Wrong on Russia

Wrong on Russia

Prominent foreign-policy analysts are saying post the Russia-Georgia conflict, America needs to get tougher on Moscow. But we should instead be working to improve the relationship. If we face facts, America still needs Russia.

In the wake of Russia's military incursion into Georgia, too many current, former, and aspiring U.S. officials are caricaturing the Russian state that was shaped and is still guided by Vladimir Putin as a revisionist aggressor. For Robert Kagan, John McCain's neoconservative foreign policy adviser, as well as for long-time Democratic foreign policy hands Richard Holbrooke and Ronald Asmus, Russia's actions in Georgia are comparable to Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. For Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russia's actions are more reminiscent of the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.


But, in reality, today's Russia is not a resurgent imperial power. In the post-Cold War period, it was Washington, not Moscow, which started the game of acting outside the United Nations Security Council to pursue coercive regime change in problem states and redraw the borders of nominally sovereign countries. In Russian eyes, America's invasion and occupation of Iraq, including arresting and presiding over the execution of its deposed President, undermined Washington's standing to criticize others for taking military action in response to perceived threats. And American unilateralism in the Balkans, along with planned deployments of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe and support for "color revolutions" in former Soviet republics, trampled clearly stated Russian redlines.

Russia has now, in effect, responded in kind. But, however the political arrangements envisioned in the French-mediated ceasefire between Moscow and Tbilisi are worked out, Washington and its European allies face a far more daunting and important policy challenge-how to pick up the pieces of Western relations with Russia. Meeting that challenge means confronting two longstanding deficits in U.S. policy-a wrong-headed assessment of Russia's interests and ambitions, and a willful disregard of Russia's heightened influence and standing on the international stage.

Russia's leaders correctly judge that, as their country has become richer and more powerful in recent years, it has also become increasingly capable of autonomous action to defend its perceived interests-even when that action runs against U.S. and Western preferences. At the same time, Moscow continues to view partnership with America, and the West more generally, as their country's best strategic option. But this partnership, from a Russian perspective, must entail give and take, not simply acquiescence to American dictates and unilateral U.S. initiatives.

These fundamental drivers of Russian foreign policy in the Putin era are exemplified in the evolution of Moscow's cooperation with the United States in the war on terror. During her service as a political adviser to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, one of us, Hillary Mann Leverett, worked in the Security Council with Russia's long-serving permanent representative, Sergei Lavrov (now Russia's Foreign Minister), to legitimate strong multilateral action against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, both before and after the 9/11 attacks. On September 12, 2001, Russia's unequivocal endorsement of a "blank check" resolution authorizing the United States to "take all necessary steps" in response to the attacks was critical to bringing China on board and ensuring the Security Council's unanimity. And, after the Taliban's overthrow, Russia helped bring anti-Taliban factions together in a political process meant to bolster Afghanistan's new pro-American President, Hamid Karzai.

But when the Bush Administration used the war on terror to justify deployment of U.S. military forces to former Soviet states in Central Asia, Moscow stopped working with Washington to consolidate a stable post-Taliban political order and rein in drug-dealing warlords in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Moscow built up the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)-a regional security organization in Central Asia dominated by Russia and China-as a counterweight to American influence in the region. Over time, Russia was able to use the SCO to roll back U.S. military deployments in Central Asia.

As Washington contemplates future relations with Moscow, U.S. pundits and policymakers should keep two fundamental realities in mind. First, America and its European allies need positive relations with Moscow, if for no other reason than to forestall Russian steps that could seriously damage Western interests. For example, as Russia's current account surplus continues to balloon alongside rising oil prices, Moscow is emerging as an increasingly important purchaser of U.S. Treasury securities and agency paper. Would those calling on Washington to deliver various ultimatums to Russia prefer that Moscow dump its dollar denominated assets? Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin told us recently that Moscow is preparing the ground for the possible introduction of contracts to purchase Russian oil that would be denominated in rubles, rather than dollars. Does the anti-Russia camp want Moscow to take such a step, given its likely negative impact on the dollar's long-term value?

Similarly, Europe's need for Russian gas will only continue to grow in coming years.  The West cannot "work around" this situation with pipe dreams about new pipelines, like the European Union's Nabucco project, for which there are insufficient non-Russian gas volumes to make them economically viable. Shortly before he moved from Russia's presidency to its premiership earlier this year, Putin said that Europe and the United States could build Nabucco and any other pipelines they wanted. But, he asked rhetorically, where would they get the gas to fill them? In the end, Europe cannot provide for its own energy security without a deep and productive partnership with Russia.

Second, the United States and its allies need Russia's cooperation in the international arena. Russia is and will remain a permanent member of the Security Council, which means that Washington must work with Moscow if there are to be even minimally effective multilateral responses to the full range of "threats to international peace and security," from Afghanistan to Iran and Zimbabwe. We cannot "work around" this reality by championing a "concert of democracies" as an alternative forum for legitimating decisive international action-an idea that will only antagonize Russia (and China) without providing any strategic benefit.

Amid all the heated rhetoric over Georgia, some former U.S. officials, such as former Clinton Administration Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, question whether cooperative relations with Moscow are now even possible. But the United States and its allies can have a mutually beneficial relationship with Russia. On its own, Russia does not want to exercise financial leverage over America or withhold energy supplies to Europe. Quite the opposite-Russia wants to expand its energy and financial ties to the West, but it will use the tools it has to defend its interests.

Our conversations with senior Russian diplomats and officials suggest that, under the rubric of strategic partnership, Moscow would provide greater support to U.S. objectives on a range of international issues, including the Iranian nuclear problem. But Russia will not provide that support absent a broad-based strategic understanding with Washington. As Foreign Minister Lavrov put it last week, the United States will eventually have to choose between its "virtual project" in Georgia and a "real partnership" with Russia "on issues that really demand collective action." That kind of partnership will require the United States to do something it has been unwilling to do since the end of the Cold War-prioritize its foreign policy objectives. Simply put, America's promotion of a dubious "democratic" movement in Georgia-or in other ethnically divided and unstable post-Soviet states-is not as important to Western interests as working with Russia on the most significant energy, economic, and international security challenges of our time.


Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council senior director and CIA senior analyst, is Senior Fellow and Director of the Geopolitics of Energy Initiative at the New America Foundation. Hillary Mann Leverett, a former National Security Council director and Foreign Service Officer, is CEO of STRATEGA, a political risk consultancy.