Rejecting Russia?

Rejecting Russia?

Mini Teaser: Why, with all the problems the United States faces in the world, are some eager to provoke a new confrontation  between Washington and Moscow?

by Author(s): Nikolas K. GvosdevDimitri K. Simes

Doesn't the United States already have enough problems to deal with in the world? Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi remain at large, our work in Afghanistan and Iraq remains incomplete, and North Korea and Iran are both poised to become nuclear powers. So why do so many think Russia's daily twists and turns are our biggest problem? One would think that in 2005 the danger of a nuclear terrorist attack or the economic damage that would be caused by a major energy crisis are far more pressing concerns for the United States than regular complaints, however justified, about Moscow's many faults. Are we still reacting with Cold War reflexes--rather than dealing squarely with the new threats that endanger American national security?

Of course, while Russia is not the Soviet superpower of old, it still remains the only country in the world capable of utterly destroying the United States. So if the country's vast nuclear arsenal is in the hands of a Mussolini-like dictator who is creating a fascist state and is bent on imperial expansion--in the characterization of a former senior U.S. government official--then this is indeed a worrying development. But just one nuclear weapon, detonated in Washington or New York, would be enough to change America forever. And the people looking for just one warhead are likely to use it--at least more so than a country that has had thousands for decades.

Moreover, any serious discussion about Russia and U.S. foreign policy should be based on objective evaluations, not overblown and hysterical rhetoric. We have never been shy in providing frank and tough assessments of the domestic situation in Russia. We offered blunt criticisms of the failings of the Yeltsin Administration at a time when many, including some of those who are today among the harshest critics of Russia, were prepared to excuse many of the sins of the "reformers." (And we questioned Putin when he came to power, when others considered him a "reformer" too.) Putin's "managed pluralism" falls far short of the norms of Western liberal democracy, but to group Russia, a country that retains a number of pluralist, democratic features, together with tyrannical states like Zimbabwe or North Korea--or even more authoritarian states like Pakistan and China--is highly questionable.

Russia is clearly not quite an ally of the United States, but neither does it act as an adversary. There are many Russian foreign policy decisions that should be questioned and challenged, such as Moscow's interference in Ukraine's elections, but critics have a tendency to exaggerate Russia's misdeeds and to forget the past. For the last decade, we have taken Russia's benign acceptance of American initiatives for granted. Consider this: President Eisenhower refused to intervene in Hungary in 1956 for fear of triggering Armageddon. In contrast, Presidents Clinton and Bush could proceed with military operations against Yugoslavia and Iraq even over Russian objections, safe in the knowledge that Moscow would not intervene or even try seriously to sabotage American efforts. If extremist forces had really been in power in Russia, they would have done much more than complain to one another, issue diplomatic demarches and "agree to disagree" with Washington on a whole host of issues, from the intervention in Iraq to the "train-and-equip" program in Georgia. 

Russia under the Putin Administration is far from a perfect partner to the United States, but in actuality this is true of very few nations--even among advanced post-industrial democracies. Relations between Moscow and Washington are characterized by a pragmatic approach on both sides to resolving issues and preventing disagreements from flaring up into full-scale crises. Also, Russia and the United States basically agree that the Korean Peninsula should be denuclearized and that Iran should not have a uranium-enrichment capability. And while the legacy of the Cold War has constrained cooperation between the two countries' intelligence services, there have been some notable counter-terrorism successes, such as the joint operation between the FBI and its Russian counterpart, the Federal Security Service (FSB), that flushed out terrorists seeking to acquire surface-to-air missiles to use against civilian airliners in U.S. airspace. Meanwhile, ambitious plans have been proposed that would see Russia in a position to supply up to 15 percent of America's natural gas needs within a decade.

Yet, even though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that "There is an excellent relationship" between Presidents Bush and Putin and that the two leaders "feel that they can discuss anything", this personal relationship has not been translated into effective cooperation between the bureaucracies of the two countries. On the Russian side, in fact, officials just one level below Mr. Putin believe that the United States is not prepared to respect Russian sensitivities. The population at large shares this perspective; a recent opinion poll indicates that some 54 percent of Russians now see the United States as unfriendly to Russia. While this view may not be correct or fair, it nonetheless exists, and it hampers further cooperation. It also suggests that the alternative to a difficult partnership with Mr. Putin is not a better relationship with someone else--a point those calling for "regime change" in Moscow would do well to ponder.

Voters returned George W. Bush to the White House for a second term in large part because they felt he was the better choice to cope with the threats posed by Islamist terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And while most Americans are more than happy to assist in the spread of freedom and democracy, they do not want the administration to focus on this at the expense of American national security. Indeed, a December 2004 poll found that only 7 percent of Americans believed that the primary goal of U.S. foreign policy should be "building democracies" overseas; a summer 2004 survey undertaken by the Pew Research Center revealed that only 24 percent rated democracy promotion a "top priority" for American foreign policy. Most Americans consider securing U.S. borders, improving intelligence gathering, working with allies and partners to stop threats like terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and decreasing dependence on Middle Eastern oil as their top concerns.

The United States may be the world's sole remaining superpower, but challenges like Iran or North Korea cannot be met by narrow, cosmetic "coalitions of the willing." And the recent British elections make clear that even Tony Blair would find it difficult to support U.S. military action without a mandate from the United Nations. Americans may rightly have a low opinion of the UN's utility, but, as a practical matter, the UN's imprimatur will be very important if the United States hopes to assemble a credible coalition in the future. This means, first and foremost, getting the world's other major powers, especially the Permanent Five of the Security Council, on board with the United States.

Whether Tehran and Pyongyang are dealt with through intense diplomatic efforts, comprehensive sanctions or a more forceful response, Russian cooperation, or at least acquiescence in the Security Council, is essential. And in the war against terrorism, we need more than acquiescence. The Kremlin's formidable intelligence and diplomatic assets could make a real difference in breaking up extremist networks. Conversely, Washington's efforts would be seriously complicated if Russia played an actively obstructionist role.

The Bush Administration continues to express its desire for a closer relationship with Russia, but it is clearly ambivalent about the prospects and uncertain as to what price it can afford to pay to try to work with the Kremlin. After all, the administration has found little support for its efforts to engage Russia either in Congress or among the punditocracy. The Kremlin, of course, deserves much of the blame for this; its arbitrary and sometimes capricious approach to business and some economic policies has discouraged foreign investment and retarded the development of a more stable relationship. At times, it must seem much easier, politically speaking, for the Bush Administration to "go with the flow": to stress Russia's very real problems and put U.S.-Russian relations on autopilot.

This is particularly tempting because the Russian government is sometimes its own worst enemy. Moscow's refusal to reiterate the 1989 condemnation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, for example, has needlessly damaged its relationships with its neighbors and with the United States. But does it follow, as the Washington Post editorialized, that "[I]t shouldn't be acceptable to treat as a strategic partner a Kremlin leader who can't bring himself to reject the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact"? In a world without Osama bin Laden or a nuclear-armed North Korea under the leadership of Kim Jong-il, perhaps. But those who hold such views should explain to the American people why this question is a more pressing matter than cooperation on preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction or combating international terrorism. And those politicians and pundits arguing for the United States to take a harder line against Moscow must either demonstrate that Russia's help is not all that important in coping with major threats to U.S. security, or otherwise explain how the United States can ignore important Russian concerns, publicly poke Moscow in the eye, and still obtain a sufficient accommodation of American priorities.

In fact, many of those calling for the United States to make as one of its top foreign policy priorities the marginalization of Russia within its own Eurasian neighborhood seem to be practitioners of what Jonathan Clarke labeled "faux Wilsonianism": believing that "high flown words matter more than rational calculation" in crafting policy. They assume that the United States can sever Russia's natural economic, political and cultural links with its neighbors--ties even the collapse of the USSR did not succeed in severing--at little or no cost to the U.S. Treasury, the Russian-American relationship or the region as a whole.

These commentators and legislators ignore inconvenient facts: More than 75 percent of the GDP of the post-Soviet space is generated by Russia; the International Monetary Fund recently estimated that guest workers from other CIS countries living in Russia send home $12 billion annually; remittances from Russia make up 30 percent of Moldova's GDP and at least 25 percent of Georgia's; most post-Soviet countries continue to purchase Russian energy at prices several times lower than world market rates (and oftentimes on credit to boot).

No matter what the pundits may say, neither the United States nor Europe is prepared to undertake the massive effort that would be required to displace Russia as Eurasia's economic and political center of gravity. American politicians (who even now are cutting democracy assistance programs to Eurasia) are more than happy to wear orange scarves and are very quick to make promises on behalf of the European Union, but these are bills Brussels is not interested in paying.

President Putin continues to stress that the United States and Russia share fundamental interests, and contrary to the popular view, the United States and Russia have generally worked together in several instances to ensure peaceful, stable transfers of power in a number of post-Soviet states. For example, Russian mediation was helpful in convincing former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to step down after fraudulent elections, thus facilitating the "Rose Revolution." Yet many Russians increasingly view their interaction with the United States as a zero-sum game.

For its part, the Bush Administration has tried essentially to compartmentalize the relationship, hoping to preserve cooperation on issues that are central to the United States (such as counter-terrorism and non-proliferation) while maintaining that acrimonious exchanges on other matters (such as questions of democracy promotion or Russia's relations with its Eurasian neighbors) need not damage the relationship. This approach may be attractive, but will it succeed--especially if we expect Russia to deliver on our concerns? If the United States and Russia are to work together effectively on difficult and sensitive issues in areas where our interests might not always coincide, it will likely require more than symbolic declarations and good personal chemistry between the two leaders. Similarly, forging a climate of mutual comfort--if not real trust--that will allow for greater U.S. access to sensitive intelligence and nuclear sites cannot be done overnight, and is probably not something Russia can be bullied into for the long haul.

A good working relationship between the two presidents has been set up; but much more will be required to get from Russia what is needed to advance American interests in the face of the new challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Skepticism toward Moscow is entirely appropriate, but hypocritical grandstanding that blocks real cooperation without measurably improving U.S. security could be very costly--and this is a price not worth paying.

Essay Types: The Realist