February 6, 2014

Russia Depends on the Russians

The relationship between the U.S. and Russia lacks a secure mooring and is therefore subject to upheaval and uncertainty. Both sides are to blame for this.

The Obama administration’s “reset” policy is strategically vacuous. For their part, not a few in Congress seem to be focused on reacting to authoritarian trends in Russia and on fostering democracy as an antidote. The reality, however, is that we can affect Russia’s political future at the margins at best. What happens in Russia depends on the Russians. What we should do, instead, is to define concrete foreign policy issues on which there is a convergence of interests and try to foster bilateral cooperation on them, to the extent possible, with realistic expectations, and in a manner consistent with American interests.

As for the Putin government, on the one hand, it wants Russia to be treated as a great power but, on the other, ascribes many of its difficulties to Western (especially American) machinations. (In fact, the real problem facing Moscow is that Russia seems to matter less and less to the United States.) The result has been the rise within Russia of an anti-Western nationalism.

Until Washington and Moscow stop this destructive, ideologically-driven pattern of behavior, the bilateral relationship will continue to be characterized by instability, unpredictability, polemics, and blame-games. That, in turn, will limit the achievements possible, even in areas where there is some (though in truth very little) cooperation, Syria being a case in point.

But if the two sides can find a few specific areas of cooperation that are modest to start with but on which cooperation would produce demonstrable mutual benefits, the relationship can (slowly) become more predictable and productive. Grand gestures such as summits and catchwords won’t make a difference. Any improvement that occurs in US-Russia relations will require quiet, persistent, and prolonged diplomacy.

Three Questions Should Guide Our Russia Policy

Scholars and policymakers are inclined to believe that the countries or regions or problems that preoccupy them professionally are of supreme, even urgent, importance. American experts on Russia are no exception in this regard.  The reality, though, is that U.S.-Russian relations will never have, for Americans or Russians, the salience that the U.S.-Soviet relationship did. To refuse to accept this fact is to invite delusion or wishful thinking. It’s also true that a positive transformation of what is today a rocky U.S.–Russian relationship will not occur during what remains of Barack Obama’s presidency: domestic politics in Russia and the United States and the divergent worldviews of the two governments conspire to rule that out. What is feasible, however, is an improvement over the current state of affairs.

The United States should attempt to stabilize its relationship with Russia and to place it on a better footing because neither the Russians nor we stand to gain from its continued deterioration. But unless efforts are made to prevent that outcome, it is all but assured to occur. To allow that would be foolish.

Whatever one may think of Vladimir Putin, his policies and pronouncements have more support in Russian society than is often assumed or asserted in American discourse about Russia. Yes, he is less popular in Russia than he was in his first term as president, and it is true that some of his antics are becoming tiresome to many Russians. But he remains the most prominent, powerful, and popular leader in Russia; and there is no sign that his position is in jeopardy. We either deal with him or we make the choice to write Russia off until someone more to our liking takes the helm.

But Russia can’t be written off given that it: i) is a nuclear power, still retains substantial and powerful conventional forces, and trails only the United States as an exporter of weaponry; ii) is a major energy producer, one that supplies many countries in whose future the United States has a stake; iii) still wields significant, even if diminished, influence in many “post-Soviet states” (Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Armenia, and the Central Asian five) in which the United States has interests of various sorts; iv) has formed a multifaceted “strategic partnership” with China, the state that is considered most likely to become America’s peer competitor; v) can either help or hinder progress in hotspots such as Iran, the Korean peninsula, Syria, and Afghanistan; vi) is too important to ignore simply by virtue of its massive size and its strategic Eurasian location.

What Can Be Done to Improve the Relationship?

While this will be hard for any American president to sell to Congress and to the various interest groups engaged with matters Russian, we have to learn to delink our larger relationship with Russia from our views about the nature of the political order that Putin has built. The latter is not to most Americans’ liking; but it would be foolish to insist, in effect, that a change of regime in Moscow is necessary before we can develop a relationship with Russia that advances our interests. That amounts to putting our Russia policy on indefinite hold and is irresponsible.

The United States has dealt extensively with many countries whose politics and values we find distasteful (consider China under Mao, or even China today; or think of Saudi Arabia)—and will continue to do so. Nothing is to be gained by making Russia an exception to this pragmatic practice or by insisting on standards on human rights and democracy that the current Russian leadership will never meet. Reconfiguring the internal order of countries should not be a priority for our foreign policy. Instead, we should focus on finding areas of cooperation (to the extent that they exist) with important states and on reducing the chances of confrontation on issues where we have divergent interests.

Three questions should guide our Russia policy: What are America’s important national interests? In what ways, and to what extent, does (or could) Russia affect them? What, realistically, can be done to find common ground or to avoid conflict with Russia once we have reasoned, sober answers to the first two questions?

When it comes to U.S.–Russian relations, there are several issues that we should focus on, using these three questions as a frame of reference: arms control, nuclear proliferation, climate change, terrorism, stability—i.e., the absence of war—on the Korean peninsula, violent conflicts in countries that matter to us and to Russia, and the trajectory of post-American Afghanistan. Each will be easier to manage if we can work cooperatively with Russia; each will be harder to manage if we cannot.

The point is not that a Russian–U.S. partnership will ensure that the problems related to these issues are resolved; it’s that they can be addressed more effectively if our relationship with Russia is less volatile and more predictable.

A starting point for getting to a better place with Russia’s current government would be to convene a midlevel U.S.–Russian working group on the bilateral relationship. It should be charged with setting aside differences over human rights and democracy and trying, despite the disagreements over such matters, to identify areas where American and Russian interests do (or might) overlap and developing an agenda for cooperative action, with modest steps to start the process. The group should not include senior policymakers at the initial stage: they should be involved only after progress is made in the dialogue and concrete areas of convergence are identified.

This enterprise should not commence with fanfare and highfalutin proclamations heralding a new beginning. That risks arousing expectations that cannot be met under current conditions and breeding cynicism or despair when setbacks occur. Catchy monikers—such as “reset”—should also be avoided; they, too, generate unrealistic hopes and reduce something that is complex to marketing clichés. Quiet, realistic pragmatism is what’s needed. The president should be candid with the American public about the differences that still divide Russia and the United States and explain why the U.S.–Russia relationship is nevertheless important and worth improving.

Rajan Menon is Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York.

This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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