Argument

The Russia Opportunity

Washington and Moscow don't have to be enemies.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama has an opportunity to establish a new relationship with Russia that will make the world a safer place. With ties between the two countries being the most strained they’ve been in decades, the U.S. president seems to recognize there must be changes in his country’s approach to Russia.

The Russians themselves seem uncertain about the direction of U.S. policy. Since Obama was elected, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev vowed to place missiles on the border of the European Union in response to any United States missile defense radar in Poland and Czechoslovakia, then decided to pull them back. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has blamed the United States for the global financial crisis and also expressed optimism about the new U.S. president. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov welcomed a conciliatory foreign policy speech from Vice President Joe Biden at the same time that his country, by pressuring Kyrgyzstan to kick out a U.S. military base, made it clear that Moscow wants to be included in any dialogue about Central Asia.

The current tension between the United States and Russia is not necessary, nor was it inevitable. As a former senator, and as someone who has invested a lot of time and hope in the opportunities opened up by the fall of the Berlin Wall, I regret that the last 16 years have produced a series of strategic blunders leading to a gigantic missed opportunity. The truth is that we have badly mismanaged our relations with Russia since 1992, and our actions may have created a self-fulfilling prophecy of a more contentious relationship between our two countries.

That would be a terrible outcome. We need Russia to work with us to reduce each of our stockpiles of nuclear weapons, to control nuclear proliferation, to safeguard nuclear materials, to fight the war against Islamic terrorism, and to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Instead, U.S. policies toward Russia under the last two presidential administrations have ignored Russia’s stated national interests even as they have aggravated age-old ethnic hatreds and continued to promote Cold War-era military projects.

The roots of today’s heightened tensions started in the Clinton administration with its failure to properly assist a fallen communist state in moving to democratic capitalism or to seek a genuinely strategic partnership with our former Cold War adversary. Instead of doing those two things — difficult as they may have been to accomplish — we did the wrong thing: expand NATO eastward ever closer toward Russia.

In the 1990s, most policymakers in Washington either basked in what they called the Cold War victory over Russia or became preoccupied with remaking that nation in the image of a narrow brand of American capitalism. The Washington consensus was that with its military hollowed out and its economy no bigger than Denmark’s, Russia’s influence in a world of market states had disappeared. This attitude was captured in Strobe Talbott’s memoir in which he quoted then President Bill Clinton, who was preparing for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin, saying to his chief Russian advisor, We keep telling Ol’ Boris, Now here’s what you gotta do next — here’s some more shit for your face.’

Politics 101 says that when somebody with whom you’ve had extensive dealings goes bankrupt you call them up on the phone and say, You know, it’s been tough. But you’re going to be back. I’m with you. And, here’s a little help if you want it. That’s what you do if you’re a good politician because if the bankrupt individual does get back, you want him to remember your help and your caring. But when Russia was bankrupt in the 1990s, we were neither understanding nor effective in the kind of help we gave.

During the Cold War the U.S. government appealed to the Russian people with a vision of a better way. But when the Soviet Union came to an abrupt end in 1991 we seemed to have forgotten the compassionate lesson of Lend-Lease during World War II — that it is possible to give tangible help to the Russian people and gain their appreciation for the assistance.

We increasingly filtered the American vision through one man: Boris Yeltsin. The Russian people assumed that since we were backing Yeltsin 100 percent, whatever he did, we were for it. When economic reform created 1,500 percent inflation, we failed to tell the Russian people that we understood how destructive an impact it had on their lives, with, among other things, their pensions and life savings being destroyed overnight. During this time, the U.S. government did very little of significance to help Russians directly or even symbolically.

Consider this comparison: at Clinton and Yeltsin’s first meeting in 1993 in Vancouver, Clinton offered $1.6 billion to help a Russia whose territory extends through 11 time zones. Compare that to the proposed $1 billion we’re offering tiny Georgia today. Clinton’s offer fell tragically short of the mark.

From 1993 to 1997, beyond supporting IMF infusions, the United States provided just $4.7 billion in direct assistance. Not only was American assistance to Russia long on rhetoric and short on impact, but hundreds of millions of those funds went into the pockets of American consultants, planners, and advisors who went up the learning curve over and over again even as billions more of IMF funds were stolen by the then ruling elite of Russia. Only pennies actually reached the Russian people.

Not only did we fail to influence the course of Russian reform, we actually created an anti-American backlash in reaction to our hyped and their dashed expectations. In adopting an arrogant and uncaring policy toward Russia, we forgot that it took a U.S.-Russian partnership to end the Cold War. We forgot that a country with a continental territory, vast national resources, and a proud people could never be counted out.

In George W. Bush’s first term, things got further off track quickly and disastrously. Clinton had expanded NATO to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Bush then expanded the trans-Atlantic alliance to Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, former territories of the Soviet Union itself. The Russians protested, as they had the first expansion of NATO. We told them they had nothing to fear from this latest enlargement because it was not aimed at them.

We reiterated that it was just the inexorable march of democracy. Besides, what could they do about it? We were powerful, and they were weak. And to demonstrate our power, Vice President Cheney went to Lithuania, on Russia’s doorstep, in May 2006 and gave a provocative anti-Russian speech.

After September 11, the first world leader to telephone President Bush was the new president of Russia, Vladimir Putin. He offered sympathy and solidarity. And, at the United Nations, Russia supported the blank check resolution to go after al Qaeda and the Taliban — a resolution that allowed us to take all necessary steps in Afghanistan in response to 9/11. Without Russia’s active support, China might not have come on board. On top of that, the Russians facilitated the flow of supplies in our efforts to organize anti-Taliban factions in Afghanistan, and suggested other ways that we might further our efforts there based on their bitter 10-year experience in the same country.

Putin even approved of the United States using military bases in former Soviet Central Asia to aid in our efforts against the Taliban. For this help, Bush showed his gratitude by abrogating the ABM Treaty — the treaty that in Russian minds had ratified Russia’s status as a superpower — and by seeking to make those bases in the Stans a permanent part of the United States’ global base architecture.

The next mistake came when the Bush administration decided to place components of a missile defense radar system in Poland and the Czech Republic. We told Russia the shield wasn’t aimed at them. When the Russians pointed out that the radar covered about 40 percent of their territory, we protested that the shield was meant only to protect Europe from Iran — even though Europe hadn’t asked for the protection, and even though Iran had no nuclear weapons.

And then came Kosovo independence. The Russians strenuously objected to it. A moment of walking in their shoes would tell you why. Russia has more than 100 ethnic groups — Chechens being among them. Many are regionally concentrated. Naturally, the Russians were fearful of a precedent being set for ethnic separatism throughout their vast country, but especially in the perpetually boiling Caucasus. Such separatism, like that pursued in Kosovo, could turn the map of Russia into something that looks like Swiss cheese. The Russians vociferously objected in meeting after meeting as the proposed independence day approached. All we had to do was to keep the existing autonomous arrangement in place and not insist on total separatism.

But we didn’t. Finally, the Russians (partially contradicting their earlier statements) said that if we went ahead with Kosovo independence, they would begin to look for where they could apply the principle that we were establishing — specifically mentioning South Ossetia and Abhazia, two provinces of Georgia which, ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, had wanted independence due to deep ethnic hatred for Georgians.

We seemed oblivious to the Russian warnings, blinded by the fact that they were weak and we were strong. And so, along with much of Europe, we recognized the independence of Kosovo. (Interestingly, Spain voted against it fearing the effect of the precedent on the Basque separatist movement in their own country.) For the first time since the Helsinki Accord in 1975, a territory had been taken from a nation against its expressed desires. Politicians patted themselves on the back and gave speeches about freedom and democracy, seemingly oblivious to the fact that once the genie of ethnic separatism comes out of the bottle — legitimized by a false comparison to self-determination as it is widely understood in the United States — its expression becomes totally unpredictable. Indeed, we had just set ourselves up for future trouble in Georgia and perhaps even Ukraine, where Russian enclaves in Crimea are looking increasingly to Moscow.

So after all these blunders, is there still an opportunity to put the partnership back on a productive path? I believe it is possible — even though we have lost 16 years of potential cooperation. But it will require a renewed focus on overall strategic objectives — nuclear issues, Islamic terrorism, Iran, and Afghanistan — not on emotions of the moment and ideological crusades.

I remember talking to a Chinese official one time. He said, Why are you Americans so interested in small countries? What about the big countries? Russia is a big country. It may no longer espouse an ideology of world revolution, but a U.S.-Russian rivalry will still make the achievement of our big objectives in the world more difficult and will make the world a more dangerous place and America less secure.

Russia is never going to mirror the United States. I remember giving my first speech about Putin’s hostile intentions toward Russian democracy in 2001. Russians will always chart their own way. It may seem to us that they inexplicably have given up political freedoms without a whisper of protest. But Putin and Medvedev remain popular, despite the mounting economic hardships. Russia today is not the Soviet state of the Gulag or the Ukrainian famine. Still, the speed with which limited authoritarianism has reasserted itself seems startling.

Russia wants to be part of the world but free to figure out how to modernize its
own country. As long as it respects the full political sovereignty of neighbors such as Georgia and Ukraine — that is, it doesn’t try to control their internal affairs or dictate their regimes — it shouldn’t have to fear foreign military bases in countries that abut its territory.

The U.S.-Russian joint focus should be on actions that actually do make the world a safer place. If the cost of getting that genuine convergence of strategic interests and results on the ground is giving up radars in Poland and the Czech Republic, and being honest about the very unlikely prospects for Ukrainian or Georgian membership in NATO, I would say it’s a small price to pay.

For any of this to happen, we have to treat the Russian government with respect and as a world power. We have to listen closely to their concerns, to build bridges between our two peoples, and to regularly put ourselves in their shoes. On the Russian side, there’s got to be flexibility and good will toward our intentions. There needs to be tangible progress in the areas of our mutual strategic interests. The hostile pride and needless gamesmanship on their part that now infuses too many diplomatic discussions must give way to a genuine search for common ground.

Some say Russia will always be an imperial power seeking to control its neighbors militarily. I say it can be a responsible 21st century state that plays an important role in building a more stable world. Any genuine strategic working relationship is going to require courageous leadership in the United States, because, as we saw after the Russian military moved into Georgia, or when President Obama’s statement that he wanted a better relationship with Russia was met by a chorus of negative voices, the old Cold War reflex remains ready at hand.

During the war in Georgia, Senator John McCain memorably proclaimed, We are all Georgians. To this I respond, No, we are all Americans. The sooner we recognize how central Russia is to American interests, the sooner we can form the basis of a meaningful partnership.

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