The Road to Moscow

The Road to Moscow

Mini Teaser: Since the end of the cold war, American foreign policy toward Russia has been dismissive of Russian interests. Acknowledging that a country has separate aims does not mean we cannot work toward common goals.

by Author(s): Gary HartDimitri K. Simes

From the May/June 2009 issue of The National Interest.


THE OBAMA administration's initial steps to reset relations with Russia are welcome news. Few countries are as important to America's national interests, and few relationships have been as badly managed by U.S. officials.

The efforts were substantively launched at Barack Obama's London meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in April, and set a positive tone. But the "fresh start" the two sides have called for will not be easy and meaningful improvement will be even harder. Both sides have accumulated considerable baggage, political and psychological alike, and there are reasons for the sharp deterioration in ties between Washington and Moscow. To begin, while the United States and Russia have very different political processes, influential voices in both countries argue against the steps that would make true cooperation possible.

In the United States, some have foreclosed attempts to work with Russia because it has not become a full-fledged capitalist democracy on the American model quickly enough, the rule of law is too slow in taking root, Moscow is not living up to our norms of human rights, elections are rigged, the media suppressed, economic transactions are not transparent and the list goes on. The question is: are these arguments of sufficient weight to justify resistance to closer U.S.-Russian coordination on issues of strong mutual interest?

An even-more complex question is whether there is innate resistance within the American foreign-policy community to an improved relationship with Russia. Are we holding the Russians to a higher standard of performance than we do other nations with whom we deal? And, if so, why? The continued existence of the Jackson-Vanik amendment-which withheld trade benefits in an effort to force the Soviet Union to allow freer emigration-almost two decades after Communism's collapse seems to be proof positive. The amendment has in the past been circumvented for both China and Vietnam, not to mention former-Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia, the latter of which in particular is hardly a model democracy. There has not yet been a satisfactory explanation for its statutory persistence with regard to Russia.

If Russia were not a major power, possessing nuclear weapons, a veto in the United Nations Security Council, huge energy resources and a major presence in the post-Soviet space, one could make a case that having distant relations with Moscow is not so terrible. But in practical terms, we constantly discover that Russian cooperation is essential to advancing vital U.S. interests. Moreover, it is clear that rivalry with Russia would damage U.S. effectiveness in the areas that matter most, including nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism, energy security and, last but not least, dealing with the global financial crisis.

Thus it is not necessary to endorse Russian conduct at home or abroad to believe that it is important for the United States to work together with Russia. But we cannot have it both ways. Contrary to the pronouncements of the having-our-cake-and-eating-it-too advocates, we cannot insist on measures Russia sees as antagonistic even as we seek Moscow's cooperation on matters of concern to us. Those who call for such approaches have a moral and intellectual obligation, not only to explain what they hope to achieve, but also to acknowledge its likely cost to U.S. national interests.

Without such a change in attitude, individual initiatives toward Russia will have little chance of success.


AT THE heart of our current rocky relationship is the dangerous triumphalism that has shaped U.S. international strategy since 1993. Throughout this period, a majority of America's political leaders and its wider foreign-policy elite have held firmly to the arrogant yet naive view that the United States could shape the world order without the consent of other major powers and without creating a backlash against America and American leadership.

Previous policy makers from both parties treated Russia as a defeated country that was expected to be satisfied with a rhetorical embrace in exchange for its own substantive embrace of U.S. foreign-policy goals. But Russians had a very different understanding of the end of the cold war, believing they had made the choices that brought down Soviet Communism. As such, they expected to be welcomed as heroic new friends in the early 1990s, not criticized as insufficiently repentant. And Russia's discomfort and assertive conduct have been ascribed by U.S. officials to no more than a nostalgia and paranoia that blinded Russian leaders to their own best interests-interests that Washington alone could see clearly.

As a result, two U.S. administrations in a row took it upon themselves to tell Russia what its national interests were. And we did not just lecture Russia, we assumed that Russian policy makers would take our lectures seriously and follow our guidance. Because it was heavily dependent upon the International Monetary Fund and other foreign creditors, Boris Yeltsin's Russia often complained about U.S. disregard for Russian positions and engaged in saber rattling-like the seizure of Pristina's airport during NATO's 1999 war on Yugoslavia over Kosovo-but ultimately never offered real opposition to U.S. policies. Still, the American approach won no favor in Moscow and strengthened nationalist trends in Russian politics. Once the Russian economy became more self-sufficient, largely due to high energy prices, Vladimir Putin's leadership displayed a new assertiveness and even defiance toward Washington.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in view of Russian history, today's more confident Moscow often overreacts and overplays its hand, exacerbating almost any dispute it enters. As a result, even when Russia has an arguably legitimate case, like when Georgian forces attacked Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia in August 2008 or when Ukraine failed to pay its debts to Gazprom, Russian public diplomacy often suffers from exaggerated, haughty and dismissive rhetoric that undermines Moscow's positions and rubs many the wrong way.

Still, Russia feels fully capable of defining its own interests and has little tolerance for lectures from Washington-or from anywhere else for that matter. Thus, anyone who wants to do business with Russia, and most importantly to get results, would do well to start by accepting Russian interests as Russians themselves define them.


A SOBER evaluation of vital U.S. and Russian interests suggests that in no area are they in fundamental conflict. There is practically no risk of either side attacking the other, nor members of their official alliances. Neither side wants or needs the massive nuclear arsenals built to confront one another. Neither wants to see a nuclear-armed Iran or North Korea-or nuclear-armed terrorists. Like the United States, Moscow wants to prevent the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan and views al-Qaeda as a hostile terrorist organization. Unlike the Soviet Union, today's Russia does not have a global ideology that makes competition with America inevitable. And while Russian leaders regret the disintegration of the Soviet Union and are ambitious and tough in their goals for their region, they are too pragmatic to try to rebuild the USSR. Moreover, as much as Moscow likes to remind the world of its new prominence, Russian officials understand that their country is not America's strategic equal and see the advantages of being its partner.

Of course, American and Russian views diverge sharply on many critical issues. President Obama's statement that he has no intention of "papering over those differences" is most appropriate. Russia does not have the same sense of priority or urgency as America in dealing with Iran; after all, it has had fairly good relations with the Islamic Republic for the last thirty years. Iran is an important Russian commercial partner and has not attempted to incite Muslim extremism in Russia. (For some perspective, it is useful to recall that while the United States does not welcome India's possession of nuclear weapons, we do not make it a defining issue in the U.S. relationship with New Delhi.) There is, likewise, no love for North Korea in Moscow, but again Russia differs with the United States and its allies in its assessment of the kind of threat Pyongyang poses.

In its neighborhood, Russia clearly wants to have substantial influence and particularly to make certain that none of those states with which Moscow has major differences, like Georgia and Ukraine, join NATO. New entrants like Poland and Lithuania already lead what Russian leaders see as a hostile faction within the alliance. Russian leaders have also recently begun to float the idea of a "supranational reserve currency" and "regional reserve currencies"-both clear nonstarters in Washington.

In view of these differences, U.S. policy makers need to accept that when we ask Russia for help in dealing with Iran, or on other tough issues, we are in fact asking Moscow to adjust its own natural foreign-policy inclinations and to accommodate U.S. priorities. There is nothing unusual about that; throughout history, countries have accommodated one another in some areas to harvest the fruits of a better relationship in others that matter more. And unless the United States can compel Russian action on issues of interest to us, something no one seems to argue is possible, mutual accommodation is the only path available to win Moscow's cooperation. We cannot realistically expect Russia to change its perspectives without getting anything in return.

Essay Types: The Realist