The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Russian and Western Views of National Interests
Published on March 29, 2013

Editors’ note: What follows is the third part of an exchange on Russian-Western relations that began with David Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova’s 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.” Further contributions to this symposium are forthcoming.

The spirited exchange between David Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova on the one hand and Thomas Graham on the other was timely. Some of the debating points made appeared to this outside observer to obscure the importance of the discussion. Presumably no one involved would accept an implication that he or she might be arguing for anything other than a strategic approach devoted to the national interest. Nor would any of the debaters agree that he or she might have a soft-headed view of such matters. The underlying issues were, rather, what these national interests might be, and what is the best way to address them.

Official Russia’s view of that country’s national interests has been founded on a triad since Vladimir Putin became President for the first time in 2000. First, it is held that Russia has the right and duty to be a Great Power, with an acknowledged and internationally respected sphere of special interest in the post-Soviet space. As such, second, it is held that the United States is Russia’s natural analogue, with the Russians having the right to be treated as its equal, whether as partner or rival. And, third, Russia must protect itself from outside interference, however loosely defined. My March 28 paper, “Cold Shadows and Present Illusions”, explores the implications of these ideas further. But the principal conclusions to be drawn in the present context are: first, that these attitudes are founded on emotion rather than objective or measurable reality; second, that to the extent that feelings of pride and loss are at their root they cannot be assuaged by outside powers; and third, that they are barely relevant to the longer-term interest of Russia’s peoples in honest judges, stable, comprehensible and consistent laws, and accountable government at all levels.

The West, including the United States, has of course to take account of Russia’s governmental triad. But our longer-term interest ought to be ever present to our minds. That interest is the one just outlined, the one that runs in harmony with the aspirations of the Russian people as a whole. None of us has any interest in the disintegration of the Russian state. We were deeply concerned at the time as to what might come from the collapse of the Soviet Union. For all the ordure heaped on President George H.W. Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech, what he said in 1991 reflected risks that then seemed weighty to many. It is generally acknowledged now, both in the West and beyond it, that for Russia to be prosperous, and for its long-term future to be secure, it must have both political and economic reforms. The present attempts by that country’s leadership to assert still tighter control work against that need. These policies are internally generated, not a response to outside pressure, American pressure least of all.

Graham rightly urges in his article that we cannot ignore Russia, and that the United States should seek a balance of cooperation. Perhaps because he had neither the time nor the space to elaborate, he treats this in a strictly bilateral context, without considering the implications for other countries, formerly Soviet countries not least. But the United States, and European countries for that matter, also have interests to defend and promote in other countries, again, not least in formerly Soviet countries. These can conflict with the aspirations of the Russian government, though not necessarily with Russia’s longer-term evolution. Those independent countries also of course have their own ideas as to what they should aim for, and how best to do it. I do not for my part therefore see what profit the rest of us might have in acceding to a Muscovite claim to an acknowledged quasi-legal right to oversee countries in Russia’s neighborhood.

Graham also speaks of competition between the United States and Russia. Plenty of Russians, particularly those dealing with foreign policy issues, think of the relationship that way, but it would surprise me to learn that many Americans, let alone Europeans, see Russia as a competitor. There is a certain lazy tendency in the West to talk of a modern day Great Game in Central Asia, but that does not amount to serious analysis if it is meant to apply to Russia versus the European Union or United States. There are commercial rivalries over energy corridors which have political implications. And some analysts tend towards accepting the Russian view that Western countries, and of course the United States in particular, seek to deny them their due in the post-Soviet space. Putin has spoken of the militarization of the Arctic as justifying Russia’s taking precautionary defensive measures, but the signs of that sort of Western build-up are nugatory. And if one is speaking of overall commercial, political or societal competition, then I dare say that no one in the West sees Russia as a contender for the palm even though the United States has its problems and the European Union is in such a mess. Russia is not so central to us as the West—and the United States in particular—is to them.

My point here is not to deny that the Russians, like their Soviet predecessors, continue to see international issues in win-or-lose terms. It is instead to say that the rest of us have no cause to accept that approach. The choice is not between cooperation and confrontation. That might lead Western powers to be unduly leery of offending the Kremlin. Too much self-reproach when others get cross is a Western fault. Kramer and Shevtsova argue that the United States ought to be ready to argue for its values, and to act on them appropriately. Graham, too, accepts that there is a normative dimension that should be respected. The soft power of the United States, and Europe too, rests on the values to which they subscribe. We do not always respect them; rendition, drones, pressure on democratic countries within the European Union, legislation against “hate speech”, and curbs on the media spring to mind. But compromising on these values, or treating their expression as harmful to relations with Russia, is to be false both to ourselves and to emerging Russian realities. It is not a trivial point that Russia has signed up to a number of international conventions enshrining basic human rights. If we turn a blind eye to their neglect of these obligations, how can we hold them to their word in other cases?

Neither Graham nor Kramer and Shevtsova directly address the question of how Russia’s possible evolutionary path ought to affect our policymaking in the present. The implication of Graham’s approach, to me at least, is that the present regime, or something very like it, is going to last. Kramer and Shevtsova, again in my understanding of their argument, have their doubts. The question matters: the first “reset” was predicated at least in part on the belief that President Medvedev had a decent chance of a second term, and that his liberal phraseology was meaningful. Few would now credit President Putin with liberalizing intentions, and there is room for doubt as to whether he can credibly hope for a plausible mandate for yet another term in 2018. If I am not mistaken, the agenda that Graham has in mind is strictly one of exploring how far cooperation in international affairs between Washington and Moscow may be possible, based on a utilitarian cost/benefit balance and without obvious regard for the value-based hopes which underpinned U.S. policy during President Obama’s first term. Graham has not addressed in his “Strategic Approach” article whether Putin will last beyond 2018. Kramer and Shevtsova have their eyes also on those Russians who now oppose Putin directly, together I suppose with those who may be silent in public for the present but are nonetheless increasingly critical of the regime. What we do now will matter in the light of future changes.

It is also open for question whether getting closer to the Putin regime and its international agenda would bring concrete rewards. Official Russia’s suspicion of Washington is deeply entrenched. So, for that matter, are Putin’s suspicions and fears of his own people. It is true that there is a limit to what the West as a whole or the United States in particular can do to encourage Russia to move toward a more liberal, inclusive and rule-based society, and that the present Russian leadership is doing its best to narrow that limit still further. But we have the power of example and have no reason to be ashamed of it. There may not be a case for crusading zeal, but what we say and do matters in Russia. One reason for the Kremlin to be clamping down on protest, speaking of the dangers of an “Orange” upheaval, and squeezing independent organs of a nascent Russian civil society is precisely because it knows how far Russia and its peoples are changing.

I therefore, in sum, find it hard to give concrete meaning to Graham’s call toward the end of his article for Russia and the United States to search for a “common strategic agenda . . . to determine whether there are solid strategic grounds for long term cooperation . . . [and possible means of meshing] their interests so that each country advances its own strategic interests.” In the earlier part of his argument he cited individual questions that the “reset” of President Obama’s first term had advanced. That approach, based on concrete issues, seemed more compelling to me. There was then a tactical argument for lowering the temperature between the United States and Russia, and a practical case, for instance, in working with Moscow (in Moscow’s own interests, too, it should be added) over Afghanistan.

Particular interests can be articulated in a way that a generalized national interest cannot. “Strategic” too is a slippery term: It is just as strategic to think about possible changes in another country and how best to defend the values of one’s own as it is to see how to mitigate potential rivalry.

Is it, lastly, right for the United States to give such a high priority to its relationship with Russia? There are arguably more important competitors for Washington’s attention, as well as limits to what the United States can achieve with official Russia. There is, besides, the undesirable side effect of trying to construct (or reconstruct if you prefer) a bilateral relationship at least slightly reminiscent of that between America and the USSR: It would feed official Russia’s distorted view of its position and potential as a parallel “Great Power”. Does the United States really need for instance to pursue nuclear disarmament primarily in dialogue with Russia? What is now the sense of mutually assured destruction? If the United States calculated what might theoretically be a sufficient number of nuclear weapons to rule out a possible Russian attack on the West, what would be the penalty of going down to that number unilaterally? If the Russians did not follow suit, what good would it do them? These are strategic questions that are subject to American will, not necessarily to Moscow’s agreement. I pose them to illustrate the way that the Washington-Moscow relationship has changed from being of critical importance to being merely one among many. And a good thing too.

Andrew Wood is associate fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, contributed to a dialogue with Lilia Shevtsova called Change or Decay: Russia's Dilemma and the West's Response (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 2011), and served in the British Embassy in Moscow 1964–66, 1979–82 and 1995–2000, the last as Ambassador.