Overcoming Russo-American tensions

Ambivalence characterises relations between Russia and the United States. President Vladimir Putin is sniping at American conduct and policies, while his foreign minister reaffirms Russia’s interest in a partnership with the United States


Washington seeks Russian assistance on non-proliferation while pursuing policies on Russia’s borders that Moscow and many Russians consider highly provocative. In the meantime, both countries are threatened by radical Islam; co-operation between the nuclear powers of the world is imperative; and an emerging set of issues, like environment and climate change, can only be solved on a global basis. Given the extent to which their national interests have become interconnected, neither side can want or, indeed, afford a new Cold War. But the new chill is harmful to the prospects of a peaceful and creative international order.

The two countries have reached this point under presidents who took office nearly contemporaneously and will leave it about the same time. Remarkably, the personal relationship between the two presidents has remained much more constructive than the overall relationship. To the extent that personal trust can shape policies, the two presidents have an opportunity to use their remaining months in office to overcome some of the tensions that have weakened the basis for long-term co-operation.

The estrangement falls into two categories: on the American side, disenchantment with domestic trends in Russia, disappointment in Russia’s foot-dragging on the nuclear issue in Iran and reservations about the abrupt way Russia has dealt with the now independent former parts of the Russian Empire. On the Russian side, there is a sense that America takes Russia for granted, demands consideration of its difficulties but is unwilling to respect those of Russia, starts crises without adequate consultation and intervenes unacceptably in the domestic affairs of Russia.

Historical experience
Though each side’s complaints are to some (and often considerable) extent justified, the difficulty in resolving them reflects a vast difference in historical experience. In the 19th century, acting on the surface in parallel, both countries had devoted much of their national energies to expanding into contiguous, thinly settled regions. But there was an essential difference. America’s expansion was carried out by men and women who turned their backs on their countries of origin to shape their individual futures. Russia’s pioneers arrived in conquered territories in the rear of armies, while the indigenous populations were absorbed into the Empire. Almost all the cities in southern Ukraine and, of course, St. Petersburg were created by tsars who moved thousands forcibly into newly conquered regions.

The vastness of the territories and the openness of the frontiers produced a claim to exceptionalism in both countries. But American exceptionalism was based on individual fulfilment, Russia’s on a mystical sense of national mission. America’s exceptionalism produced an essentially isolationist foreign policy, interrupted occasionally by moral crusades. Russia’s exceptionalism expressed itself in military expansion. Between Peter the Great and Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia expanded from the heartland of Slavic Russia to the centre of Europe, the shores of the Pacific and deep into Central Asia.

Until the end of World War II, Russia and America rarely interacted on a global basis. America turned its back on world politics. Russia was in the paradoxical position of, on the one hand, often being seen as a threat to the established balance of power, while becoming an indispensable element in its preservation when it was attacked by Charles XII, Napoleon and Hitler.

America felt secure behind two great oceans, at least until the emergence of Russian long-range missiles and perhaps until 9/11. Russia, with no natural borders, especially in the West, considered itself permanently threatened. America identified normalcy and peace with the spread of its political values and institutions; Russia sought it through a security belt in contiguous territory. Yet the more polyglot the Russian Empire became, the more vulnerable Russian leaders felt, until expansion turned into a defining characteristic of the Empire.

This dichotomy explains the psychological tensions of recent years. To America, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a vindication of fundamental democratic values; to most Russians – even anti-Soviet Russians – the disintegration of empire is a shocking affront to Russian identity. To Americans, the 1990s in Russia were a period of reform and progress. Most Russians view them as a time of humiliation, corruption and national decline. Many Americans criticise Putin for reverting to an autocratic system. His supporters would argue that Russia’s immediate priority must be the restoration of its international standing. That perception, according to independent polls, seems to be shared by a large majority of Russians.

Putin sees himself in the tradition of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, who established Russia as a great power. Autocratic beyond the standards of even 18th-century monarchies, they nevertheless considered themselves reformers who would drag a backward country and recalcitrant population into the modern period. Peter spent a year in Europe learning as much as he could of European technology; Catherine corresponded with Voltaire and invited Diderot as well as many scientists to Russia.

America must keep in mind that Russia, containing 11 time-zones, abuts principal areas in rapid transformation: Europe; the Middle East; and China, India and Japan, under whose aegis the centre of gravity of world affairs is moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Then there are the republics of Central Asia, repository of some of the world’s largest energy resources.

For Russia to regain its historical status, America is in many respects the most desirable partner. Russia will have an incentive to foster relations with China, partly to enhance its bargaining position vis-à-vis other regions. But it will stop short of making Asia the focal point of its policy, partly because China itself would shrink from such a partnership and because Russia has too many concerns about Siberia to place all its bets on its Asian ties. Russia’s ties with Europe are traditional, but Europe, until its unity is further advanced, is highly reluctant to accept the risks that may be needed to overcome radical jihad or to pose the penalties and rewards to prevent nuclear proliferation.

Tactical issues
Strategically, the US and Russia are very important to each other. Yet their dialogue has concentrated too much on tactical issues. Russian concerns have sometimes been treated as an exercise in tutelage. There is some merit in an exasperated comment made to me by a Russian policymaker; “When we tell you of a Russian problem, you have a tendency to reply that you will take care of it. But we don’t so much want it taken care of as we want it understood.”

For many Russians, the post-Soviet experience represents a reversal of 300 years of Russian history. Most of the acquisitions since Peter the Great having been severed from Russia, the Russian strategic position vis-à-vis its Western neighbours has changed fundamentally for both sides. Russia sometimes repeats its historical emphasis on power in relations with its neighbours. It finds it difficult to adjust its thinking to a world where it faces no threat in the West. At the same time, Russia is no longer the strategic threat to the balance of power that it was during the Cold War, even under the worst assumptions. But if the worst assumptions come to pass, it would be the result of a policy failure on both sides.

A new constructive relationship between America and Russia will require the modification of two traditional attitudes: the American tendency to insist on global tutelage and the Russian proclivity to emphasise raw power in the conduct of diplomacy. Specifically:

As the two largest nuclear powers, the United States and Russia have a special responsibility for non-proliferation. Iran is the key. The haggling over Security Council tactics needs to be brought to a conclusion. Is Russia striving for a special position in Iran and, if so, to what purpose? If the disagreement is tactical, wherein does it arise? Is there a different assessment of the imminence of an Iranian nuclear capability? Or of the efficacy of diplomacy? At what point is the Iranian nuclear weapons capability irreversible? Answers to these questions should guide tactics, not be driven by them.

The most sensitive psychological aspect of America’s relations with Russia concerns what Russians call the ‘near abroad:’ the new independent states that were once part of the Russian Empire. Many Russians find it difficult to think of them – especially those close to the centre of traditional Russian power – as entirely foreign countries and react truculently to what they consider American hegemonic attempts to infringe on historical patterns.

This issue requires restraint on both sides. As someone who strongly supported the expansion of NATO to its present limits, I am uneasy about pushing these territorial limits even further outward except under extreme provocation. At the same time, Russia must understand that America is bound to consider the genuine independence of these countries, like Ukraine and Georgia, as an essential component of a peaceful international order.

Affecting attitudes
A major challenge is the degree to which Russia’s internal evolution should affect US-Russian relations. This has two aspects: To what extent will Russian internal conduct affect America’s attitudes? To what extent should America try to affect Russia’s internal evolution by exhortation or pressure?

With respect to the first question, Russian leaders must understand that the American public is as shaped by its national history as is Russia by its own. America will always judge other societies, to some extent, by their respect for human rights. In many intangible ways, this defines the range of action available to American presidents.

When the line is crossed from advocacy to overt pressure, more intractable issues arise. Russia’s internal condition necessarily is an amalgam of its autocratic, historic past and the new opportunities generated by the collapse of the communist ideological system. A Western-style democratic political system cannot quickly emerge from the building blocks of Russia’s political past; new vistas are needed. Putin’s Russia is an inherently transitory synthesis produced by the impact of the USSR’s closed system on the requirements of a globalising world. This synthesis combines elements of Russia’s historic authoritarian, centralised bureaucratic state and the new opportunities opened up through a co-operative relationship with a unifying Europe and a friendly America.

For the moment, the authoritarian, centralising aspects are dominant, though arguably less so than in any previous period of Russian history. The goal of sound US policy should be to maximise incentives for Russia’s evolution to become more compatible with democratic norms. The dominant factors shaping this evolution will be domestic, not external. Overreaching efforts to determine political evolution in Russia will be more likely to strengthen authoritarian tendencies than the reverse.

In that spirit, a relationship between Russia and the United States that goes from removing frictions to active cooperation will make a major contribution to peace, progress and stability. 

© 2007 Tribune Media Services, Inc