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Living With Russia

Living With Russia

Mini Teaser: When dealing with a sick bear, coddling will not suffice. Before it can be fully accepted by the West, Russia must give up its imperial pretensions.

by Author(s): Zbigniew Brzezinski

The progressive inclusion of Russia in the expanding transatlantic community is the necessary component of any long-term U.S. strategy to consolidate stability on the Eurasian mega-continent. The pursuit of that goal will require patience and strategic persistence. There are no shortcuts on the way. Geostrategic conditions must be created that convince the Russians that it is in Russia's own best interest to become a truly democratic and European post-imperial nation-state-a state closely engaged to the transatlantic community.

Of the major Eurasian entities (the European Union, Russia, China and Japan), only Europe and Japan can be said to recognize fully their fundamental stake in international stability. The case is somewhat more ambiguous with respect to China and Russia, which still favor more or less drastic alterations in the distribution of global power. But both are also cognizant of their limitations and aware of their interest in cooperating with the West. China is so inclined largely because it is an ongoing economic success; Russia because it is not. China thrives on foreign investment; Russia fears potential threats from its immediate south and east, and senses the diminished utility of its nuclear forces. China is self-confident; Russia is self-conscious.

Hence, both Russia and China may be susceptible to a strategy aimed at their inclusion in cooperative international structures. To that end, two Eurasian power triangles must be steadily managed and, over time, more directly connected: one involving the United States, the European Union and Russia; and the other involving the United States, Japan and China. For that linkage to be effective, the constructive engagement of Russia is essential.

To be sure, neither America nor, even less, Europe can by itself seduce or transform Russia. Russia's epiphany must come from within, much as was the case earlier in the twentieth century with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the modern Turkish state. But both America and Europe can help create not only a congenial but a compelling context for desirable change. And for that reason, despite justifiable short-term pessimism regarding the outlook of Russia's current political leadership, there is a reasonable basis for longer term optimism.

The emergence of a democratic, Europe-oriented, post-imperial and national Russian state would provide historically relevant and strategically stabilizing answers to the two questions that haunt politically-minded Russians today: what is Russia, and where is Russia? These questions are being posed in an environment bordering on social catastrophe and in a context of geopolitical vulnerability.

One cannot underestimate the cumulative damage inflicted on the Russian people by seventy years of communism. Russia's current condition should not be judged by the superficial glitter of Moscow or St. Petersburg, the primary beneficiaries of Western financial inflows, or by occasional ups and downs in Russian growth rates. The painful reality is that the communist experiment has bequeathed to the Russian people a ruined agriculture, a retarded and in many places primitive social infrastructure, a backward economy increasingly facing the risk of progressive de-industrialization, a devastated environment, and a demographically threatened population.

To measure precisely the cumulative effects of that legacy is impossible. They are both massive and enduring. Russia's current crisis coincides with the collapse of the five hundred year-old Russian Empire, which had expanded in the Soviet era into an even larger communist empire. The domestic crisis threatens the well-being of the Russian people; the imperial collapse, while posing a potential geopolitical challenge, confuses, tempts and frustrates the country's political elite-an elite that for decades was not only doctrinally stupefied, but at times also lethally purged. That elite grew accustomed to the privileges and satisfactions of Russia's global status, a status for which today there is no solid foundation.

The last ten years have compounded rather than resolved these challenges. Russia's relative openness has made the Russian people quite aware of the truly enormous gap separating their condition from that of their West European neighbors. The increasingly widespread awareness that a densely populated China next door is also doing incomparably better is an additional source of anxiety. Finally, for a state long accustomed to thinking of itself as America's principal rival, it is galling to contemplate the fact that Russia's GDP, measured in terms of purchasing power parity, is only about one-tenth of America's, roughly half of India's, and somewhat less than Brazil's.

It must also be troubling for informed Russians to learn that last year China benefited from more than $43 billion in direct foreign investment (bringing the 1992-99 total to about $350 billion)-and that the much smaller post-communist Poland was the beneficiary in 1999 alone of $8 billion in such investment-while only $2-3 billion was directly invested from abroad in Russia during the same period (making for a meager total of $11.7 billion over 1992-99). Flagging foreign investment derives in part from Russia's poor international economic image. In the 1999 Global Competitiveness Report, Russia was ranked last among the 59 countries surveyed (China was 32, Zimbabwe 57, and Ukraine 58). In a comparative assessment of corruption in 99 states, Russia was placed at 82 (behind Armenia).

It is telling that there have been no major domestically funded investments in Russia over the last ten years. By 1997 overall capital investment in the production sector had fallen to about 17 percent of the 1990 level, and only lately has risen slightly. Moreover, it has been estimated that it would take roughly $25 trillion over the next 25 years to renew Russia's industrial infrastructure, which, on average, is three times older than that of the OECD countries. Indeed, even with sustained economic recovery proceeding at an annual rate of 5 percent, Russia would still account for only about 2 percent of the world's GDP by 2015. By contrast, the United States and the EU together will account for approximately 45-50 percent, and Japan and China combined for probably another 25 percent or so. The qualitative gaps in technological innovation and economic competitiveness between Russia and its western neighbors may be wider still.
The social picture is even bleaker. Some 70 million Russians live in urban areas affected by levels of pollution that exceed U.S. maximum contamination levels by a factor of five or more. About 75 percent of Russia's consumed water supply is polluted by U.S. standards. Russia's health system, long a source of pride, is malfunctioning, with many hospitals (especially in non-urbanized areas) lacking hot water and unable to meet even minimal hygienic standards. Some 100,000 cases of tuberculosis have been registered, and only about 40 percent of all recent births have resulted in fully healthy babies. According to one study, some 20 percent of Russian first graders have been diagnosed with some form of mental retardation. Male life expectancy has declined from approximately 64 years in 1990 to about 59 years in 1999 (alternative data suggests the figure might be about 61 years, still very low by Western standards). The World Health Report 2000 on national health systems ranked Russia's at 130, barely ahead of Sudan's.

Indeed, Russia's population has dropped from 151 million in 1990 to about 146 million in 1999-with annual deaths in recent years exceeding births by slightly more than 50 percent (about 2 million deaths and 1.3 million births per annum). While economic recovery and an improvement in public health programs could eventually slow the steep population decline, some demographic studies anticipate that Russia's population could dip below 135 million by the year 2025. Then, too, many Russians are moving out of the exposed northern and far eastern extremities of Russia to the more secure central region west of the Urals, thereby reversing long-standing efforts to settle the sparsely populated northern and eastern peripheries.

Russia, then, is confronted by a menacing combination of demography and geography. Its far eastern neighbor, China, not only has a population of some 1.2 billion, but an economy that in GDP terms is already four times larger than Russia's. It is also no source of geopolitical reassurance for Russia that Japan's economy is about five times larger than its own; and that to the west an expanding European Union is taking shape, with an economy already approximately ten times the size of Russia's and a population of some 375 million. Moreover, the much more prosperous Europe is allied to the United States, which has a population twice that of Russia and a GDP more than ten times as large.

To the south prospects are, if anything, even more ominous. That area is currently organized into nine states inhabited almost exclusively by Muslims. Their combined population totals about 295 million, not counting the population of the Europe-oriented Turkey, which is about 65 million. An additional 20 million Muslims currently live within Russia's borders. At current birth rates, by the year 2025 the Islamic population living immediately to the south of Russia could number as high as 450 million (not counting the projected 85 million Turks).

It is probable that most of the neighboring Muslim countries will be economically weak, enhancing the likelihood that they will also be politically volatile. Their populations-composed in the main of the younger generation, which is restless, increasingly nationally self-conscious and more intensely Islamic in self-definition-could prove quite susceptible to extremist appeals. Unless handled with great skill and genuine moderation by their formerly imperial neighbor, their political awakening could acquire a fervent anti-Russian cast, of which the Russian mishandling of Chechnya might be only a harbinger.

Much, therefore, depends on the performance of the current Russian political elite-an elite that is strikingly different in composition and outlook from its post-communist counterparts in Central Europe. Russia's current leadership includes no former political dissidents, not even one. Moreover, in Central Europe the anti-communist opposition-Solidarity in Poland, Sajudis in Lithuania and Charter 77 in Prague-represented a critical mass that was subsequently capable of undertaking democratic reforms. In most Central European states, the Communist parties also quickly converted themselves into social-democratic ones, generally supportive of reforms and of closer ties with both NATO and the EU.

In contrast, the current Russian political elite is largely an alliance of former apparatchiki, criminalized oligarchs, and the KGB and military leadership. Their renunciation of the Soviet past has been perfunctory: the retention of a mausoleum in the middle of Moscow honoring the embalmed corpse of the founder of the gulag neatly encapsulates their mindset. Indeed, President Vladimir Putin's new team is composed of individuals who, with no exception, could now be serving in the higher echelons of the Soviet government (particularly the kgb) if the Soviet Union still existed. Putin's own political lineage is quite suggestive in that regard. He is a third-generation apparatchik: his father was a Party functionary, while his grandfather even served on Lenin's and then Stalin's personal security detail.

The present Kremlin leadership matured in the Soviet Union's waning years. By and large, it no longer believed in the crudities of Soviet ideology, but it relished Soviet power. The fall of the Soviet Union was for most of its members not only a historical shock but a calamity that could have been, and should have been, averted. While many of them dried their tears with profits derived from the kleptocratic dismantling of the state-owned economy, they nonetheless felt deprived by Russia's loss of international status. Putin captured their pent-up feelings at his inaugural when he spoke nostalgically of Russia as "a great, powerful and mighty state."

In rebuilding a Russia "which commands respect in the world", Putin's good tactical sense dictates that outright hostility to the West is to be avoided. Indeed, some accommodation with the United States is desirable, particularly in order to draw it into an anti-Islamic alliance in the event that Russia's problems in the south spin out of control. President Clinton's easy seduction into the anti-Chechen camp, in 1995 and again in 1999, offers a case in point. Russia's residual nuclear capability also provides the basis for a special dialogue with the United States, thereby enhancing Russia's prestige and perhaps even creating the impression of a special relationship.

Russia's selective accommodation with the United States can be pursued in parallel with carefully calibrated efforts to cultivate anti-American sentiments in Western Europe, in order to dilute Western resolve regarding any further expansion of NATO and to exacerbate existing cleavages within the Euro-Atlantic community. Traditional diplomacy in dealings with Berlin and with Paris can also be exploited to fuel European rivalries, in order to impede the emergence of a politically more integrated EU tied to NATO, on Russia's western frontiers. In any case, a dŽtente with the West is the sine qua non of continued Russian access to needed Western financial assistance.

Above all, a breathing spell in relations with the West is needed if Russia is to achieve Putin's central goal: the restoration of a powerful Russian state. To the present rulers, the appearance of a dozen or so newly independent states following the Soviet Union's collapse is a historical aberration that should be gradually corrected as Russia recovers its power. Although it would appear that they realize that the end result may not be a single imperial state, they seem determined to attain the gradual subordination of the post-Soviet states within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States in a way that limits their practical sovereignty in the key areas of security and external economic relations.

That aspiration is the root cause of Moscow's vehement opposition to any Western economic presence in the space of the former Soviet Union. The Kremlin's attitude in this regard is still based on the old Leninist zero-sum approach: it is better for the non-Russian areas not to develop economically if such development entails a Western presence. That is why direct access of the newly independent states to the global economy through multiple pipelines from the Caspian Sea region is viewed by the current Russian elite with almost as much hostility as that shown toward Ukraine's flirtation with NATO. As one Russian Foreign Ministry official put it,

"The significant volume of funds already invested or planned by American companies for investment in Caspian oil business is defining a tendency toward a build-up of a political, and on its heels a military, U.S. presence in the Caucasus. In essence, without prior consent, the incorporation of the Caspian region into the sphere of 'the United States' vital interests' is taking place."

Note particularly the quaint insinuation that Russia's "consent" is required for Western investment in the newly independent states.

Strategically, Russian policy toward what the Kremlin calls "the near abroad" has essentially three prongs. The first is to exercise pressure on both Georgia and Azerbaijan, increasing their vulnerability to eventual destabilization after their current presidents depart from the scene. Second, Ukraine's return to some sort of a special "Slavic" relationship with Moscow should be encouraged, with the Russo-Belarusian "union" providing a model of the "brotherly Slavic solidarity" to which Ukrainians should aspire. Third, pressure is to be applied to prevent the Baltic states from joining NATO, on the grounds that they were once "legally" a part of the Soviet Union.

In brief, the Kremlin's current occupants believe that the "mighty" Russian state should be much more than a national state coexisting with others within the former Soviet space. Although most members of the current elite realize that economic recovery is a necessary precondition for regaining historical grandeur, some also place special emphasis on Russia's military power as the basis for its claim to global status. Not surprisingly, that view is strongly held within the top Russian military leadership and was explicitly reflected in the new military doctrine adopted in December 1999. Top military leaders are also particularly strong proponents of re-established Russian political power in a new "Eurasian union."

It would appear, therefore, that the current elite is more preoccupied with the restoration of a dominant Russian state than with a historic reorientation of Russia. As a result, there is an obvious disconnect between the leadership's ends and the country's means. Contemporary Russia is simply too weak to sustain regional domination while nostalgically reclaiming superpower status. Despite numerous internal shortcomings, the new post-Soviet states are determined to retain their independence. It would take an enormous effort, far beyond Russia's present means, to subordinate them. Moreover, it is unlikely that the West, even were it inclined to accept some of Russia's regional aspirations as legitimate, would remain entirely passive if the independence of, say, Ukraine or Georgia-not to speak of the Baltic states-was threatened.

Further, Russian proponents of reliance on military power greatly underestimate the economically draining effects of any renewed arms competition with America, and overestimate the political leverage that Russia can exercise through its essentially one-dimensional strategic capability. The fact is that Russia-already spending about 5 percent of its GDP on the military-cannot compete with the U.S.-pioneered revolution in military affairs. And while its nuclear weapons can serve as a deterrent, they are not an effective political tool; their value is gradually being diminished by nuclear proliferation, especially in Russia's immediate neighborhood.

A prolonged delay in providing realistic answers to the two questions that confront post-imperial Russia-What is Russia? Where is Russia?-could prove calamitous. Social mobilization on the basis of nationalism can only be a short-term remedy. Russia, underpopulated and socially deprived, could become entangled in flaming collisions with the Muslims in the south and more vulnerable to Chinese territorial encroachments in the east, while also antagonizing Europe (and America) to the west. An "alliance" with China would only subordinate Russia to China without solving its problems.
As a result, it may be only somewhat hyperbolic to suggest that the ultimate consequence of any prolonged failure to confront the full implications of Russia's menacing geopolitical context and of the debilitated state of its society could be the emergence not of "a Europe to the Urals" (as once envisaged by General de Gaulle), but eventually of a beleaguered and imploded Russia only to the Urals.

In considering Western policy toward Russia, we would do well to reflect briefly on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent emergence of the Turkish national state. That experience is more pertinent to Russia's dilemmas than either Germany's and Japan's after 1945, or Great Britain's and France's after they ceased to be empires.
Unlike Germany and Japan, Russia was neither occupied and subjected to political "re-education" by the Cold War's victors, nor treated to large-scale social reconstruction under their direct supervision. For most Russians, the outcome was more ambiguous and confusing. Most at first did not feel defeated; many later felt deceived; few were receptive to Western tutelage.

Like the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire was territorially contiguous. Both Ottoman and Russian imperial elites drew many members from the subject nationalities. The boundaries of what was specifically Russian or Turkish territory were not very precise. In both cases, the empire was not a remote reality overseas but a seamless extension of the homeland itself. Hence, the sudden loss of empire was both more searing and directly disruptive.

In contrast to the efficiently repressive Soviet Russia, however, the long, slow decline of the Ottoman Empire spawned a significant minority of dissident intellectuals and young officers determined to model Turkey on the West European nation-states. The Young Turks, first organized in the late nineteenth century, gained increasing political influence, especially in the wake of the military defeats suffered by the Ottoman rulers. Some of them at first sought to re-create a modernized version of the old empire. But the defeat suffered in World War I prompted the next generation of reformist leaders, notably Kemal Pasha (who later became known as AtatŸrk), to embrace the concept of a modernized, post-imperial state, patterned on the European nation-states. In short order, the Swiss civil code, the Italian penal code and the German commercial code were adopted, and-very important to note-irredentist claims, derived from the imperial past, were explicitly renounced.

Three timely conclusions can be drawn from the emergence of the modern national Turkish state: first, Turkey would not be contending today for membership of the European Union were it not for the fact that AtatŸrk and his bold reformers represented a critical mass capable of effecting a psychological break with the past; second, this effort would not have endured if the West had continued to spurn Turkey; and, third, the process of historical self-redefinition is necessarily a prolonged one, to be measured in decades, not years, and is likely to be punctuated by periodic setbacks.

These conclusions contain important lessons for Russia. Although Putin displays a picture of Peter the Great in his office, his reliance on a KGB entourage and his professed admiration for his KGB predecessor, Yuri Andropov, indicate that Putin is no Russian AtatŸrk. His geopolitical mindset reflects the thinking of the last Soviet generation and not of the first post-Soviet generation. Nonetheless, a new outlook is being nurtured beneath the existing political surface in the much more open conditions of post-Soviet Russia. And if only for actuarial reasons, the next generation of Russian leaders is unlikely to be the product either of the KGB or of the apparat.

That generation will come of age at a time when Russia's past imperial and global status will have become a distant memory rather than an entitlement. This inevitably will create a different global outlook. The next generation of leaders is much more likely to include graduates of Western universities and businessmen with genuine international (but not criminal) exposure, sharing a more widespread desire for Russia not only to be like the West but to be a part of the West. Not least, the Russian public will increasingly demand that its overall lifestyle begin to match at least that of Central Europe, and that Russians not be deprived of free access to the enlarging Europe next door. In short, a critical mass supportive of a genuine break with the past is taking shape.

To encourage that process, Western aid to Russia should be continued. But such assistance should not be directed to the central government. Russia is wealthy enough to be able to address its basic problems through its own resources, and Western aid has the tendency to perpetuate the worst inclinations in the current elite. Also, since financial aid is fungible, its diversion to military programs and operations (such as those in Chechnya) is a likelihood. Instead, Western aid should concentrate on helping Russia's nascent NGOs, which promote the emergence of a new, younger and more open-minded political elite-an elite that understands its own interest in a society based on the rule of law.

The United States should also expand its ongoing visitor programs for younger Russian political and economic aspirants. In 1999 the Library of Congress initiated a program to bring to the United States some 2,000 younger Russian local officials for visits designed to acquaint them with the complexities of American democracy. This initiative deserves to be enlarged tenfold, and it should be complemented by a similar program for the newly independent states. After World War II, tens of thousands of young Germans and Japanese were made familiar with American democracy, with an immensely beneficial impact. Younger Russians, especially from outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, should have the same opportunity.

However, the reorientation of Russia's outlook will be delayed if Russia's current political leadership gains the impression that its priorities can be successfully pursued, especially in the space of the former Soviet Union. That such illusions and nostalgia tend to be self-perpetuating makes it all the more important that Western policy both engage Russia and drive home the need for a basic redefinition of Russia's role in Eurasia. To facilitate Russia's historical transformation, Western support for the consolidation of the new states-especially Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan-must be sustained.

Admittedly, the necessary strategic balance will not be easy to strike. In fact, some Russian sources have claimed that Clinton administration officials at times have encouraged Russian efforts to regain a dominant position in the former Soviet space. Even the internationally condemned Russian assault on Chechnya did not produce a single noticeable U.S. response, on the grounds that it would be contrary to the policy of "engagement." It may unfortunately be the case that, during the latter phases of the Clinton administration, the one-sided U.S. emphasis on the West engaging Russia-but not on Russia engaging the West-could delay by some years the day when Russia comes fully to terms with its current historical condition.

To hasten rather than delay that moment, the transatlantic community must patiently keep the grand option of an ever widening and deepening association open to Russia, while persistently re-inforcing an environment that discourages any Russian efforts to turn back the geopolitical clock. Only then may the next generation of Russian leaders-no longer the products of the Soviet era and more likely to represent a new critical political mass-draw the sole realistic conclusion to the dangers posed by their country's internal malaise and external vulnerability: namely, that in order to recover Russia must opt for the West. What is more, Russia must do so unambiguously and unconditionally as a post-imperial state. Russia's imperial baggage cannot be dragged into Europe. Russia cannot be at once imperial and European.

To prepare the ground for that historic choice, it is crucial that the West signal clearly that the continued enlargement of the EU and of NATO does not exclude a priori the possibility of Russia's eventual participation. Although President Clinton gave such a signal in his "Charlemagne" speech in Aachen in June 2000, he does not speak for the EU or even for NATO. A formal statement to that effect should be made, perhaps jointly by both organizations. Clearly, a truly democratic Russia that desires to be part of the West should have the option of becoming, in some mutually acceptable fashion, associated closely with both the EU and NATO. The precise modalities need not be spelled out now; in fact, given Russia's present condition and orientation, any effort to do so would be counterproductive. But the option should be held out.

In the meantime, a strategic setting favorable to that prospect should be fostered. Steps can be taken to enhance gradually the role of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, which sponsors joint security programs between NATO states and Partnership for Peace members. While the United States in particular should be alert not to fall into the trap of becoming Russia's ally against the Muslims (or the Chinese), the serious possibility of conflicts spreading like grass fire throughout Central Asia might, over time, dilute Russia's hostility to greater Western involvement in the region. Moscow might then view more favorably not only greater economic access to the region, but also a larger role for peacekeeping by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and eventually perhaps even by NATO.

The eu's forthcoming expansion to Central Europe, even if somewhat delayed, is bound to include Poland and eventually the Baltic states. In that context, discussions with Russia regarding a possible special EU status for the Kaliningrad region could prove fruitful, not only resolving the region's persisting economic problems but also initiating closer EU-Russia arrangements. The same is true regarding the eu's ongoing efforts to promote Baltic regional cooperation that embrace both the St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad provinces of Russia.

In the meantime, President Clinton's initiative in inviting Russia to join both the EU and NATO has given greater urgency to the task of enlarging both. In fact, it is altogether unrealistic to contemplate Russia's inclusion in either structure without Central Europe's full and prior inclusion. It is equally unrealistic, and even risky, to envisage delaying Central Europe's full membership until Russia either grants its permission or itself opts for Europe. That would be tantamount to granting Russia an indefinite veto, with the likely effect of stimulating the Kremlin's geopolitical aspirations regarding the Baltic states and Ukraine. The bottom line is that the consequence of any inclination to make NATO enlargement contingent on Russia's permission is a prescription for the perpetuation of geopolitical ambiguity on the western fringes of Russia, which will impede Russia's own internal evolution. Indeed, Russia's willingness to acquiesce to the further eastward expansion of NATO, particularly regarding the Baltic states, is a litmus test of the sincerity of any declared choice by Moscow in favor of a European and a transatlantic connection.

Constructive initiatives toward Russia thus will only be credible if they are matched by tangible steps toward the enlargement of both the EU and NATO. That dual enlargement is desirable in itself, and also because it eliminates the risk of a possible collision between competing notions of "europeanism" and "atlanticism." Moreover, several European countries immediately to the west of Russia-the Baltic states especially-want to be, and have the right to be, part of both the EU and of NATO. The next president of the United States should therefore urge our allies to move promptly on the admission of any democratic European state that meets the criteria for NATO membership, even before the year 2002 (the date previously set by NATO for the consideration of further enlargement). The enlargement of NATO, in any case, has already proven beneficial for Europe's security, including Russia's. Most notably, it has made post-Cold War Europe more stable, anchoring Germany more solidly in its middle rather than making it a "border state", as some German leaders feared might happen after reunification. NATO enlargement has consolidated a sense of security among the new members and promoted better relations between them and their non-member neighbors. It has encouraged aspirant nations to improve their treatment of minorities and to settle their territorial disputes. It has also stimulated closer Polish-Ukrainian cooperation, re-inforcing Ukraine's declared interest in its eventual association with the West. Last but not least, Romania and Bulgaria, because of their desire for membership, acted decisively during the Kosovo conflict to prevent the unilateral deployment of Russian paratroopers into Pristina-a deployment that could have precipitated a risky collision between Russia and NATO.

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