Where Does Russia Belong?

Where Does Russia Belong?

Mini Teaser: In the last issue, Zbigniew Brzezinski proposed a new plan for including Russia in an expanding transatlantic community. But his ideal world might not come about. With a comment from Brzezinski.

by Author(s): Stephen Sestanovich

One sees similar foot-dragging on other fronts. At the same meeting
in the spring of 1997 at which Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin reached
agreement on the NATO-Russia Final Act, the United States also
offered its support for Russian accession to the World Trade
Organization by the end of 1998. Now two years past this target date,
Russia's effort to join the WTO is only a bit further along than its
effort to develop a cooperative relationship with NATO. The ups and
downs of the Russian economy in this period have surely been one
factor blocking progress, as has the lack of top-down political
initiative in the last years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency. In the
absence of a sustained push for accession, domestic economic
interests that expected to be losers in a more competitive
international marketplace have been able to slow the process.

WTO negotiations are lengthy and complicated in the best of
circumstances, and Russia's effort to join is likely to bog down
again and again unless its leaders treat accession as more than just
another trophy membership. If it is only that, the benefits of
joining will hardly outweigh the costs of overruling special
interests that believe the provisions of an accession agreement will
affect them adversely. Far from being a trophy, entry into the WTO
has to be viewed as a tool--for completing Russia's economic
transformation and assuring it a place in the global economy. This
has been the Chinese approach, and it is clear that at least some
Russian officials see its advantages. It is equally clear, however,
that the strategy will only succeed if it is endorsed at the very
top. It cannot be our idea; it has to be theirs.

Making Russia Choose

Russia's stalled participation in NATO and its slow-track approach to
WTO accession confirm Brzezinski's insight that integration will not
succeed unless the joining country has a real commitment to see it
through. The same negative dynamic, it should be said, has hampered
the process of economic transformation throughout the former Soviet
Union: governments that saw their negotiations with the IMF as a kind
of game whose object was to get new loans on the loosest possible
conditions rarely made good use of the money once they got their
hands on it. Not having "taken ownership" of a reformist program,
they did not know what to do next or have the political muscle to
move forward if they did.

Lawrence Summers, then deputy secretary of the Treasury, referred to
this problem when, in the immediate aftermath of the 1998 Russian
financial crisis, he said that any successful Russian recovery
strategy had to be "Russian-owned"--that is, conceived, backed and
implemented by the Russians themselves. It has been a key ingredient
of Russia's far more successful economic performance since then that
its governments have finally "taken ownership" of their own policy.
Having stared into the abyss in August 1998, they stopped treating
control of inflation, or smaller budget deficits, or better tax
collection as concessions they had to make in order to qualify for
IMF loans. To the contrary, Russian officials now typically say that
the value of their relationship with the IMF does not concern loans
at all; they want benchmarks against which to measure their own
policy performance.

Over the next two or three years, a series of first-order policy
choices will test Russia's commitment to integration. On the security
front, NATO will soon begin reviewing another round of enlargement
decisions, to be discussed at its summit in 2002. On the economic
front, WTO accession will be one factor determining whether Russia's
current economic buoyancy, sustained for the time being by high oil
prices, can continue.

These events will, of course, also pose a demanding test for
Brzezinski's strategic design. He is right that seduction will not
work as a way of getting Russia to make the right choices: we cannot,
and should not, want the international integration of Russia more
than its own government does. But if seduction is ruled out, then how
exactly are we supposed to get our way?

Brzezinski offers, in effect, three different but overlapping answers
to this question. The first approach involves persuasion: laying out
for the Russians all the disadvantages of their present and
prospective weakness and isolation. The second emphasizes diplomatic
unilateralism: maneuvers that leave the Russians only one "viable
option." Finally, he relies on generational change, confidently
predicting that, as the current crop of Russian leaders gives way to
the next, its successors will do the right thing as a matter of
course. These approaches can be, and have been, part of an effective
Western strategy. Yet, looked at closely, they do as much to
underscore the difficulty of the enterprise as to identify a solution.

Consider, first, what can really be accomplished by cataloguing the
Russians' domestic pathologies for them. The figures Brzezinski
cites--the dismal statistics about lagging economic competitiveness
and living standards, filthy air and water, birth defects and life
expectancy, corrupt institutions, and so forth--are entirely familiar
to Russians. What they say and print about their own situation is far
worse than this. It was candidate Putin himself who declared that his
first task as president would be to grapple with the country's
"humiliating poverty." And it is the same Putin who reminds audiences
how long it will take for the Russian economy, even with very
optimistic assumptions about future growth, to rise to the level of

Nor do they have illusions about their international situation. The
grim picture that Brzezinski paints--unstable Muslims to the south,
multiplying Chinese to the east--is standard stuff for
hyperventilating Russian geopoliticians (who, of course, make it
grimmer still by adding aggressive Americans, Germans and Poles to
the west). The only way one could start an argument in Moscow with
Brzezinski's analysis would be by trying to persuade people that he
actually offers a way out of their fix. He envisions an "epiphany"--a
sudden, blinding awareness of the advantages of being a normal
Western nation--that will, he says, "liberate Russia from its ominous
geopolitical context."

The typical Russian reaction to such hyperbole will likely be
skepticism, and rightly so. Is there, in fact, any foreseeable
relationship that Russia can have with the EU or NATO that will make
a measurable short-term difference in the depth of its domestic ills?
Or that will insulate it against radical Islamist groups to the
south? Russians are likely to think that they have to deal with these
problems by putting their own house in order, and in this they are
not wrong.

Suppose, then, that we cannot get the Russians to be better joiners
merely by educating them about what is really in their interest. (In
my experience, Russians are not the only people who do not enjoy
being told our view of their interests.) Can we push them into it by
actions that we take on our own? Brzezinski proposes to bull
ahead--but with an outstretched hand. His program combines
enlargement of NATO and the EU with formal statements envisioning
some sort of eventual Russian participation in both organizations. By
proposing to incorporate new members while deepening ties with those
left out, he recapitulates the basic approach taken by the alliance
in round one of enlargement. Clearly, he suggests, a second round
will call for the same kind of balance.

Yet striking a balance will be far harder when NATO is considering
Russia's immediate neighbors for membership. Russians who were
willing privately to pooh-pooh the significance of adding Poland,
Hungary and the Czech Republic will not treat the Baltic states the
same way. And they will hardly be mollified by suggestions that their
own ties to NATO (or the EU) might develop faster if they were
prepared to drop their objections to further enlargement. One of the
crucial principles that made it possible to find a workable balance
in the first round of NATO enlargement was precisely that the
Russians were not asked to drop their objections to the idea. In a
second round, those objections (at least to inclusion of the Baltic
states) will be far more intense. Brzezinski proposes, in effect, the
following deal to the Russians: if they do what we want most--welcome
the enlargement of the EU and NATO to all who want to join--we will
reciprocate by doing what they want least: accelerate the process and
bring the alliance right up to their borders as early as next year.

The next round of NATO membership decisions is likely to have an
enormous effect on Russian elite opinion--and, in turn, on the
prospects for Brzezinski's third approach to getting Russia to make
an unhesitating choice in favor of full integration into the West. As
he sees it, the next generation of Russian leaders will have a
fundamentally different mindset from the current one, reflecting far
greater understanding of what the world is like and of what Western
ways have to offer. With such people in charge, Russia's orientation
toward the West should occur almost automatically.

Essay Types: Essay