Missed Connections

Missed Connections

Mini Teaser: Americans think Russia is headed in the wrong direction, but perhaps they should hold the mirror up to themselves when assigning blame for the new chill in U.S.-Russia relations.

by Author(s): Alexey Pushkov

Another point to raise is that many of us trusted the numerous guarantees Moscow had received in 1989 and 1990 from Western leaders that, in return for allowing the unification of Germany to go forward, NATO would not move eastward. In this case "NATO would not move an inch eastward outside of its present zone of action"-this is how James Baker, then-U.S. secretary of state, assured Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze. NATO's then-Secretary General Manfred Wörner, stated in a speech delivered in Brussels on May 17, 1990, that "the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee." When proposals began to be put forward that NATO should expand, I constantly stressed that NATO's decision over whether or not to enlarge to the east would shape the relationship between Russia and the West for the next period of world history. However, I got the impression that taking in the Eastern European states was more important for the NATO leaders than integrating Russia.

The standard response to the arguments against NATO's eastward expansion was that Russia's neighbors felt unsafe. However, with the Cold War over and a democratic political regime in Moscow, Russia clearly posed no military threat either to the Poles, Czechs or Hungarians. Neither Warsaw nor Prague could point to any signs that Russia had aggressive designs towards Eastern Europe. But proposals to extend security guarantees to these countries without expanding NATO were turned down by Washington and Brussels. Therefore, the decision to include those countries into NATO was seen in Moscow as a desire to use Russia's relative weakness in order to strategically push it out of Europe.

Throughout the 1990s, I often made the point that by expanding NATO eastward, Russia would be pushed out of the Euro-Atlantic community. From the geopolitical point of view it is as if the West were saying to Russia, "From now on, your security is of no interest to us. You are on your own." The answers I was repeatedly getting were amazing and extremely short-sighted: "What can you do to oppose the expansion? Move your troops to your Western borders? What practical measures can you take?" As for the guarantees given in 1989 and 1990, I was told that none of them had been codified in any formal treaty or agreement and that, even if Western leaders such as Helmut Kohl or John Major reiterated what Baker or Wörner had said, it was now of no consequence.

Besides, there seemed to be no limit to the eastward expansion of the alliance. From 1994-96, we Russians were led to believe that it would stop at Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. At that point our Western partners claimed that accepting the Baltic countries against Moscow's objections would be unthinkable. But three or four years later it became quite thinkable. "Fine", we were told then, "but this would be the end of it. No one in his right mind would plan to have either Ukraine or Georgia in NATO!" But three years have passed since the second wave of NATO enlargement, and now we hear that Ukraine and Georgia should be considered for membership! No one seems to ask what the United States is likely to gain from including Ukraine or Georgia in NATO. Neither of those two countries is going to be instrumental in solving the big challenges to U.S. and Western security posed by Iran, North Korea and international terrorism. Besides, in the case of Ukraine, membership in NATO is supported by only 20-22 percent of Ukrainian voters-and there is strong resistance to the idea both in the eastern part of the country as well as in the Crimea. Is it worth risking partnership with Russia to drag Ukraine into NATO, almost against its own will? Or is the real reason for expansion, as more and more people think in Moscow, to weaken and marginalize Russia? But this, then, can clearly have nothing to do with any sort of real partnership.

OBVIOUSLY, THE level of trust between Moscow and Washington is quite low these days. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently noted that Russia is not "doomed" to end up in a confrontation with America. He nonetheless enumerated at least ten key areas where Russian interests are at odds with the United States' positions, ranging from the deployment of the ABM system in Europe to the fate of Kosovo. So, where do we go from here?

The idea of strategic partnership with the United States has significantly less support these days in Moscow than just a few years ago. And this situation is not going to change, at least not before the presidential elections in the United States. In all the areas where Russia and America interact, from European security to Iran, Russians now believe that the United States wants Russian support without being prepared to give anything substantial in return.

The recent effort by the Bush Administration to better explain U.S. policies is bound to fall flat. Visits by high U.S. officials to Moscow, like National Security Advisor Steve Hadley's talks with Putin in February, will have no impact unless Washington is prepared to listen to Russian concerns and act accordingly. But how likely is that? Let's be blunt. Moscow will not support U.S. military strikes against Iran should that decision be taken only in Washington. It would be equally meaningless to expect that the United States withdraw support from a pro-American and pro-NATO Ukrainian leader simply because that would please Moscow.

There is still hope for a hard-headed partnership-without illusions-in some key areas where both sides have a commonality of interests-such as coping with non-proliferation or combating nuclear terrorism. Neither the United States nor Russia, for example, is interested in a nuclear-armed Iran or witnessing a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. Putin has not dropped the idea of partnership with the United States altogether, but he has definitely moved away from some of the more grandiose proposals in favor of a much more limited arrangement. Since he took office, Russia's power has recovered. Not only is Russia in the leading position in terms of exporting energy, the country has accumulated $400 billion in gold and currency reserves (which puts Russia in third place after Japan and China). All of this contributes to a new feeling of self-sufficiency that had been absent 15 years ago. In fact, Russia is now much more likely to see itself evolving into an independent center of global power-and indeed many feel Russia has no other choice. A partnership with the United States that translates into a one-way street, with Russia acting as a partner while Washington is at liberty to pursue its own agenda, and with no consideration for Russian concerns, is something Moscow will not put up with any more. Russia has no prospects for becoming a member either of NATO or of the European Union, and the meaningless NATO-Russia Council is no longer sufficient to salvage that decaying relationship.

In the end, any sort of extensive partnership between Russia and the United States-not to mention an alliance-is unlikely because such a relationship would entail obligations and restrictions neither side is ready to accept. Every alliance has a horse and a rider, and one should endeavor to be the rider, Chancellor Bismarck once observed. It was clear from the very start that in the relationship with Moscow, Washington intended to be the rider. But as Russia grew stronger and more self-confident, it rejected the role of the horse. For the foreseeable future, it would be best for both the United States and Russia to agree to cooperate on specific issues where the interests of both Russia and the United States coincide, but to accept that other areas will have to be left to the winds of competition. To try to squeeze the very complicated and multi-faceted U.S.-Russia relationship into an artificial framework would simply be impossible-and useless.

Alexey K. Pushkov is a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He is the anchor of a weekly television program on politics (Postscript), a board member of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policies and a contributing editor to The National Interest.

Essay Types: Essay