Unclenching the Fist

U.S.-Russian relations in the age of Obama


Last summer, for the first time since the now-misty days of Soviet communism, U.S.-Russia relations took center stage in American politics. In the wake of the war in Georgia, with its unnerving sight of Russian tanks crossing the border of a former satellite, talk of a resurgent, aggressive Moscow was everywhere. During the presidential debates, candidates Barack Obama and John McCain fielded questions on whether the Evil Empire was back.

By the time Election Day rolled around, Georgia was no longer on everyone's mind and the Russian bear seemed far less scary than the bears on Wall Street. Still, Moscow will be an urgent foreign policy priority for the Obama White House. Apart from the sometimes forgotten fact that Russia retains nuclear parity with the United States, it remains a key player in a number of vital international issues, including nuclear proliferation and the war in Afghanistan. In the worst-case scenario (unlikely in the near future, given Russia's significant domestic and military problems), an interventionist Russia could provoke the U.S. military to defend NATO allies in Eastern Europe or the Baltic. If, on the other hand, relations with Russia take a more pacific turn, a genuine partnership could help the U.S. scale down its military commitments in regions where a pro-Western Russia would be a stabilizing influence.

Moscow warrants attention from those of us outside the State Department as well. Americans need not be interventionists to have both a moral and a practical interest in the state of freedom around the world. And in that light, whether Russia—a country that straddles Europe and Asia, claiming large parts of both as its sphere of influence—is a friend or foe to liberty matters a great deal.

During the presidential campaign, McCain was seen as the main Russia hawk. He certainly lived up to the reputation in August, when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's attempt to forcibly retake the Moscow-backed separatist province of South Ossetia escalated into a military conflict with Russian troops, then a full-scale Russian invasion of Georgia. McCain seized the moment, declaring that "we're all Georgians" and stressing his friendship with the strongly pro-American Saakashvili.

Obama, after initially urging moderation on both sides, emerged as almost equally hawkish. He condemned Russia's incursion into Georgia and pointed out that, months earlier, he had urged that Russian peacekeepers in the region be replaced with an international force to avert just such a crisis. During the debates, the two candidates' stands on Russia seemed virtually identical: Both said they wanted to avoid a new Cold War while holding Russia accountable for bad behavior and helping former Soviet satellites resist Vladimir Putin's bullying; both stressed "energy independence" as a way of reducing oil- and gas-rich Russia's ability to throw its weight around.

While some on the left accused Obama of joining the Russia bashing out of political expediency, his relatively hawkish stance was nothing new. In the June 30 issue of The Nation, Stephen F. Cohen, the doves' favorite Kremlinologist since Soviet days, chided both candidates for talking tough instead of addressing U.S. policies that, he argued, had antagonized and provoked the Russians. Writing on the Nation website on July 2, the investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss continued the criticism, noting that Obama was "getting advice from some of the hardest of hardliners on Russia policy," such as Hoover Institution scholar Michael McFaul, guilty of being more concerned with "the autocratic nature of Putin's rule" than with the "stability" it had brought. As this issue goes to press, it is unclear whether McFaul will have a role in the Obama administration, or who the president's point person on Russia will be. But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is generally a Russia hawk, and she vied with McCain for the spot of top Putin basher during the campaign.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin's behavior both on the eve of Obama's election and right after it seemed to indicate the opposite of a rapprochement. On November 2, Nashi, the state-sponsored youth movement, held a massive anti-American demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy, accommodated with street closures in traffic-clogged downtown Moscow for nearly a full day. The event featured a short film accusing America of orchestrating both world wars as well as the war in Georgia.

On November 5, in his first annual address to the parliament, President Dmitry Medvedev slammed the U.S. as the main culprit in Russia's economic and political problems. He also promised to deploy new short-range missiles near the Polish border if the U.S. went ahead with the installation of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. The timing of this threat was not coincidental, particularly since the speech had been rescheduled from October 23. Medvedev, who made no mention of Obama in his remarks, later claimed with a straight face that the fact that Americans had just elected a new president had slipped his mind.

In the next weeks, some friendlier overtures followed from both sides, with talk of a "fresh start." On January 20, Obama's inaugural speech contained what could be a direct message to the Kremlin: "To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West—know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

Who Lost Moscow?

Two schools of thought duel to explain the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations. One blames a resurgent, belligerent Russian nationalism that seeks to re-establish great power status and dominance in former Soviet territories—and to use anti-Western paranoia to justify increasingly harsh
authoritarianism at home. The other blames an American intransigence that subjected Russia to years of post–Cold War humiliation, rubbing the bear's nose in defeat, ignoring its legitimate foreign policy interests, and brushing aside its security concerns, thus producing a backlash that endangers both Russia's neighbors and U.S. national security. These opinions cut across standard ideological lines of right and left: A leading exponent of the second school, the British journalist Anatol Lieven, has published his commentary in both The American Conservative and The Nation.

These opposing views could be approached, in a Marxian irony, dialectically, creating a unity of opposites. Perhaps the higher truth is that the fault lies with both Russia and the U.S. but not because the U.S. was too intransigent toward Russian interests. Rather, the U.S. was willing not just to accommodate but to assist Russian misbehavior—and in many ways Washington set a bad example that Moscow happily followed.

In an October 31 article for the Russian policy analysis website, the Carnegie Endowment political scientist Lilia Shevtsova criticized Western leaders for placing too much emphasis on personal relationships with Kremlin leaders and prioritizing "stability" at the expense of freedom. The standard America-blaming narrative asserts that Putin's strong support for the U.S. after the September 11 attacks and his willingness to work with NATO in Afghanistan were rewarded by nothing but slap after slap in the face. This story line overlooks the fact that Putin actually received a major payoff for his cooperative attitude: de facto U.S. acquiescence in, and sometimes direct collaboration with, the Kremlin's brutal pacification of separatist Chechnya. Indeed, one little-noticed irony is that the presence of U.S. military advisers in Georgia—recently seized upon by Moscow and its supporters as evidence of hostile American meddling—began in 2002 as part of a Russia-backed effort to get Georgia to drive Chechen rebels out of their enclave in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge

It could even be argued that the Bush administration's aggressive unilateralism on the war in Iraq, its often cavalier attitude toward human rights in the War on Terror, and its executive power grab on the home front emboldened Putin to behave similarly. While most of the alleged Bush-Putin parallels are specious, the actions of the Bush White House easily lent themselves to a self-serving interpretation by the Putin clique, validating its cynical conviction that democracy is just a cover for "might makes right." The war in Iraq also made it far too easy to equate all efforts at "democracy promotion," even peaceful activities such as assisting civil rights groups, with naked imperialism. This helped the Putin propaganda machine stoke Russian unease about the U.S. role in the "color revolutions" in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, which replaced those nations' governments with ones less devoted to Moscow.

Many Russians certainly experienced the collapse of the USSR and the weakening of Russia's influence abroad as a blow to their national pride. But the notion that the United States rubbed Russia's face in its humiliation is a myth. (If the West rejoiced in Communism's Cold War defeat, so did most of the Russian media and political elites at the time.) Yes, NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics ranks high on the list of Russian grievances. But when NATO first began seriously considering admitting former Eastern Bloc states in the early 1990s, most supporters of expansion assumed that it could eventually include Russia—and Russia seemed receptive. These prospects were undercut by pressures from neo-Communists and nationalists in the Russian parliament, who wanted a less pro-Western stance, and by mixed signals and suspicions on both the Russian and the U.S. sides.

It could be that the conflict is more contrived than real on Russia's end. The belief that Kremlin rhetoric about the American threat is a faux paranoia, calculated to enable bullying at home and abroad, is shared by numerous commentators inside Russia, from the Carnegie Endowment's Lilia Shevtsova to former top-level Soviet arms negotiator Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin. Writing in the independent online journal in April 2008, Dvorkin pointed out the obvious: Given Russia's nuclear potential, a military attack by NATO troops on Russia is unthinkable, no matter how many of its neighbors join the alliance. The real danger to Russia, in Dvorkin's view, is "civilizational isolation" if the country continues to resist democratization and modernization and finds itself surrounded by neighbors integrated into the West.

Russia's Shaky State

There are plenty of signs that Russia in the Putin era has been traveling down that path. During the last eight years, the messy and corrupt but relatively free political system of the Yeltsin era has given way to rigid top-down control by the central state (in Putin-speak, "the power vertical"). The political party United Russia, now headed by Putin, has been firmly established as the country's ruling force. Political opposition has been marginalized and local governments brought under Moscow's heel. Television programming, the primary source of news for the vast majority of Russians, is under rigid censorship, and most radio broadcasting and print outlets have been brought under government control as well.

Under the guise of restoring national pride, the Putin regime has pandered to the worst instincts of the Russian public, cultivating a collective mind-set that includes a colossal yet fragile ego, a siege mentality saturated with paranoia, hatred, and mistrust of anyone labeled as the enemy, and the thuggish conviction that being respected equals being feared.

By the end of 2008, it was clear that the formal transfer of power from a term-limited President Putin to new President Medvedev had not brought about even a cosmetic liberalization. Medvedev's nod to democratization in his November parliament speech consisted mainly of a laughable proposal to build up the multiparty system by allowing parties that get 3 percent to 5 percent of the vote in elections to have one or two seats in the legislature. Control over television was not lessened. A new opposition party led by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, People for Democracy and Justice, was denied registration, despite having more than the required 50,000 members on its roster, because the registration commission found improprieties in 37 signatures. "Marches of dissent" were still violently suppressed. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the ex-CEO of the Yukos oil company imprisoned in 2003 after he began financing the opposition, was still denied early release.

While the government made some cautious overtures to liberals—including the creation of a Kremlin-funded, loyalist "liberal" party called The Right Cause and the appointment of opposition leader Nikita Belykh to a governorship —these moves were widely seen as attempts to co-opt what remained of the opposition. (The creators of The Right Cause cannibalized and disbanded one of the country's two remaining legal liberal opposition parties, the Union of Rightist Forces.)

Other steps by the Kremlin could signal a further slide toward dictatorship. In his November address, Medvedev proposed increasing the presidential term from four years to six; a constitutional amendment to that effect was speedily enacted and ratified by the end of the year, sparking speculation that the change would pave the way for new elections and Putin's return to the presidency. A few days into 2009, Medvedev signed a law that abolished the right to a jury trial for defendants accused of terrorism, treason, insurrection, or fomenting civil unrest—despite opposition from the usually docile Public Chamber, a monitoring body meant to function as a collective ombudsman.

The gutting of jury trials is particularly alarming in conjunction with another government-backed bill that would broaden the definition of treason. While current law defines treason as aiding and abetting an external threat, the new version would include aiding "a foreign state, a foreign or international organization, or representatives thereof " in any activity that endangers "the security of the Russian Federation, including its constitutional system, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity and statehood." The potential for criminalizing dissent is obvious: With its vague formula, the law could be easily directed against an opposition activist or publication working with, say, Amnesty International.

But could the situation change if, as quite a few Russian and Western pundits had predicted during the transition, the Putin-Medvedev two-czar show turns into a power struggle? Tea leaf readers have been hard at work looking for signs of a split, or of Medvedev growing a spine and a power base of his own. By and large, such claims have been long on speculation and short on evidence.

Curiously, the proposed new treason law gave rise to one of the first actual signs of a possible fissure in the "tandem." On January 14, the independent daily Nezavisimiaya Gazeta reported that the bill had been shelved by the committee on legislation in the Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, and sent back to the government for revision, at the insistence of members known to be close to Medvedev. "Duma sources" told the paper that Medvedev could not sign the bill without compromising his "liberal" image but could not openly veto it because it had Putin's backing; the only way out was to have it quietly amended. While this explanation indicates that Putin's power remains unchallenged, the leaking of such information to a major newspaper—presumably by pro-Medvedev legislators—could also be an effective way to embarrass Putin.

Apart from the possibility of conflict at the top, the past year has starkly revealed the weaknesses of Russia's neo-autocracy. Even the successful war in Georgia, widely touted as a victory over the Americans, exposed serious problems in the Russian army, including a lack of coordination, a shortage of modern weapons, and breakdown-prone armored vehicles. Russia's military faces other problems as well. The Iskander missiles Medvedev has brandished as Moscow's response to U.S. radar bases in Eastern Europe have the problem of not yet existing; their production is scheduled to start in 2010, but according to a November 18 report by the RIA Novosti news service, some military experts doubt this schedule can be met "due to a lack of production facilities and a workforce shortage."

The war in Georgia and its aftermath—Russian recognition of the independence of the breakaway Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia—also highlighted Moscow's international isolation: As Ilya Milshtein, a columnist for the liberal website, put it in a scathing year-in-review column, Russia was reduced to "chasing its friends all over the world," pleading for recognition of the two states. So far, only Nicaragua has answered the plea; even Russia's closest allies among the former Soviet republics, such as Belarus, dragged their feet, despite being bribed with loans and cheap gas. In another Pyrrhic turn, the victory in Georgia saddled Russia with two new impoverished and violence-prone colonies. (Quick wits dubbed the Abkhazia- South Ossetia-Russia alliance "AbOsRus," which sounds exactly like a Russian vulgarism meaning, more or less, "in deep shit.")

After much defiant posturing, Russia proved eager to patch up relations with at least the European West. In his speech at the World Policy Forum in Evian, France on October 8, Medvedev argued that the U.S. had forfeited its global leadership role and that Europe and Russia should join in a new security pact. The already slim chances of the E.U. being receptive to such overtures were reduced to zero by Obama's election—and by the fact that in 2009 the chairmanship of the E.U. is held first by the Czech Republic and then by Sweden, both countries with a hard-line attitude toward Russia. The January gas price dispute between Russia and Ukraine, which caused fuel to be cut off to many European countries during a cold snap—and which, no matter how one apportions the blame, was indubitably a result of Putin's policy of using natural gas for political leverage—is likely to further chill Russia's relations with Europe.

Then, of course, there is the ongoing international economic crisis, which hit Russia especially hard, on the heels of pre-existing economic problems that often had political roots. The first big Russian stock market drop took place in late July, after an offhand comment by Putin sparked fears that a major steel company, Mechel, was being targeted for a Yukos-style Kremlin vendetta. At a cabinet meeting, Putin slammed Mechel for exporting raw materials at below-market prices and possibly underpaying taxes, and noted that company owner Igor Zyuzin had been invited to the meeting but had claimed to be ill. He then added, in his characteristic Tony Soprano–style lingo, that Zyuzin "ought to get better soon, or we'll have to send him a doctor and clean up these problems."

By the end of the year, the Russian market had lost 70 percent of its capitalization. Industrial output dropped sharply; the ruble reeled, and the extent to which Russia's relative prosperity of the 2000s had rested on an oil barrel became painfully evident. Writing in Moscow News on December 24, Anders Aslund, a senior fellow of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, argued that the Putin government had squandered the opportunities offered by high oil prices by building up huge and inert state-controlled companies instead of modernizing the infrastructure and eradicating corruption.

The crisis also exposed the fakery of the Kremlin's feel-good propaganda machine. While state-controlled television news initially avoided the word crisis—except with regard to the West—Russian citizens rushed to convert rubles to dollars.

In December, Russia heard the first rumblings of popular protest. An announcement of stiff new tariffs on imported used cars sparked rallies and demonstrations in Russia's Far East, where importing used cars from Japan is a major source of livelihood. These protests quickly turned political, with signs that called for Putin's resignation, urged Medvedev to "stop being a wimp," and denounced United Russia as "bloodsuckers." On December 21, a peaceful rally in Vladivostok was brutally broken up by the federal riot police; several journalists were among those beaten and arrested. While television news ignored the incident, many mainstream newspapers did not. Remarkably, several local legislatures in the Russian Far East backed the protesters' demands.

Will the protests spread? In a Levada Center survey conducted in December, nearly a quarter of Russians said mass protests related to the drop in living standards were possible, and one in five said they themselves might participate. Economic hardships may also aggravate other problems, such as the tensions simmering in the Caucasus, where violence in hot spots such as Ingushetia and Dagestan has never abated.

Widespread unrest could lead to a state of emergency, perhaps with Medvedev stepping down and Putin returning to the Kremlin as de facto dictator. Another possible scenario is an attempt at state-managed liberalization, a strategy proposed in a December report by the Institute for Modern Development, a group of political experts whose board of trustees is headed by none other than Medvedev. Such a liberalization, which would likely require the resignation and scapegoating of Putin, could spin out of control into an "orange revolution"—or into a far darker scenario of descent into chaos or a totalitarian takeover.

U.S.-Russian Relations in the Age of Obama

Whatever Russia's near-term path, the Obama administration will undoubtedly pursue cooperation right away in some areas, such as checking Iran's nuclear ambitions. A review of missile defense plans could be in the works as well, though Russia's crude attempt at missile-rattling blackmail makes an agreement in this area less likely.

A NATO membership track for Georgia and Ukraine is off the table at the moment. Unfortunately, given the way NATO expansion was framed under Putin, continuing to delay these countries' possible inclusion is likely to be interpreted as a signal that they are fair game for Russian bullying. Moscow may have a legitimate interest in having friendly neighbors, but it has no more right to object to a government with an independent political course in Ukraine than Washington has to object to, say, a leftist government in Chile.

One way Obama might decide to neutralize the NATO expansion issue would be to revive the idea of future NATO membership for Russia itself, contingent on genuine democratic reforms. At the moment, the idea seems hopelessly utopian; but who knows whether it will still look that way in 2010? A Russia-enriched NATO presumably would focus its military priorities on anti-terrorist operations—or, perhaps, begin to evolve from a military alliance into a primarily political one. One potential danger of this scenario is that problems such as climate change could be redefined as "security threats," setting the stage for a far-reaching push for international regulations.

The real challenge to the Obama administration will come if there are signs of change in Russia, especially if Putin is forced to resign and Medvedev emerges as the new leader with backing from one of the Kremlin factions. Washington could find itself having to decide whether to prop up a Russian government that declares itself pro-Western and liberal but has its roots in an authoritarian regime and an illegitimate election, or watch it fall to demands for a new election whose outcome might send Russia hurtling toward "red" or "brown" extremism. (Let's not forget those nukes.)

The Putin-era backsliding toward autocracy has convinced many, both in Russia and in the West, that Russians are congenitally unfit for freedom and given to longing for empire and a czar. And indeed there are powerful strands of authoritarianism, imperialism, and nationalist paranoia in Russian society, and those elements have been assiduously cultivated by several yearsof official propaganda.

But many polls show that Russian anti-Americanism is fairly shallow. In most surveys, about two-thirds of Russians have said their attitude toward the United States is positive or mostly positive, except for spikes of negative attitudes at moments of tension between Moscow and Washington. While most Russians choose stability over democracy if they have to make a choice, majorities also favor a strong multiparty system, democratic elections, and a mixed economy that encourages the growth of small and medium-sized business.

From the vantage point of today, the incoming Obama administration has no way of knowing whether Putinism is but a detour on Russia's road to freedom or the dominant direction of Russia's future. Ultimately, that is only for Russians to decide. America's role in the next few years will be to find a delicate balance: to support liberal values without appearing to dictate far-off events; to work with Russia when necessary while making it clear that a true partnership is possible only if Russia (in Obama's words) "unclenches its fist" and renounces anti-Western, anti-liberal policy and rhetoric. The U.S. must simultaneously avoid the Yeltsin-era trap of entanglement with a corrupt and failing government and the Putin-era trap of supporting an increasingly authoritarian regime.

Cathy Young is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (Ticknor & Fields).