feasible. There is going to be a good deal of rhetoric calling for the United States and Europe to "do something" about Russia. The problem is that there are no real sanctions that can be employed against Russia that would not carry a major cost for U.S. or Western interests. The United States, in critical need of a continued inflow of dollars to sustain its federal and current account deficits, is not going to want to do anything which causes Russia, now the world's third largest holder of currency reserves, to begin moving more of its holdings out of greenbacks into other currencies. As with China, there is now a growing interdependency between Russia and the West that makes it difficult for the West to pressure Russia in a cost-free fashion. And "moral suasion" is not really an option: Russia is also far less interested in ensuring how it carries out its internal, domestic affairs conform to Western expectations.

"Selective partnership" may return as a guiding paradigm for how the U.S. should conduct its relationship with Russia. For selective partnership to work, however, the threats (or benefits) must be reasonably equivalent for both sides. This is manifestly not the case. Therefore, unless the United States is prepared to seriously consider what quid pro quos it would be prepared to offer to gain meaningful, as opposed to token, Russian support, on the issues of greatest importance to U.S. interests, there is going to be no meeting of the minds.

Earlier this year, I noted:

"An illiberal, authoritarian Russia is a much harder partner; no doubt about it. But if we have common interests, we should be able to work together. In the end, the question we need to ask is not whether the Russia that has emerged is a Russia we like-it isn't; but whether it is a Russia we can do business with-and more importantly, whether or not the United States can achieve some of its most pressing objectives without Russian help."

This has to be the starting point for any discussions of where the U.S.-Russia relationship is now headed.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.