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Russia — The Rules of Engagement

In view of the last 10 years, can one be a long-term optimist about U.S.-Russian relations?

June 18, 2001

In view of the last 10 years, can one be a long-term optimist about U.S.-Russian relations?

Despite the occasional disagreement with China, for better or worse, no country rivals Russia’s place in U.S. sensibilities about foreign policy. American images of Russia are historically fraught with nuclear anxieties and aggressive expectations. Cool analysis mixes easily with hot emotion.

Soviet Russia was an icon of the mortal enemy during the Cold War. To many observers — especially to the Clinton Administration and Russia’s own intelligentsia — post-Soviet Russia started as an icon of transformative hopes. It has evolved less favorably.

And yet, even after almost a decade of engagement with Russia, it is still possible to be a long-run optimist. Though deeply flawed, the Russia of today is fundamentally better than the many Russias that seemed eminently probable a few short years ago. To be sure, after the painful birth of the new Russia in 1991, the enduring postpartum stress has been difficult, if not wrenching. That is true both for Russians and for their Western partners.

But there is one remarkable thing about Russia at the turn of the 21st century. Despite all the turbulence and dislocation of its transition, the balance of forces in Russian society continues to move strongly away from the past.

It is important to understand that the U.S. toolbox of both positive and negative leverage is limited to just about three things: economic aid, sanctions and what you might call “club admissions.” The moment for “grand bargains” is long gone. And the period of enormous IMF and World Bank financial programs — and leverage through the imposition of “conditionality” in exchange for loans — is probably also past.

In addition, the Kremlin covets forgiveness of Soviet-era debt, and this may provide some leverage. Admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) might still be an effective incentive for continued economic reform. But there is an overarching lesson of the decade-old attempt by the United States to coax transition with carrots. While a country can import financial and technical assistance to some effect, it is impossible to import political will.

Still, Russia craves recognition and respect. It is, of course, possible for the United States to turn this obvious quest for international prestige to its advantage, by rightly insisting that respect is something earned — and not an entitlement of statehood.

In its early days, the Bush Administration has appeared inclined to pursue a new form of negative leverage with Russia (and other parts of the world), mainly through a strategy of benign neglect. Of course, it may not seem so benign from Moscow’s point of view.

The virtues of laissez-faire foreign policy should not be underestimated. Tough love sometimes works. It can probably save a few headaches in the short term. But while the cold-shoulder approach may indeed be therapeutic, the treatment should not be gratuitous or overdone. After all, fueling Russia’s paranoia would be unwise.

After decades of ideological over-determination, it is important to realize that Russia today lacks a unitary or coherent sense of national purpose. It sees itself through a glass darkly. There is a vision of a new Russia, trying to modernize, to integrate with the rest of the world and to act like a rules-bound partner in the great global game. This is the Russia that looks for “win-win” outcomes.

Cast across this vision are the heavy shadows of the old Russia, a broken-down superpower — suspicious of others and overly protective of its national hyperspace. This is the Russia trapped in a world of “zero-sum” outcomes. Both Russias are real. The country’s paradigm shift is incomplete, and this should not be forgotten. For the magnitude of Russia’s political and economic transition — of the hardware and software upgrades it needs — cannot be overstated.

It is by now a commonplace that the biggest risk to the U.S.-Russia relationship stems from Russia’s systemic weakness, not its strength. To be sure, some risk could also derive from the vast U.S. strength. For unequal partnership is never an easy thing.

But Russia’s political and economic infirmity is the most potentially destabilizing factor. The United States has a real interest in Russia’s regaining its strength. With a GDP currently about the size of Portugal’s, it is indeed hard for Russia to take full advantage of the supposed “win-win” opportunities advocated by the United States, such as in the development of Caspian energy export routes.

It is tough for Russia to compete globally, especially when the United States and the Europeans restrict trade. And Russia’s development is simply not such that it can use “soft power” as effectively as its postmodern Western partners. In the ultimate analysis, Russia as yet has no affirmative model with which to win by attraction and persuasion.