October 15, 2005
What to Do About Russia

By James M. Goldgeier and Michael McFaul

In his first term in office, President George W. Bush established and nurtured a close personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Early on, Bush’s overtures toward his counterpart in the Kremlin produced beneficial results for the president’s policies. President Bush succeeded in persuading Putin to acquiesce in the abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a revision of the Cold War arms-control regime that Bush deemed necessary for his security agenda. After the attacks of September 11, Putin sided publicly and unequivocally with the United States in the war on terror, providing material and intelligence assistance to the American military intervention in Afghanistan and not hindering the deployment of American troops in Central Asia. Since then, Russian and American officials claim that the two countries have continued to share intelligence in fighting cooperatively the global war on terror.

During each man’s second term, however, the Russian-American bilateral relationship exhibits little of the optimism and enthusiasm expressed immediately after September 11 in both countries about common struggles, new alliances, or shared values. At their recent meetings, both Bush and Putin have made sure to continue to praise each other personally, but behind the rhetoric of friendship is a troubled partnership in drift. In advancing Bush’s three central foreign policy objectives — fighting the war on terror, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and promoting liberty — Russia makes no significant contributions. In addition, the drift toward autocracy inside Russia has helped to produce a Russian foreign policy more at odds with Western interests and values in places like Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Rhetorically and symbolically, Putin and his aides seem determined to rekindle Cold War antagonisms, denouncing “Western” backing for terrorists after the tragedy in Beslan and American “meddling” in fomenting revolution in Ukraine while at the same time conducting joint military maneuvers with China.

President Bush’s foreign policy priorities today do not include Russia. He and his foreign policy team are focused first and foremost on stabilizing Iraq, fighting terrorism, managing China’s growing power, dealing with Iran and North Korea, and perhaps repairing relations with Europe, a long list which leaves little time for Russia. A major review of his Russia policy is not likely to be high on Bush’s agenda. At the same time, the president can no longer pretend that his personal ties with Putin are a substitute for an effective American policy for dealing with Russia and especially Russia’s autocratic drift. In the long run, Bush’s failure to develop a new and more strategic policy toward Russia could create serious problems for American national security interests — i.e., a nationalist leader in the Kremlin with anti-Western foreign policy interests empowered by a thriving economy, a state-owned oil and gas conglomerate with tentacles deep into Europe, and a revamped Russian state and military with imperial ambitions. Fortunately, the probability of this outcome is still small; now is the time to ensure that it remains so.

The most effective strategy for Bush’s new foreign policy team to help slow Russia’s democratic deterioration is not isolation, containment, or confrontation, but rather deeper engagement with both the Russian government and Russian society. The United States does not have enough leverage over Russia to influence internal change through coercive means. Only a strategy of linkage is available. However paradoxical, a more substantive agenda at the state-to-state level would create more permissive conditions for greater Western engagement with Russian society. A new American policy toward Russia must pursue both — a more ambitious bilateral relationship in conjunction with a more long-term strategy for strengthening Russian civil, political, and economic societies, which ultimately will be the critical forces that push Russia back onto a democratizing path.

Russia’s Democratic Rollback

When bush and putin first met in Slovenia in June 2001, Bush was not alone in downplaying Putin’s antidemocratic acts at home. At the time, many observers of Russian affairs inside and outside of the Bush administration believed that Putin’s positive achievements outweighed his negative steps. Putin was presiding over Russia’s most substantial economic growth since independence while also pursuing several economic reforms — such as a new tax and land code — that had languished for years under President Boris Yeltsin. In foreign affairs, Putin was striking a pragmatic pose, cooperating with almost everyone on something. At home, Putin’s battles with Chechens and oligarchs (some of whom controlled major media holdings) were justified as necessary steps toward righting the wrongs of the chaotic Yeltsin years.

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James M. Goldgeier
Michael McFaul

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