Finding Common Ground With Russia

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President Bush's meeting with Dmitry Medvedev in Hokkaido yesterday provides an opportunity to review American relations with the new Russian leadership. Conventional wisdom treated Medvedev's inauguration as president of the Russian Federation as a continuation of President Vladimir Putin's two terms of Kremlin dominance and assertive foreign policy. But after recently visiting Moscow, where I met with leading political personalities as well as those in business and intellectual circles, I am convinced that this judgment is premature.

For one thing, the emerging power structure seems more complex than conventional wisdom holds. It was always doubtful why, if his primary objective was to retain power, Putin would choose the complicated and uncertain route of becoming prime minister; his popularity would have allowed him to amend the constitution and extend his presidency.

My impression is that a new phase of Russian politics is underway. The move of Putin's office from the Kremlin to the building housing the government could be symbolic. Medvedev has said that he means to chair the National Security Council and, as Russia's constitution provides, be the public face of foreign policy. The statement that the president designs foreign and security policy, and the prime minister implements it, has become the mantra of Russian officials. I encountered no Russian in or out of government who doubted that some kind of redistribution of power was taking place, although they were uncertain of its outcome.

Putin remains powerful. He is seen by most Russians as the leader who overcame the humiliation and chaos of the 1990s, when the Russian state, economy, ideology and empire collapsed. Conceivably he has assigned himself a review role over the performance of his successor; it is possible that he is keeping open the option of running in a future presidential election.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, the last Russian election marks a transition from a phase of consolidation to a period of modernization. The ceding of power by a ruler at the height of his influence is unprecedented in Russian history. The growing complexity of the economy has generated the need for predictable legal procedures, as already foreshadowed by Medvedev. The government's operation -- at least initially -- with two centers of power may, in retrospect, appear to be the beginning of an evolution toward a form of checks and balances.

A Russian democracy is not foreordained, of course. But neither was the democratic evolution in the West.

What are the implications for American foreign policy? During the next several months, Russia will be working out the practical means of the distinction between design and implementation of national security policy. The Bush administration and the presidential candidates would be wise to give Moscow space to do so and restrain public comment.

Ever since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, a succession of U.S. administrations has acted as if the creation of Russian democracy were a principal American task. Speeches denouncing Russian shortcomings and gestures drawn from the Cold War have occurred frequently. Proponents of such policies assert that the transformation of Russian society is the precondition of a more harmonious international order. They argue that if pressure is maintained on the current Russia, it, too, will eventually implode. Yet assertive intrusion into what Russians consider their own sense of self runs the risk of thwarting both geopolitical and moral goals.

Some groups and individuals in Russia undoubtedly look to America to accelerate a democratic evolution. But almost all observers agree that the majority of Russians perceive America as presumptuous and determined to stunt Russia's recovery. Such an environment is more likely to generate a nationalist and confrontational response than a democratic evolution.

In many ways, we are witnessing one of the most promising periods in Russian history. Exposure to modern open societies and engagement with them is more prolonged and intense than ever before -- even in the face of unfortunate repressive measures. The longer this continues, the more it will impact Russia's political evolution.

The pace of such an evolution will inevitably be Russian. We can affect it more by patience and historical understanding than by offended disengagement and public exhortations.

In fact, geopolitical realities provide an unusual opportunity for strategic cooperation. The United States and Russia control 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. Russia contains the largest land mass of any country. Progress toward stability, with respect to nuclear weapons, in the Middle East and in Iran depends on Russian-American cooperation.

The imperialist foreign policy of czarist and Soviet Russia was facilitated by the weakness of nearly all countries at Russia's borders. This enabled Russia, over a century and a half, to advance inexorably from the Volga to the Elbe, along the shores of the Black Sea, into the Caucasus and the approaches to India. In Asia, it penetrated to the Pacific and into Manchuria and Korea. Security became synonymous with continued expansion, and domestic legitimacy was achieved largely by demonstrated power abroad.

Those conditions have fundamentally changed. Russia's neighbors have overcome their weakness. The 2,500-mile frontier with China is a demographic challenge; east of Lake Baikal, 6.8 million Russians face 120 million Chinese in the provinces along the common border; across an equally long frontier, Moscow has to deal with militant Islamism extending its reach into southern Russia. Along its western frontier, Russia's strategic reach is limited by emerging realities, including the NATO membership of erstwhile Warsaw Pact states.

Though Russia's population is experiencing a surge in national pride, its leaders understand the risk of altering the new international order by their traditional methods. They know that among Russia's 25 million Muslims are a significant number whose loyalty to the state is doubtful. The health system is in need of overhaul; infrastructure has to be rebuilt. Russia has opted to concentrate on domestic reform for one of the few times in its history.

Confrontational rhetoric and bullying style notwithstanding, Russia's leaders are conscious of their strategic limitations. Indeed, I consider Russian policy under Putin as driven by a quest for a reliable strategic partner, with America being the preferred choice. Turbulent rhetoric in recent years reflects, in part, frustration by our seeming imperviousness to that quest. Presidents Bush and Putin have formed a constructive relationship but have not been able to overcome habits that their countries formed during the Cold War. On the Russian side, two elections for the Duma and the presidency have given leaders incentive to appeal to nationalist feelings rampant after a decade of perceived humiliation.

These detours do not affect the underlying reality. Three issues dominate the political agenda: security; Iran; and the relation of Russia to its former dependents, especially Ukraine.

Because of their nuclear preponderance, Russia and America have a special obligation to take the lead on global nuclear issues such as proliferation. There have been constructive initiatives, such as greater transparency and the linking of their anti-ballistic missile defense systems facing Iran, noted in the April communiqué issued by Presidents Bush and Putin in Sochi. But the general statements have yet to be followed by a detailed exploration.

Four questions need to be answered with respect to nuclear proliferation: Do Russia and the United States agree on the nature of the challenge posed by an Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons? Do they agree on the status of Iran's nuclear program? Do they agree on the diplomacy to avert the danger? Do they agree on what measures to take if whatever diplomacy is finally adopted fails?

My impression is that a considerable consensus is emerging between the United States and Russia regarding the first two questions. With respect to the others, both sides must keep in mind that neither is able to easily overcome the challenge alone.

The issue of Ukraine goes to the heart of both sides' perceptions of the nature of international affairs. America sees the situation in terms of overcoming a potential military threat. For Russia, the question of relations with Ukraine is, above all, about coming to terms with a painful, historic upheaval.

Genuine independence for Ukraine is essential for a peaceful international system and must be unambiguously supported by the United States. Creating close political ties between the European Union and Ukraine, including E.U. membership, is important. But the movement of the Western security system to the approaches to Moscow brings home Russia's decline in a way that is bound to generate emotions that will inhibit the solving of all other issues. With NATO accepting the principle of Ukrainian membership, there is no urgency to accelerate the implementation.

The two presidents' Sochi declaration outlined a road map for an emerging strategic dialogue between the two sides. The new administrations in Russia and America should give it operational context.

Henry A. Kissinger was secretary of State from 1973 to 1977.

In conclusion...

© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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