The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Here We Go Again: Falling for the Russian Trap
Published on February 21, 2013

Nearing the end of his second term, George W. Bush sought to salvage Russian-American relations with a visit to Sochi in April 2008, but then a few months later, Russia’s invasion of Georgia brought the bilateral relationship to its lowest point in twenty years. President Obama came to office intent on repairing the relationship and working together with Moscow on a range of global issues. At the start of his second term, however, despite four years of the reset policy, Obama, too, faces a very strained relationship with Russia.

True, the United States has made its mistakes. But the current state of Russian-American relations stems mostly from the Kremlin’s creation of imitation democracy and its attempts to exploit the West and anti-Americanism for political survival. The Kremlin’s imitation game has complicated American and Western policies toward Russia and forced the West to pretend, just as the Russian elite does. The “Let’s Pretend” game allowed both sides to ignore core differences and to find tactical compromises on a host of issues ranging from the war on terror to nuclear safety. This concerted imitation has also had strategic consequences, however. It has facilitated the survival of Russia’s personalized-power system and discredited liberal ideals in the eyes of Russian society. It has also created a powerful pro-Russia Western lobby that is facilitating the export of Russia’s corruption to developed countries.

Despite numerous U.S. attempts to avoid irritating the Kremlin, relations between Moscow and Washington always seem to end up either in mutual suspicion or in full-blown crisis. That is what happened under the Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations, and that is what happened after Barack Obama’s first term in office. Each period of disappointment and rupture in relations, which has always been preceded by a period of optimism, has been followed by another campaign by both Moscow and Washington to revive relations. Who is behind these campaigns? For a quarter of a century, it has been the same consolidated cohort of experts in both capitals, most of whom have serious and established reputations and vast stores of experience. (There are a few new additions to the cohort, but they walk in lockstep with the old hands.) After every new crisis, these experts implore politicians on both sides to “think big.” Each time, “big thinking” on the Western side includes encouragement to avoid issues that would antagonize the Kremlin. Thus U.S. administrations looked the other way as the Kremlin created a corrupt, authoritarian regime.

Like the movie Groundhog Day, this is happening all over again. We are falling for the same Kremlin trap. The demise of the reset policy has begotten another campaign to forge yet another new era in Russian-American relations, this time under the banner of “strategic cooperation.” Those advocating this approach present nothing new but simply repeat the same old warnings against ignoring Russia and downgrading relations. Proponents of this approach address only Washington and Western policymakers; for some reason, they never seem to prod Putin and his circle, even though Putin’s actions and behavior have made the development of relations and cooperation increasingly difficult. None of these “strategists” maintains that Russia deserves to be treated differently because it could become an engine of social and economic progress; rather, they believe Russia cannot be ignored because it could act as a spoiler, causing massive problems for the West.

Strategists who look for explanations for previous failures in relations attribute them to Washington’s meddling in Russia’s internal affairs; the U.S. missile defense program, which frightens the Kremlin; or the push to enlarge NATO. But these explanations overlook the Kremlin’s contribution to the breakdown, ostensibly believing that their criticism of the Kremlin will undermine efforts to introduce a strategic approach.

Among the strategists are those who claim that George W. Bush Administration took a “finger-wagging, lecturing, patronizing” approach toward Russia on issues such as democracy and policy toward its neighbors. We wish that were true—and one of us (Kramer) worked in the U.S. government during that time. The reality is that the Bush Administration did not in either of its two terms push back anywhere near hard enough on Putin’s crackdowns on the North Caucasus, the media, the opposition or civil society. That failure to push back hard enough has continued under Obama, only worse.

In rejecting the notion of “linkage” at the beginning of its term, the Obama team decided to completely separate Russia’s domestic and foreign policies, ignoring in the process the worst deterioration in Russia’s internal situation since the collapse of the USSR. Thus, Washington sought to avoid upsetting the Kremlin and chose not to react when the Kremlin kicked out the U.S. Agency for International Development and American non-governmental organizations from Russia. It looked the other way as the American Ambassador was harassed in Moscow. It stayed silent when Moscow started opting out of agreements it had signed with Washington. And its response to the ban on adoptions of Russian orphans by Americans was pathetic. (See Freedom House’s special report on Russia for a summary of Putin’s malevolent actions.)

President Obama himself has said absolutely nothing about these developments, though he has shown interest, including in his latest State of the Union speech, in reaching another arms control agreement with Putin. This signals to Putin that he can continue to get away with his crackdown at home as long as he pretends to be interested in cooperating with Obama to reduce the number of nuclear weapons.

In short, Moscow seemed to do everything in its power to provoke the United States, while Washington did everything it could not to get offended. When the Kremlin’s slaps in the face became too obvious to ignore, Washington correctly, albeit belatedly, withdrew from the U.S.-Russia Civil Society Working Group, which, it should be noted, was a failure from the day it was created.

We have to find an answer to the question of why there is a new crisis in Russian-American relations; otherwise, working on new strategies is pointless.

Why don’t the strategists tell us under what conditions the Kremlin will agree to better relations? In a February 15 op-ed in the Washington Post, Stephen Cohen at least laid out Russian leaders’ list of grievances. These grievances come in the form of weekly ultimatums to Washington by everyone in the Kremlin from the President and the Prime Minister down to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and members of parliament. Washington is urged to accept the concept of total sovereignty and not meddle in internal affairs, to stay out of Russia’s neighborhood, to abandon its “threatening” missile defense system, to expand trade and guarantee “mutual” investments. That is how the pro-Kremlin experts and politicians define how the United States should behave. Most importantly, the U.S. should not be part of the Russian internal political process; values should not be a prerequisite for cooperation in the 21st century.

Some strategists do make mention of the Russian take on strategic dialogue with Washington, but they characterize it in mild terms: “Russians will take care of business themselves, and meddling in Russian affairs will backfire.” Thus one is meant to understand that they agree with the Kremlin that the West should abandon the principles outlined by the Council of Europe and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that state that repression and human rights abuses are not merely a country’s internal affairs.

What do our colleagues propose as subjects for the “strategic dialogue” between the U.S. and Russia? To us, the term “strategic” in relation to politics implies the promotion of a state’s fundamental long-term interests. In fact, any strategic foreign policy interest is derived from an interest that guarantees the state’s internal functioning. Our colleagues, however, seem to focus on assisting in Russia’s ascension to the OECD, agreement on missile defense, expansion of trade, joint projects in the energy area (like Rosneft, Exxon Mobil and BP), a joint pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, and helping Russia develop Siberia and the Pacific provinces. In other words, these proposals for the most part do not introduce new ideas. The rest also repeat subjects that have been mentioned many times before. There is a legitimate debate about whether these are indeed the proper spheres of strategic partnership for either country.

But let’s be clear that none of these areas involves cooperation between U.S. and Russian societies; rather they are about working with the Putin system, which, after all these years, has not found its civilizational vector and is thus attempting to survive by returning to an archaic personalized-power system. This system’s strategic interest is to survive at any cost, primarily by resorting to repressive methods. Moreover, the values and principles embraced by the system (and consequently by the state that represents it to the outside world) are hostile to the values that the United States promotes. Thus, the system survives by constraining the United States and the West from promoting universal values and interests. Every time our colleagues start talking about strategic dialogue, they should ask themselves a question: Would this dialogue contribute to the survival of Russia’s personalized, corrupt, anti-Western regime, or possibly even suffocate the country’s needed transformation?

Given that Russia’s political system is hostile to the United States, pursuit of strategic dialogue begs another question: What is there to talk about? What’s the purpose, for example, of Russia’s joining the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)? Having already become a member of the WTO, Russia is already indicating that it is picking and choosing which rules it will abide by. Unless other WTO members hold Russia to account, WTO membership will not advance the cause of rule of law in Russia—just as it has failed to do in China for more than a decade now. Russia’s joining the OECD will yield the same results and will only help the Kremlin’s survival, not the country’s modernization. Modernization should start from within. It will never begin by means of introducing principles that are alien to the system—the Kremlin will never allow it.

What about missile defense? According to Russian independent experts, the missile defense project does not compromise Russia’s security, and its purpose is expressly to defend against an Iranian or terrorist threat—not threats on the scale of Russia’s nuclear forces. The constant allusions to the threat that missile defense poses to Russia is more of the Kremlin’s attempt to force Washington to give in on this issue. In this context, compromise on missile defense is not even a matter of the Kremlin’s strategic survival, let alone a question of Russia’s survival. Missile defense is not among the Kremlin’s strategic interests, since it does not believe war with the West is possible. Rather, it is a matter of the Kremlin’s foreign policy tactics, which are an extension of its domestic politics. Holding up the West, and specifically missile defense, as a threat plays into the Kremlin’s hands.

In terms of trade, the U.S. is not a serious partner for Russia, given the paltry level of trade between the two countries. The issue of trade matters only to a select group of Russian and American companies that either have decided to penetrate the American market (like Severstal and Lukoil) or are ready to work under the Kremlin’s patronage (like Exxon). In this case, calls for expanding trade between the two countries serve the interests of select companies and the Kremlin. Until rule of law takes root—and that won’t happen under Putin—investment in Russia will always be more difficult than it should be.

As for the popular ideas of joint pivot to the Asia-Pacific and Arctic cooperation, these are more of a passing fad. Russia has already “turned” to the Pacific by hosting the APEC summit in Vladivostok, which ended up costing $22 billion. The summit demonstrated Russia’s ability to construct Potemkin villages (a performance it will repeat for next February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, whose cost has already reached $50 billion). This turn to the Pacific benefited those who pocketed the money that was appropriated for running the summit, while the consequences of the turn to Asia remain unclear. What can Russia offer to the region aside from raw materials and weapons exports? Is Russia ready to become a raw materials appendage to Asia? This is what the turn to Asia might bring them. Does that make the turn strategic? And is it strategic for the state, or for society?

Provided Russia’s corrupt state is preserved, the Arctic is another opportunity for the Kremlin elite to funnel money out of the country—or, plainly speaking, steal it. How can the West help Russia develop its Siberia and Pacific provinces when the country’s elite cares only about providing for corrupt interests? Russia has to transform itself first, and this is Russian society’s main goal. Only then can we talk to the United States and Europe about assistance in developing Siberia and the Far East.

It is hard to imagine how all these ideas would be of “strategic interest” to the United States. America, after all, remains focused on dealing with threats from Iran, North Korea, terrorism, and proliferation. On the first two of those, Russia has probably provided all the cooperation it can; on terrorism and proliferation, more can be done but that is because they are top Russian priorities as well. Even so, however, there there are limits to what can be accomplished with a regime like Putin’s.

Pursuit of such “strategic cooperation” will never lead to “strategic partnership.” This cooperation may be the best the West and the United States can do, at least until the end of Obama’s second term, after which a new administration will come to office thinking it knows the right way to work with Russia. But one has to take this approach for what it is and not for what it is not. One has to understand that such an approach distracts from the real problems in Russian-American relations and the actual situation in Russia.

Besides the influential cohort of strategists in the West, there is another group that is especially influential in Moscow. This group says there can be no strategic dialogue, let alone strategic partnership, between Russia and the United States. However, their reasoning is quite different from the argument we describe above. They believe America will try to meddle in Russian affairs anyway, so they will not allow it to do so. At first glance, these two groups have different views, but they actually represent two subtypes of the same species. Both the strategists and the “pessimists” oppose the normative approach to foreign policy. But the former think that the normative approach can be avoided, while the latter are sorry to acknowledge that values must be reckoned with, so it is better to have no dialogue altogether.

Does our criticism mean that the United States should have no dialogue with Russia while Putin remains in office? No, of course not. Russia and the United States cooperated on issues even through the most difficult moments of the Cold War. But this is not a strategic approach, let alone partnership; instead, it represents tactical compromises amid the incompatibility of the two countries’ strategic vectors. It should not be presented differently, for doing so will merely produce illusions and end in disappointment.

If Washington is ready to pursue an overarching strategic objective, it should be grounded in values and principles, which are the very staples of such objectives. When Russian society is ready, it will be able to determine its strategic interest toward the United States. No other force will be able to replace this strategic interest with its own corporate or personal interest and pass it off as a “strategy”.

Why can’t the strategists acknowledge the incompatibility of the two countries’ strategic vectors and limit themselves to a modest agenda, doing what they can without prolonging the life of the Russian Matrix. They should realize that their dialogue plays into the hands of the Kremlin and allows it to legitimize and perpetuate its Potemkin village projects. We await more convincing arguments in favor of a strategic approach that does not ignore the normative dimension.

David J. Kramer, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, is president of Freedom House in Washington, DC. Lilia Shevtsova, an AI editorial board member, is senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.