Editors’ note: What follows is the sixth 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“). The exchange, a complete listing of which may be found below, has also provoked a lively debate in the Russian Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal.Once again, hopes for the political process in Russia to continue on the road toward democracy have been brutally dashed. A new law passed by the State Duma on November 21, 2012, covers raids of representatives from the prosecutor’s office, the tax inspectorate, Federal Security Agency, Emergency Situations Ministry, even fire and health inspection services. The recent crackdown on 94 national and foreign organizations in 28 regions is being justified as necessary to protect the country’s sovereignty and stability against subversion by foreign agents. NGOs like Golos, Memorial, and the Helsinki-Group are suspected of “extremist” ideas; nonprofits from the United States, Germany and France—even two non-Orthodox churches—are alleged to have sponsored foreign interests in Russia with poisoned money. Russia has changed in many ways, but where that change is taking the country remains uncertain. The Kremlin revels in “stabilization” as its chief achievement after the chaos of 1998. The economic situation has indeed improved since then—albeit fuelled by the windfall of rising prices on global energy markets. Now independent analysts are diagnosing unexpected volatility in the political sphere. The new urban middle-class is asking for political reforms; “the system” (the latest code-word for the opaque power structures in and around the Kremlin) has reacted with a mix of propaganda and repression. The framework for fencing off any critics—a weak parliament controlled by “the party of power”, a compliant jurisdiction, big business pursuing their own interests, and an opportunistic Russian Orthodox Church—is firmly in place. The new ideology of patriotism, which feeds on anti-Westernism, nationalist frustrations and nostalgia for past greatness, dominates Russian media coverage. Meanwhile, the democratic opposition has still not managed to organize around any plausible political programs. Urban flash-mobs aren’t substitutes for a functioning system of competing political parties. Academic literature abounds with discussions of the institutional, political and legal parameters for systemic change. The transformation of Central European countries demonstrates the feasibility of adapting “the Western model” (the rule of law, institutionalized democracy and a market economy). Not so in the former Soviet Republics: In his keynote address at the 1999 World Bank Conference on Development Economics, Joseph Stiglitz convincingly analyzed why the Russian transformation project was doomed to failure. Balance sheets that take account of historical and cultural factors in this development offer additional explanations, with pre-democratic mortgages from Russian history topping the list. But there can be no doubt that the impatience, ignorance, ideological overdrive and triumphalism of Western politicians and gurus also played a part in the evolution of the precarious system known as “Putinism.” The title given to John Lloyd’s August 1999 cover story in the New York Times Magazine reveals the Zeitgeist of the debate in America at the turn of the century: “Who Lost Russia?” The Conservative Coalition Mainstream foreign policy reasoning in the United States has been conservative, arguing in terms of empire on a global scale. U.S.-Russian relations are back to a terminology of containment. The Obama Administration has been unable to follow through on its initial suggestions of a reset. A majority of the US Senate, including large blocs on the Democratic side of the aisle, is united in conservative (if not neo-conservative) worldviews, stuck in a fever dream of omnipotence, if not a state of denial. Hillary Clinton’s motto for the 21st century encapsulates this mood: “America must, can, and will lead in this century.” Messages like these, along with labels attached to the U.S. strategic debate like “indispensable country” and “world’s dominant military power”, were bound to fortify the beliefs of national patriots in Moscow that Russia was being denied its rightful place in history as a great power. Paradoxically, in their view only the United States can be a considered a worthy partner in “strategic dialogue” about “fundamental vital interests” and co-management of international conflicts. Only the United States is acceptable as benchmark and attesting notary for Russia’s rightful place among the great. On the other hand, any claim by U.S. geopolitical strategists to a global right of way is a welcome justification to deflect criticism and tighten the screws of repression at home. The openly revisionist strategy in the “Near Abroad” is justified with reference to accusations of U.S. “meddling” and the instigation of unpredictable “color” revolutions. As the confrontation in Georgia revealed, brinkmanship and military posturing are back. Military security specialists tend to prepare to fight past wars, but the almost twenty-year-long controversy between the US-NATO and Russia over Euro ABM (the European Anti-Ballistic Missile program, one of the “big issues” in U.S.-Russian relations) is particularly hard to comprehend in its absurdity: The Russians countered US-NATO plans to station a weapons system expected to become operational sometime in the future in Poland and the Czech Republic with a threat to deploy (non-functioning) Iskander tactical nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad. The obvious solution of technical cooperation for closing an uncertain but not unconceivable window of vulnerability for Europe never received enough political support on either side. Was this due simply to inertia or mutually assured paranoia? Are we really back to square one?1 Intelligent Design, Evolution, or Drift? The anguished helplessness of Western Russia-policies is reflected in emotional lamentations about the Kremlin’s authoritarianism, in battles of blame shifted between “realists vs. idealists”, and in an inflationary use of the boasting label “strategic.” In this context, the debate between Lilia Shevtsova, David Kramer, Thomas Graham and Andrew Wood offers a timely update of arguments that have been tested in discussions in the United States and Western Europe for the past 23 years. Graham presents the pivotal “national interest” as a saturated consensus to be updated in logical exercises and adapted incrementally. But his reasoning appears academic—way above the battlegrounds of politics, where “national interest” functions as a way to conceal the political actors’ lack of inspiration and the mechanisms of selling-out to vested economic interests. Politicians are not really interested in serious discussion of alternative futures that include unwelcome scenarios and their spin-doctors are interested in occupying the moral high ground primarily as a means of burnishing public images. Any effort to design consistent, even optimal, strategies tends to underestimate the drag of inertia in mainstream-thinking, the power of ideological fixations, and the distraction of otherwise unrelated domestic issues that come into play as a result of tactical political maneuvering. The range of options for operationally relevant, not to speak of strategic, decisions in dealing with Moscow is extremely narrow. Graham’s formula, “a balance of cooperation, competition, and indifference” to be pursued with a “balance of trade-offs, incentives and disincentives”, sounds too elegant to be practical. Not surprisingly, in his first term President Obama had his hands full with containing and managing the damage caused by neoconservative hubris; grand strategy was left to the pundits. Under constraints like these the true issue is not to lose one’s orientation. In Kramer’s and Shevtsova’s view, “unprincipled” efforts to secure the Kremlin’s cooperation on “big issues” have some share in the depressing trends in domestic Russian affairs, but so do other Western nations involved in the game of pretending that in the end everything will be fine (“The system will evolve toward greater openness, pluralism and effectiveness”, Shevtsova quotes Graham as saying in 2012). It’s difficult not to call to mind here John Maynard Keynes’s witticism about where we all end up “in the long run.” Russia is and remains an indispensable partner in many respects—from arms control to the proliferation of nuclear and conventional arms, from global energy supplies to instability in the Near- and Middle-East, and from the political collapse of Africa to environmental threats. Being a charter member in the club of authoritarian states, Russian leaders love to counter Western positions in the United Nations. The greatest challenge, however, comes from the internal instability of “the system” in Moscow, which implies fundamental uncertainties over how this leadership defines the Russian national interest: Eventual warming to a more cooperative stance is just as likely as the continuation of the current autistic pattern of behavior, or worse. Entrenched as it is, the system in its present configuration will not surrender to moral suasion. Tough talk and “push-back” (whatever that is), on the other hand, can be counterproductive, depending on the circumstances and the issues at stake. Western policy planners are caught in a dilemma: Continue on the road to Cold War 2.0, or surrender to Russian bluffs and impositions? The escape-route of “change through rapprochement” is closed, as it presupposes an environment of stable states, viable mechanisms of control, confident actors on both sides, and adequate time. Partner Germany German-Russian relations stand out because of their history of mutual hostility and mutual attraction. Memories of two World Wars with millions of victims, atrocious crimes under Nazi occupation, and the separation of Germany in two military blocs preparing for yet another war against each other constitute a unique psychological background for this relationship. Against all expectations, opinion polls in Russia consistently render positive rankings for Germans and consistently favor partnership with Germany. At the same time there has been a lot of understanding in Germany for the situation of Russians living through the turmoil of transformation. Seventeen million former citizens of the German Democratic Republic had to unlearn communist patterns of behavior and perceptions. Last but not least, Germans could not forget Mikhail Gorbachev’s role in making the unification of Germany possible; indeed it’s known as the “Gorbi-factor.” These experiences shape mutual perceptions even today, and they are being continuously refreshed via grassroots networks grown in partnership agreements between German and Russian NGOs and communities, in exchange programs for students, scholars, and experts, in tourism, and in intensive media-coverage of events and trends in both countries. Russian propaganda has been trying to capitalize on this fact by referring to stereotypes of traditional Russian culture, by appealing to hitherto undefined “Russian values”, and by reminding Germans of energy provided to and jobs created in Germany through substantial economic exchanges. Blaming American policies is the argument of choice for Russian politicians when under fire in European, and particularly German, audiences. The unanimity of protests in support of Russian civil society is denounced as a plot designed and operated by dark forces in the United States. Vladimir Putin’s April 5 interview on Germany’s ARD TV represents only the latest demonstration of assertiveness and disdain for Western criticism. Confronted by his German interviewer with the impression of a hidden agenda to intimidate critics in Russia, Putin insisted on the legality of these searches and tried to comfort his interviewer by saying that the new NGO law was an effort to register, not ban, these organizations. Wooing his German audience, the Russian President elaborated on the beauty of “order” and then, visibly savoring the situation, he handed the unsuspecting interviewer a red file containing a questionnaire recently received by a Russian organization in the US which was requested to register under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). “Is this democratic or not?” he asked. Beyond the infotainment about sauna-diplomacy and macho-friendships between past German and Russian leaders, and contrary to innuendoes of Germany’s drifting away from the Western consensus about shared values in favor of valued market shares, the massive protest in Germany, recently expressed in intense parliamentary and public debates, against the growing authoritarianism of “the system” in Moscow cannot be misinterpreted. For years, lavishly funded Russian PR flacks in Berlin have been preaching the gospel that Russia is “different, democratically oriented, stable but needing more time.” But these efforts have not won over German public opinion; on the contrary, in fact. It is this German role in the quest for opinion leadership that is “special”, not its relationship with Russia. In times of uncertainty, Germany remains a key asset for Europe and the West at large. Calling the Bluffs Graham and Shevtsova agree on the least attractive part of a reset with Russia and with other authoritarian regimes: The West will have “to practice the norms it preaches”, and “we have to put our house in order.” To offer two unpleasant, yet spectacular instances of such Western failures: The accusation of atrocious conditions in Russian prisons will carry no weight until Guantanamo is closed, the privatized prison system in the US is under public control again, and the death penalty is abolished. Exposing manipulations in Russian elections risks scathing remarks on strange practices in the elections of a number of states in the United States, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s thinking in campaign finance cases like Citizens United is entirely unconceivable for electoral legislation in Europe. Realists in the United States will scoff at these misgivings; human rights activists, on the other hand, need courage and financial support to confront the coalition of vested interests and complacent conservatism, well entrenched as these are in the current scheme of political correctness. Only hardened cynics could find satisfaction in this state of affairs. To discuss the normative dimension in relations (not only) with Russia in abstract terms does not work. “Democracy” has already been denuded of much of its value: the “d-word.” In fact, to ignore irrefutable facts on the ground in the United States is an invitation for Russian spin-doctors to feed anti-Americanism around the world. Reference to “European values” as codified in the Charter of Paris and in the work of European institutions may therefore be better suited. It must not be forgotten that the Russian Federation became a member of the Council of Europe in 1996, it ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998, and it has been honoring its obligations regarding the right of individual petition before the European Court of Human Rights from that date. There is one down side, however, to stressing a distinctly European dimension: depending on American interpretations, this approach implies the risk of lighting a fuse on the iconic conventional understanding of “the West.” The much-celebrated Endsieg of “market-democracy” and the ensuing logic of automatic “liberal peace” have failed, Russian commentators are ridiculing “real existing capitalism”, and the oligarchs of the world are united in celebration of globalized unaccountability. Russia’s political leaders claim to be victims in a catastrophic development created by the West that is about to spin out of control; poor naive Russian investors have been thrown to the wolves in Cyprus already. But Moscow is by no means less responsible than Brussels, the IMF, or “the City.” Russia is part of the problem, an accomplice in the lucrative decay of standards and norms around the world. Legal nihilism and rampant corruption still are fundamental features of “the system”, dangerous by contagion. The recent change of course in Moscow’s fiscal policies from bringing Russia’s roaming investors home (called “de-offshorization”) to opening a tax haven of their own by offering Russian citizenship to foreigners (shall we call it “Depardieuization”?) is not encouraging. The only way out, productive for all participating parties, possibly “strategic” in its range of coverage, is to start working for the stabilization of the global economy as a matter of joint responsibility. Not to engage Russia from the outset will undermine the whole project and damage the credibility of Western nations, great and not so great. And Civil Society? What about Russian society, its peoples’ dream of living in an “ordinary country”, pursuing income growth and upward social mobility, expecting social security and human rights to be protected by independent courts—all this organized in a political system of transparent checks and balances, run by trustworthy politicians who have gained access to power only in free and fair elections? Are these hopes really lost in translation of “big issues”? Being status-seeking, the Russian leadership desperately needs recognition at home and in the international arena. A reputation of greatness is not earned in rhetorical muscle-flexing but in tangible economic, social, technological, and organizational achievements. Reaching standards of comparative excellence for any country is impossible without positive feedback from “the people” who are motivated not only by the progress of their interests as individuals but also by their desire to identify with success stories about their country. International statistics about the comparative performance of the economy, science, education, public services, income distribution, social mobility and so forth in Russia provide a merciless measure of accomplishment. The data for Russia are not encouraging. The “system” in Moscow obviously cannot sustain the growth rates of the past. The brain-drain of Russian scientists and specialists continues, and the new middle-class is looking for ways to send their children abroad for schooling. These people are eager to check the performance of politicians, bureaucrats, and managers for themselves; they are fed up with resounding stories of incompetence, corruption, and fraud; and they are no longer willing to accept alleged foreign meddling as an excuse. In the digital age they are able to obtain the information they need to challenge the spin and ideological Ersatz put forward by “political technologists” in Moscow. The hysterical crackdown on NGOs is proof of the system’s insecurity. German experience shows that it will take a lot of tedious and often frustrating work by individuals—politicians, diplomats, business managers, scientists and activists—committed to improving the situation on the ground in Russia. The continued supply of NGOs and individual citizens in Russia with substantiated evidence of the regime’s lack of orientation will encourage them to develop alternative political agendas of their own and to ask the questions they would be entitled to ask, directly or through their representatives, in a democratic setting. Western governments and business are acting within their legitimate national and corporate interests by insisting on upgrades for the rule of law and by urging their Russian counterparts to stop the decay of physical infrastructure, environmental pollution, rampant corruption, and court decisions running counter to international standards of jurisdiction. The more thoroughly and the more publicly these issues are presented, the better. The strongest argument in response to apprehensions in Moscow of indecent foreign intentions is the globally proven evidence that only compliance with international standards and rules of behavior will generate economic growth and political stability at home, trust of partners abroad, and world-wide reputation as a great nation. Previous Essays: “In Defense of a Strategic Approach to Russia“, Thomas Graham (March 12) “Russian and Western Views of National Interests”, Andrew Wood (March 29) “The Debate Is On“, David Kramer (April 4) “A Realist’s Response to an Idealist”, Lilia Shevtsova (April 5) 1A detailed analysis can be found in Hannes Adomeit, Politik und Strategie der USA in Osteuropa und im Kaukasus: Back to Square One, in Erich Reiter, ed., Entwicklungsszenarien in Osteuropa, Schriftenreihe zur Internationalen Politik des Internationalen Instituts für Liberale Politik, Bd. 4 (Böhlau, 2011), pp. 143–98.
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Published on: April 18, 2013Relations with Russia and the Pursuit of Greatness