A Rational Russia Policy?

By Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Pro et Contra journal who writes a monthly column for The Post (THE WASHINGTON POST, 04/10/08):

In the first presidential debate, Barack Obama said that he and John McCain “agree for the most part” on issues regarding Russia. But while both were tough on Russia, their consensus, such as it is, is hardly the result of shared clarity on U.S. policy toward Russia. In fact, neither candidate has outlined a policy that would overcome the current confrontations with Moscow and make the world more secure. The big question is how they expect to change Russia’s behavior.

The overwhelming public support here of the war in Georgia has reinforced the position of the Russian leadership, and Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev are no more ready to compromise or concede to U.S. criticism than the United States is willing to accept Medvedev’s claim that Russia has “privileged spheres of interest.” Russia today simply dismisses the United States as an international authority.

And the United States does not have sufficient leverage to intimidate Russia into behaving in a way it considers more appropriate or to lure Russia into sharing, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said, the United States’ “goals, and aspirations, and values and dreams.” The current approach — seeking to punish aggressive, defiant Russia but working with Moscow in vital areas of common interest — is not sustainable. A Russian government spokesman said it directly last week: You can’t have both.

No reasonable person is considering war with Russia (if Sarah Palin sounded hesitant on this issue, that’s probably because two weeks is not long enough to learn foreign affairs from scratch). As for a new Cold War, McCain, Obama and Russian leaders have all said they don’t want this.

A return to Cold War relations is, of course, impossible. Back then, there was a clear, even Manichaean sense of purpose: Capitalism and communism sought to destroy each other, existentially if not physically, and they were explicit. “We will bury you,” Nikita Khrushchev famously said in 1956.

But in that struggle, the West had a sympathetic constituency inside the Soviet Union: not just the dissidents, a tiny group willing to sacrifice themselves for the freedom of others, but millions of Russians who spent hours listening — through the jamming of radio signals– to broadcasts from the United States, Germany or Britain. Those quiet listeners were not warriors, but they were, in some fundamental way, allies of America as it waged its anti-communist crusade. The decades of terror and repression had left the nation scared and exhausted. People did not physically resist, but they resented the aging Politburo leaders and the communist regime that reduced their lives to endless struggles with lines and shortages and deprived them of individual freedoms and natural pursuits such as entrepreneurship. They might not have said so explicitly, but they, too, wanted communism defeated.

Unlike the conflicts of the Cold War, the confrontation between Russia and the United States today is not driven by a desire to destroy each other and lacks a clear goal. Russia demands that the West recognize it as an equal and respect its interests, but it won’t specify those interests. It’s likely they include expanding Russian control over Ukraine, but it is inconceivable that the Kremlin would say so publicly. Meanwhile, the demand that Russia “behave” and adhere to international norms raises important questions: Is punishing Russia America’s top priority, a goal to be pursued even if it means putting European security at risk? Is the resolve to punish Russia driven only by U.S. national interests, or is there another, irrational element?

The United States no longer has a sympathetic constituency in Russia that views America as a force for good that may help make Russians’ lives freer, more democratic or more prosperous. These days, people who still view the United States so positively are hard to find, even among the liberal intelligentsia, and the U.S. reaction to the war in Georgia further reduced their numbers.

Putin’s autocratic regime enjoys strong support here: In September, Putin’s approval rating was 88 percent and Medvedev’s 83. This is not loyalty driven by fear of repression — the Russian people rally behind the leader who has delivered better living standards and reasserted Russia’s international standing. It may sadden Russian liberals, including me, but political rights and civil liberties simply do not matter much in Russia these days.

Relations between Russia and the United States have entered a dangerous stalemate. America can’t accept Russia’s aggressive posture, but U.S. anger is only making things worse. The risk of Russia slipping toward an isolationist course and a militarized economy is growing. Events of the 20th century indicate that in the long term, Moscow’s own irrational pursuits may prove more baneful to Russia than any foreign adversary. But in the short term, Russia’s neighbors as well as European security could be at great risk.

The foundations of U.S. policy toward Russia must be revised. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s recent suggestion that even authoritarian regimes have legitimate security interests may be a realistic starting point for discussion, even if it sounds too radical for the U.S. officials who handle foreign policy. At the least, though, America should be guided by realistic vision and rational goals, not by Cold War preconceptions and illusions.