Odom's Russia: A Forum

Odom's Russia: A Forum

Mini Teaser: Seven seasoned observers react to William Odom's interpretation of post-Soviet Russian reality, and Odom replies.

by Author(s): Martin MaliaJack Matlock, Jr.Jerry HoughGeoffrey HoskingAlexey PushkovRobert LegvoldHenry TrofimenkoWilliam E. Odom

Alexey K. Pushkov, Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, Moscow:

A STRONG trend in Western thinking about Russia rejects Winston Churchill's definition of it as "an enigma wrapped in a puzzle" in favor of a clear-cut verdict that Russia is just a failed county incapable of contributing to international order and constantly engaging in trouble-making diplomacy. This is the position taken by William Odom. If ten years ago pro-Russian enthusiasts were painting its future in blue and gold, nowadays the opposite school of thinking paints it mainly black.

General Odom praises Germany after World War II for "facing facts"; this, he asserts, helped Germany to be more easily integrated into the international order. Let us face some facts, too. Germany was made to face facts because it was defeated in a hot war and occupied by foreign powers. Russia, however, was not defeated in a war; rather, it rejected communism through its own internal evolution--to the evident amazement of the United States and others. The fact that the Soviet Union lost a cold war but not a hot one is crucial: Russia simply could not have been expected to behave or evolve as did occupied Germany or Japan.

Odom is certainly right to say that Russia is still far from being a Westerntype liberal democracy. But if one compares today's Russia not with an abstract ideal, but with the reality of only ten years ago, one finds tremendous positive changes. The scope and depth of such changes are surprising for a county weighed down by ten centuries of authoritarian history and seventy years of communist rule, a county that--to repeat--has not undergone a foreign occupation to force upon it a market economy and democratic political institutions. Hence Odom's conclusion, using a phrase borrowed from Jeffrey Tayler, that Russia is fated to be "Zaire with permafrost", is neither fair nor instrumental for a realistic understanding of Russia's future. Not only does Odom ignore the slow but important progress Russia is making, but his approach to realism is limited to an exercise in building worst-case scenarios. The main burden of Odom's pessimism lies in his reading of Russia's international behavior. By focusing on Russia' s ties with China, India and Iran, Odom overlooks the most significant dimension of Russian foreign policy, its Western dimension: Russia's ever-growing ties with the European Union and its persistent movement into the world economy. President Putin's decision to support the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism is clearly based on the desire of a leading part of the Russian political class, and a growing part of the Russian public, to see Russia as part of Europe and-politically--as one with the Western world. Without a serious basis for such a pro-Western choice, President Putin would not have risked such a stand.

In real strategic terms, too, Russian assistance to the United States has been, so far (as of mid-November 2001), more important than that given by the majority of its NATO allies. Russia is the largest and one of the two most powerful nations in Eurasia, as the crisis surrounding Afghanistan made clear, even for all those who failed to notice it before. One may well compare the Russian GDP with that of the Netherlands, but when one comes to geostrategic terms the comparison stops. Can the Netherlands talk to Central Asian countries about accepting U.S. military forces on their soil, or send troops to Tajikistan to counter Taliban incursions?

Russia's role in Asia is bound to grow further in coming years as China emerges as a leading international actor. In this light, Russia's special ties with India should not be criticized but applauded, especially in the light of a possible Indian-Pakistan confrontation in which Russia as a nuclear power can exercise a sobering effect on both sides of the conflict, perhaps together with America. Finally, as the events of September-October 2001 demonstrate, Russia does not use its ties with former Soviet republics to coerce them into an anti-American policy. Russia does exercise influence on those countries, but in the same way that the United States exercises influence on its Arab allies and partners. Why should Russia be condemned for pursuing a policy similar to one adopted by the United States?

One of the reasons Russia is seen as a trouble-maker in the West is that America's present strength has created a propensity--among some Americans, at least--to equate "responsible" international behavior with that which corresponds to American interests. But Russia cannot automatically espouse U.S. foreign policy interests, for two very good reasons. First, Russia's geopolitical setting requires it to deal pragmatically with a number of regimes that the United States dislikes, such as China and Iran. Second, since Russia is not a member of a U.S.-led Western alliance, and does not enjoy the shared security of NATO members or the protection of the American nuclear umbrella, it must guide itself according to a different set of security and political interests. Whether those interests will conflict or comport with those of the United States depends on U.S. foreign policy as well as on Russia's. After all, the events of September 11 have made clear that even the United States, with all its might, cannot success fully conduct a policy in Eurasia that is not based on a shared-interests approach with key countries of the continent, Russia being one of them.

While General Odom has chosen to remove Russia from the ranks of the great powers, President Bush has chosen otherwise. V/hen President Putin offered to assist the United States in the war against terrorism, he did so not as a supplicant, but as the leader of the great power he believes Russia to be. So it was that, on October 7, President Bush called President Putin to inform him in advance about the impending U.S. strike against the Taliban. Putin took the call and offered support. Could they both have been wrong?

Alexey K. Pushkov is a member of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policies and the anchor of Postscript, a news and analysis program aired on Russian Television Channel 3. He also serves as a member of the editorial board of The National Interest.

Robert Legvold, Columbia University:

ALTHOUGH the point may not come through clearly, the essential issue raised by Bill Odom's essay is whether--for good or ill--Russia matters to the United States. He says, for the most part, no; but where it does matter it does so largely for ill. If Odom has reached the wrong conclusion, it is because either the argument is wrong or it is the wrong argument (or perhaps both). Let us begin with the argument.

Few observers, either in Russia or on the outside, would disagree with Odom's judgment that Russia's problems flow from its sad transformation into a "weak state." Nor would there be disagreement over the hurdles obstructing its escape. Disagreement would begin over how hopeless the prospects are. Odom settles for a rather wooden and simple dictum for why Russia will not shake free. His theory notwithstanding, if Russia does progress, it is likely to do so in small steps that begin to salvage the state, cleanse and strengthen key institutions such as the judiciary, put in place supports and practices that facilitate sustainable growth, and work around retrograde special interests.

Over the last two years, significant progress along these lines--albeit partial and incremental--has occurred. Nothing guarantees that this advance will reach critical mass, propelling Russia on to a swift and secure path to democracy and a revitalized economy. Odom could yet be right (and not only about Russia, but about a majority of the post-Soviet states), but the fragmentary trends of the moment remind us that path dependency works two ways. It may also lead Russia out of its hole. A prudent judge would pause and await more evidence before deciding.

The other half of Odom's argument raises sharper objections. Again, few analysts in the United States would disagree that Russian behavior at times, in places, and on certain problems has been "unconstructive", perhaps intentionally so. This is true of the way it has dealt with its immediate neighbors, sold nuclear technologies, pursued cooperation with states from China to Cuba, and reacted to NATO enlargement, national missile defense and other pet American ideas.

To treat this as the whole story, however, does considerable violence to the truth. Russia has also been capable of constructive behavior, even, at times, when in a larger context we have seen it as unconstructive, such as the ultimate role that it played in the 1999 Kosovo crisis. Long before September 11, and in many respects--from its dealings with North Korea on the nuclear issue to the dialogue with the European Union; from its longstanding collaboration with the United States on Afghanistan to its handling of Ukrainian debt--Russian actions, by any fair-minded judgment, have been constructive. Russia's behavior has been neither uniformly disruptive nor impervious to the influence of other states, including positive U.S. incentives when, on occasion, they have been offered. Odom's claim that Russia's waywardness stems from inherent political and psychological factors unsusceptible to U.S. influence is, at best, debatable

Essay Types: Essay