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

This depiction of Russia's next generation is so persuasive that one
could almost make waiting for it the heart of U.S. strategy. Yet
quite apart from the fact that the country has just elected a
forty-seven year-old president (so the next people in line may have
quite a wait on their hands), the real problem with such a long-term
strategy is the possibility that the next generation's world-view
will change before its members come of age as national leaders. The
number of events that might shake their confidence in the advantages
of integration into the West is probably very small, and a protracted
global depression is surely at the top of the list. But a sustained
confrontation between their country and NATO can hardly be far behind.

Only One Option?

In promoting Russia's integration into the West, we should certainly
aim to create what Brzezinski calls "a compelling context" in which
the Russians are more likely to make the right choice. Putin's recent
statement welcoming the prospect of EU enlargement may even be a sign
that this approach is working. And yet it is an illusion to think
that we can so narrowly limit Russia's room to maneuver so that the
right choice is its "only viable option." If nothing else, this
objective is at odds with Brzezinski's insight that a lasting choice
will have to be one that the Russians make themselves.

To understand the complexities involved in promoting a major
country's path toward integration, it is hard to do better than the
analyses that Brzezinski himself has published recently in The
National Interest. In his discussions of both China and Turkey, there
is no suggestion that the other guy's policy choices can ever be
narrowed, godfather-style, to just one. His article on "Living With
China" in the Spring 2000 issue sets its sights just as high as his
proposals for Russia, announcing that the "central strategic task of
U.S. policy toward China should be nothing less than the attainment
of a fundamental, truly historic shift in the mindset of the Chinese
elite." Yet, presumably because the goal is so important, Brzezinski
favors extreme judiciousness in pursuing it. He worries, for example,
about forcing choices on China that it would not find "palatable",
and about pursuing outcomes that "no current Chinese leader could
accept." He speaks of "the imperative of sensitivity for Chinese
concerns", and warns that "how China is treated might well become a
self-fulfilling prophesy." There is no brave talk here of leaving the
Chinese just one viable option.

As for Turkey, Brzezinski's article on "Living With Russia" argues
convincingly that anyone interested in promoting a historic shift in
the mindset of the Russian elite needs to study Atatürk's achievement
in giving his country a post-imperial European identity after the
break-up of the Ottoman Empire. The importance of Turkey's
modernization strategy as a model not only for Russia but for other
former Soviet states as well is beyond question. Brzezinski is also
right that its ultimate success was made far more likely by the
welcome that Turkey received in the West. A half century in NATO
served as a kind of antechamber for its current candidacy before the

Yet the story of Turkey's successful integration into the West has
also been one of ongoing unresolved tensions, many of which continue
to the present day. To these, the United States and its European
allies have responded over many decades with a balancing act
combining encouragement and restraint. Turkey did indeed start to
make itself "post-imperial" under Atatürk, but its relations with
Greece, Cyprus, the Kurds and Armenia remained--and remain--extremely
complicated, to say the least. There were other ways things could
have turned out. Any one of a number of flashpoints could have
precipitated a break between us. If Turkey can serve as a model for
Russia, then let us be sure to make U.S. policy toward Turkey a model
as well. This sophisticated policy did not go into reverse just
because at any given moment Turkey's embrace of its integration into
the West was less than unequivocal.

There is always more than one option, a fact that teaches us to be
wary of grand designs. It is hard to argue with a plan that holds out
the benefits of early membership in NATO for all the democratic
states of Central and Eastern Europe that want it, and of
consolidated democracy in a Russia that is coming to grips at last
with its internal problems, and of expanding cooperation between NATO
and Russia, and of reduced Russian pressure on its neighbors, and of
a consensus among Russians so strong that all this feels like their
own choice. But if this prospect sounds too good to be true, then we
should have an honest debate about the trade-offs that we may face if
the design does not work out as planned. If we are going to end up
with something less than the best of all possible worlds, then let us
think about it realistically in advance, so that we at least get the
next-best world rather than a truly undesirable one.

To have the debate we need about trade-offs, nothing is more
important than avoiding a mere restatement of old positions. This
rule applies to those on both sides of past discussions. Those who
used to argue that enlargement of the alliance would put Russian
democracy at risk need to take account of its impressive durability;
if it remains vulnerable in 2001 (on which more below), it is
nevertheless not the vulnerability of 1996.

By the same token, those who used to argue that NATO and the EU were
our only effective tools for assuring the stability of Central and
Eastern Europe have to acknowledge that stability has put down deeper
roots than one could have counted on a half decade ago. Like Russian
democracy, this region may have its vulnerabilities, but they too
have changed.

The Russians themselves will affect our debate about trade-offs, and
they need to know it. It goes without saying that Russian
bellicosity--menacing statements and worse--will only strengthen the
case for putting enlargement on a fast track. But could Russian
leaders who take a different approach, who at last get serious about
their own integration on many different fronts, including in their
relations with NATO, elicit a Western response that recognizes this
change and tries to support it?

Finally, we cannot think our way through any of these problems
without focusing on the East European state that worries most about a
serious breach between Russia and the West: Ukraine. I know
Ukrainians who hope to be in NATO; I know Ukrainians who do not; I do
not know any who think there is a national consensus on the issue, or
that one could take shape soon, or that it would be a good idea to
try to induce one. In the best of all possible worlds, Ukraine could
take its time sorting out its views, and if it wanted to approach
NATO about a deeper association, even about membership, it could do
so when ready. But the unraveling of a Brzezinski-style grand design
could create difficult choices for Ukraine well before it is able to
make them. Before we put ourselves or the Ukrainians in this
position, we need to understand their sense of their own dilemmas far
better than we, or even they, now do.

The Mighty Russian "State"

There is one factor that might seem to make any talk of trade-offs
irrelevant as we consider how to handle Russia, and that is what
Brzezinski sees as the neo-imperialist mindset of the Russian elite.
For him, it is obvious that Putin has already identified his "central
goal" and it is "not democratic reform" but rather "the restoration
of a powerful Russian state." Sure, he may for tactical reasons seek
good relations with the West, but he has not made the historic
decision to adopt a Western model to overcome Russia's many
infirmities. Far from it: he just wants "to gain a free hand in
dealing with the new states in the former Soviet space."

Putin does, in fact, talk ceaselessly about strengthening the Russian
state, and he is not alone. When Russians complain about their health
care, their drinking water or their niggardly pensions, they
frequently trace these problems to "the weakness of the Russian
state." When they worry that their armed forces have become
dangerously feeble, or rail that other countries are trying to take
advantage of them, their complaint will be the same: "the weakness of
the Russian state." But in making what sounds like the same
diagnosis, they are not necessarily proposing the same cure; in fact,
they are usually not even using the same word.

The Russian word for "state" that means "complex of national
institutions for the exercise of political power" is gosudarstvo. The
word that means "national actor in international affairs" is
derzhava. When a Russian politician promises to improve social
services or crack down on criminals and corrupt public officials, the
state he says he will strengthen is the Russian gosudarstvo. But if
he touts the importance of rebuilding a mighty Russian state that
will never be vulnerable to attack and will always have a large role
in world affairs, he is more likely to say derzhava.

Essay Types: Essay