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 Polit.ru, 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 EJ.ru 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.