Editors’ note: What follows is the fourth part of an exchange on Russian-Western relations following from David Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova’s monthly column at The American Interest Online (see especially their February 21 essay, “Here We Go Again: Falling for the Russia Trap“). On March 12, Thomas Graham responded with his essay, “In Defense of a Strategic Approach to Russia.” On March 29, Andrew Wood joined the conversation with “Russian and Western Views of National Interests.” Further contributions are forthcoming.Lilia Shevtsova and I welcome Thomas Graham’s response to our recent columns criticizing current U.S. policy toward Russia and challenging the “strategists” to offer a serious recipe for the way forward. To date, we have authored our monthly column together, but in replying to Graham’s piece, we felt it best to respond separately, offering one American and one Russian view in order to demonstrate more clearly how Graham’s approach affects American and Russian interests, even though our comments overlap to a considerable extent. A long-time and respected Russia watcher, Graham is one of the most serious proponents of a “strategic approach.” However, paradoxically and unintentionally, his response makes our case even stronger, I believe. Let’s start with the end of Graham’s article, in which he writes: It is of course possible that a strategic dialogue would reveal unbridgeable differences in outlooks, in the understanding of the challenges ahead, and in national interests. It might suggest that competition will inevitably define U.S.-Russian relations more so than cooperation. No strategist would deny that. But we should at least make a good-faith effort to determine whether there is a basis for strategic cooperation before resigning ourselves to competitive relations. And that outcome would not be a tragedy—as long as it advanced American interests. But what kind of “strategic approach” does he have in mind? After reading his piece, I confess to not knowing. “The balance we strike with Russia,” Graham writes earlier in the piece, “will grow out of a complex set of trade-offs, coupled with a mix of incentives and disincentives, within and across the issues on which we engage Russia, either because we want to or because world events or Russia itself force the issues onto the agenda.” Rather than a “strategic approach,” this looks much more tactical and situational. Moreover, implicit in Graham’s argument is that the United States has never before tried a “strategic dialogue,” which is simply not the case. Graham himself, while serving at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush Administration (when I served at State), was directly involved in such an undertaking. Graham would do a service if, instead of advocating this type of dialogue as something untried, he explored the reasons for its failure despite his best efforts. The Obama Administration has similarly tried such an effort through the reset. In both cases, I suspect, relations between Russia and the United States headed in the wrong direction because of the nature of the Putin regime and the way it consolidates itself through its search for an “enemy” and its blatant anti-Americanism. And therein lies the key reason why yet another attempt at strategic dialogue will fail—because of the nature of the Putin regime. Rooted in corrupt authoritarianism and intent on doing whatever it must to stay in power, the regime has little in common with the United States and certainly does not share common values, as Graham himself admits. Putin and his supporters feed anti-Americanism and absurdly hold up the United States as a threat to Russia. They do this to justify their way of governing and with it all its excesses and abuses. Furthermore, Graham assumes that Russian policy is driven by national interests when in reality it is more often—albeit not always—driven by the narrow and even personal interests of a ruling clique that is losing influence and is increasingly viewed as illegitimate by segments of Russian society. The Russian regime’s top priority is preservation of power with the objective of perpetuating Putin’s position. This makes “strategic dialogue” with the Kremlin virtually impossible, since American policy is, by contrast, driven by an attempt to implement priorities backed by a substantial part of the U.S. electorate and tested in the light of public criticism. We know all this, and thus, we really can save ourselves the time and hassle of trying yet another strategic dialogue because we already know how it will turn out as long as Putin and his cohorts are at the helm in Moscow. Does Graham think the third time’s the charm? The real burden is on him to explain why this would be so. This is not to say that we should have no dialogue with Russian officials or give up on finding areas of cooperation. Instead, I would subscribe to the approach from the Bush days, which Graham dismissively labels “militant locution”, namely: “cooperate where we can; push back where we must.” Graham himself acknowledges that there will be times and issues when cooperation won’t be possible, and instead we will have to look for ways of “circumventing the obstacles it [Russia] can erect.” To some degree, that is what the Obama Administration has been doing. Do we need to go through the exercise of a “strategic dialogue” to figure out the issues on which we can agree and those on which we disagree? To a large extent, we have already exhausted the list of issues for cooperation, though the Obama Administration seems to be making another try on missile defense by canceling the last phase of its plans for stationing advanced missiles in Europe. But even there, as well as on seeking a news arms control agreement, we don’t need a strategic dialogue. Graham’s main argument is that American policy toward Russia should demonstrate “hard-nosed, consistent commitment to American interests”. This position is very similar to the Obama Administration’s transactional approach, which has viewed its reset policy as a way to get Russia on board for issues of American interest—Afghanistan, arms control, Iran, etc. At the same time, seeing Russia move in a more democratic direction is in America’s interests and should be one of our highest priorities, even if the ability of the United States to influence that outcome is limited at best. And yet Graham doesn’t seem to attach any importance to this. Sadly, neither does the Obama Administration, which has remained largely silent while Russian authorities across the country have raided hundreds of Russian and international NGOs and are preparing politicized trials for participants of last May’s protest rallies. It’s appropriate that State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland used the term “witch hunt” to describe what’s been happening in Russia, but what will it take to shake the American President from his silence and get him to speak out against this rampant abuse of human rights? But I digress… Back to Graham’s argument. He elaborates on his pragmatic approach, using the term “trade-offs”, though he acknowledges that “many in Washington have a visceral reaction to trade-offs, arguing that they represent unwarranted compromises of principle or appeasement of bad actors.” I, for one, cannot stand the term. Moreover, Graham fails to identify what or whom exactly should be “traded off.” One assumes he would leave that to be settled for the strategic dialogue that he favors, though this author fears that the fates of certain countries would in such a process be consigned to a Russian sphere of influence. After all, Graham notes approvingly, the Obama Administration “made a conscious decision to downgrade relations with the former Soviet space, especially Ukraine and Georgia, and to temper public criticism of the Kremlin’s domestic politics to gain Russian support for the new START, UN sanctions against Iran, and the northern distribution route into Afghanistan.” This good faith effort did not lead to a reciprocity in terms of the regime’s anti-Americanism. Moreover, I’m not sure my Georgian and Ukrainian friends would agree that this was a good trade-off. Indeed, Graham’s prescription for big-power politics inevitably leads to smaller countries getting thrown under the bus, à la the days of the Yalta agreement of 1945. Those days should remain in our past. Beyond ignoring Russia’s neighbors, Graham also approves of the Administration’s tempering public criticism of Kremlin domestic politics. Here, we’ll simply have to agree to disagree. I find the Administration’s continued deafening silence at the highest levels, coming as it does amidst the worst domestic crackdown in Russia since the break-up of the USSR, both unprincipled and unwise. We risk being associated with a regime whose popularity is declining, just as we have elsewhere around the world. Have we not learned from our mistakes elsewhere, most recently in the Middle East? At the end of the day, how can the “strategists” hope for a successful strategic partnership with the Kremlin when even they acknowledge that the sides share few interests and certainly not the same values—and when the list of possible trade-offs is running out? Alas, the Obama Administration offered yet another concession when it canceled the final phase of its missile defense program in Europe, a move Graham and others presumably welcome. What might we get in return? Agreement on a new arms control accord? On missile defense? What is it we hope to accomplish with this latest overture? Graham’s strategist position wants the West to return to the old mechanism of exerting influence through exchange programs, business contacts and other “people-to people” initiatives. Haven’t we been doing that for more than twenty years? While I support such programs, they are not a substitute for assisting civil society and standing for what’s right in the area of human rights. As for the Magnitsky Act, Graham’s opposition to it is similar to what we hear from the Kremlin and its supporters. The Act does not in any way “send Russians the wrong message about rule of law.” Graham should wonder why in a recent poll, 36 percent of Russians supported the Magnitsky Act, whereas only 18 percent opposed it. Similarly, many in Russian civil society and the opposition (which Graham dismisses out of hand) support the measure and view it not as anti-Russian but as properly targeted against corrupt and abusive regime officials. Graham’s argument that “Russians will be tempted to use this Act as a way of gaining a competitive advantage over their commercial rivals” is just plain silly; the U.S. State and Treasury Departments will determine who winds up on the visa ban and asset freeze list, not quarrelling Russian businessmen. What would Graham propose in place of the Magnitsky Act? He criticizes “feel-good rhetoric and moral outrage that has had little, if any, positive impact inside Russia for at least the past generation” but then also attacks concrete steps, such as the Magnitsky Act, that are designed to address in a targeted fashion the massive deterioration in Russia’s human rights situation. What would he do instead? One can infer that his answer would be to keep silent and don’t impose any punitive measures. Human rights, for the “strategists”, appear to be a nuisance, and Graham suggests that the United States “be seen as refraining from actively interfering in Russian domestic affairs and mute our public criticism, except in cases of gross violations of human rights.” Be seen as refraining? Does he actually want us to intervene as long as we’re not caught doing so? And which cases would he offer as crossing that threshold of “cases of gross violations of human rights? Does the Sergei Magnitsky case not qualify? Perhaps such judgments are best left not to the “strategists.” Instead of futilely pursuing another “strategic dialogue”, we should focus on sticking with principles while working with Russia whenever possible. (We have never argued for ignoring Russia.) But when Putin and his clique obstruct international efforts to uphold democratic standards and human rights or prevent atrocities (as in Syria), they make themselves marginal players on the world stage. Our response should be to search actively for ways to work around or without Russia.
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Published on: April 4, 2013The Debate Is On