As Barack Obama's trip to Moscow next week draws near, there is much talk of a fresh start—or, as Vice President Joseph Biden put it earlier this year, "pushing the reset button"—between the United States and Russia. But "reset" to what? A partnership based on shared democratic values, as many hoped in the 1990s? A pragmatic collaboration based on common interests such as combating terrorism, with issues of freedom and human rights sidelined? There are strong voices arguing for each viewpoint. But for the foreseeable future, neither approach is likely to yield much progress in relations with Russia, since both arguments reflect a high degree of wishful thinking.
This is not a left-versus-right issue. The pragmatic "realists" include left-of-center liberals and conservatives of the Nixonian and old-school isolationist kind; the "idealists" who champion the battered cause of Russian democracy are found across the political spectrum.
To realist pundits such as New America Foundation fellow and National Interest columnist Anatol Lieven, the democracy promoters are dangerously naïve, their zeal easily translating into reckless interventionism—or, at least, into a Cold War mindset needlessly hostile to the Kremlin. The Russian neo-authoritarianism that emerged under Vladimir Putin, realists argue, is not Soviet communism: it is not based on a totalitarian ideology that confronts the West with a rival political and economic system and predicts its own global victory. It is simply a repressive regime, the kind we have befriended before.
But, the inglorious record of such "friendships" aside, there is a major difference between Putin's Russia and Pinochet's Chile or modern-day Saudi Arabia: "classic" authoritarian regimes do not see themselves as our global rivals.
While Russia under Putin (and his not-quite-elected successor, Dmitry Medvedev) eschews communism, it does have a semi-formal state ideology revolving around its self-image as a "great power." Realists such as Lieven and former Bush administration official Thomas Graham, who penned a recent Century Foundation report on U.S.-Russian relations, acknowledge this. Moreover, they admit that Moscow's "great power" ambitions dictate rivalry with the West and efforts to "constrain" the U.S. as well as dominate neighboring states on former Soviet turf. Yet they maintain that such nationalism can somehow be channeled into healthy avenues of cooperation with the U.S. and even democracy-building at home. Who's naïve now?
The realists have some valid points: for instance, that Russia has legitimate interests not always identical to American ones. But they often forget that those interests may not be identical to those of the current Kremlin clique, either. Thus, after years of an oil windfall, Russia's infrastructure is still a disaster zone while Putin and his cronies in the oil and gas industry have enriched themselves.
Abroad, Moscow's clumsy bullying has pushed away many allies, most recently Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenka, and dramatically diminished its real influence on "post-Soviet space." Last year's Georgia adventure and the acquisition of two money-draining, volatile protectorates, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in an already unstable region probably brought Russia no benefits except an ego boost. The Kremlin's attempts to use energy resources as a weapon have given Europe powerful incentives to seek alternative suppliers. Indeed, another recent "realist" brief for a new détente—the report of the Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Russia, co-chaired by former senators Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel—admits that some of Moscow's behavior casts doubt on how "rational and competent" its leadership is.
The saga of the Manas Air Force base in Kyrgyzstan illustrates both the erratic nature of Russia's foreign policy and its unreliability as a partner. In February, Russia used a lucrative aid package as a bribe to get the Kyrgyz government to expel the base—essential to U.S. operations in Afghanistan—for no ostensible reason except to show up the Americans. Now, after an even better deal with the U.S., Kyrgyzstan is keeping the base (on slightly different terms). While the Kremlin has expressed approval, this is likely a face-saving gesture after being double-crossed on an informal, unenforceable agreement.
Pragmatic cooperation with such a regime is clearly not very realistic. Unfortunately, at present, the same can be said of democracy promotion efforts.
A few days ago, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said that Obama should shore up Medvedev against Putin to empower the Russian president to embark on liberal reforms. The trouble is, the authenticity Medvedev's liberalism is still a big question mark.
In foreign policy, Medvedev certainly hasn't departed from Putin's aggressive stance. At home, he shows far more respect than his mentor for liberal ideas and institutions, such as a free press and human rights groups—but it's hard to tell whether that means anything more than lip service. In April, Medvedev raised eyebrows by giving an interview to Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper harshly critical of the government; yet his answers amounted to a whitewash of Russia's undemocratic practices. Despite a few improvements—for instance, legal reform easing the bureaucratic hurdles faced by non-governmental organizations—the harassment of opposition activists has continued.
Nor is there a true grass-roots base for a liberal society in Russia today. Majorities of Russians may tell pollsters that they want more democracy and that they consider freedom of the press important—but surveys also show that the lack of political freedoms and rights is not a high priority for most. After decades of communist dictatorship followed by years of turmoil, apathy and cynicism reign.
What can, and should, Obama do in this situation? On the government-to-government level, the results of the summit will probably be limited to a new arms control treaty—an almost meaningless ritual in this age of worries about North Korean and Iranian nukes. Obama's speech in Moscow will probably strike a fine balance between talk of democratic values and talk of respect for Russian tradition; one also hopes that it will include a strong message of American support for the sovereignty of Russia's neighbors. His planned meeting with Russian human rights groups will send a positive signal as well.
In the long term, change in Russia has to come from within. The best thing an American administration can do is not prop up a regime that impedes such change, and not expect too much from any partnership with an authoritarian regime in the Kremlin.