We are clearly in the midst of a serious and polarizing debate over the nature of U.S. policy toward Russia. On one side are those who hold that Western liberal democratic ideals are universally applicable, hence the U.S. government must try to bind Russia’s post-Communist government to those ideals. They believe that this is the only way U.S.-Russian relations can remain stable and mutually beneficial over time, and that such an approach is as good for Russia itself as it is for U.S. relations with Russia.
On the other side are those who think the avid promotion of liberal democracy in Russia in current circumstances is a fool’s errand. Not only is such an effort unlikely to succeed, but the United States can have both good and productive relations with Russia in its absence. Insofar as our present relations with Russia are disturbed, they contend, it is largely because we are trying to foist our own political principles on people who clearly reject them. If we can believe the polls, they point out, the Russian government today, as different as it is from ours, enjoys far more public support than does our own.
These pages have featured exemplary illustrations of both views: Allen Lynch’s essay in the Holidays (November/December) 2006 issue, “What Russia Can Be”, and Michael McFaul’s ruminations on it (and more) just above. As ought to be clear by now, this is no ordinary argument between idealists and realists. Nor is it merely an academic issue, but a debate with serious consequences for policy. For promoters of democracy, Vladimir Putin is destroying the political decency of liberal democracy and restoring a familiar authoritarian Russian monster. For skeptics, Putin is perhaps the only barrier to an anarchical state of nature. To the former, Putin is destroying what remains of liberal institutions and hastening the coming of a new dark age. To the latter, Putin is reviving the tattered remains of the Russian state in order to fend off the chaos that otherwise awaits the nation. Thus our dilemma: If we neglect to promote liberal democracy in Russia to the extent that such a thing is feasible, then we miss an historic opportunity, and the long-standing antagonism between us will go on and on. If we try to promote democracy and it goes awry, then we get blamed, our relations deteriorate accordingly, and the antagonism perhaps worsens.
Not all policy challenges are structured this starkly, thank heaven, but those that are give particular pause to senior decision-makers. The resultant policy instinct, quite naturally, is to avoid a clear choice, differentiate as necessary between what is said in public and what is said in private, and hope for the best. Of course, the internal deliberations of the Bush Administration are not open to scrutiny, so we can only guess at how the basic dilemma of dealing with Russia has been handled—from George Bush’s seeing into Vladimir Putin’s soul to Colin Powell’s January 2004 broadside on the front page of Izvestiia, to the fallout over the Yukos affair to the truculent but subdued conflicts over Iran sanctions. And presumably beyond, for we do know that fairly senior officials in different parts of the government—National Security Council, State Department, Defense Department, the intelligence community—are still locked in vigorous argument that tends to boil up as noteworthy events like the Litvinenko murder transpire.
We understand the stakes of this debate and the inherent uncertainties that comprise it, but we believe firmly that basic and widespread American misunderstandings about Russia currently threaten U.S. national interests. Our view, like that of Allen Lynch, is that we are letting an impractical quest for American ideals stand in the way of American interests. We are sacrificing our real interests to an ideological illusion, the dream of an American-style democracy in a country whose past and present are very different from our own.
Evidence of this illusion is manifest in several official and semi-official American documents: the September 2002 National Security Strategy document, the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and the Council on Foreign Relations’ 2006 study, Russia’s Wrong Direction. In the characteristic words of the first of these documents, “Strengthening our relationship [with Russia] will depend on the policies, foreign and domestic, that Russia adopts. Recent trends regrettably point toward a diminishing commitment to democratic freedoms and institutions.” More ironic was the statement of then-National Intelligence Director John Negroponte before Congress last February: “Moscow’s desire to demonstrate its independence and defend its own interests may make it harder to cooperate with Russia on areas of concern to the United States.” As if Russia is not entitled to independence, or the defense of its interests.
The same illusion is evident in Michael McFaul’s comments on Allen Lynch’s essay. McFaul alternates between confining liberalism to economic policy and confusing liberalism and democracy in general. More fundamentally, he slights the role of Russian tradition and that of public institutions in reform and governance. The issue here is not one of abstract justice or social science theory; it is a question of the interaction of government and Russian tradition and attitudes, that is, public opinion (which is, after all, the essence of democracy). While the Putin regime admittedly grows more illiberal, it is not in the Russian tradition undemocratic, because the Russian tradition is not liberal. Consider in more detail what democracy means in the two countries.
The U.S. Constitution relies on liberalism to inhibit democracy. In the classical political theory of The Federalist, no form of government is more dangerous to institutions of freedom than unqualified democracy, the unbridled writ of a popular majority. Hence, we have an emphatically qualified democracy, a liberal democracy: separation of powers, a robust federalism and a Bill of Rights protected from popular passions.
Russian political conceptions are altogether different. In Russia, democracy has inhibited liberalism. Russian democracy is a serious force. It was for centuries the decisive norm in village government, and it has occasionally figured on the national level: the soviets of 1905 and 1917, the Dumas of 1906 and 1993, and Gorbachev’s Congress of People’s Deputies (1989–91). Unlike Americans, however, Russians conceive democracy to be authoritarian, orderly, egalitarian, populist and massively consensual. The result is that genuinely liberal parties have appeared transiently in Russia only twice, in 1906 and in 1991. In the first case, the Octobrists drew about 2 to 3 percent of the vote. At present the similar parties, Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces, draw in elections and opinion polls alike 1 to 2 percent of the vote. Russian liberalism remains predictably and stably anemic.
The Russian experience of the immediate post-Soviet era has only reinforced negative attitudes toward liberalism, especially economic liberalism. When a free-market economy was introduced in Russia in Wild East fashion in the 1990s, it exemplified a riot of anarchical liberties: Solzhenitsyn suggested a Hobbesian state of nature. The most obvious example was the shock-therapy approach to privatization. In theory, reforms would replace the command economy with market institutions and submit the state budget to the bracing discipline of global capital mobility. Economic growth, transparency and innovation would presumably follow.
The program’s fatal flaw was the assumption of its sponsors that strong civil institutions—honest courts and prosecutors, effective police, an investigative press and the social trust necessary to guard the integrity of private transactions—would somehow arise spontaneously simply because they were needed. But centuries of privation and misrule have left such institutions in Russia too weak and capricious to arise so quickly. Most Russians think of them as instruments of private exploitation rather than as guarantors of civil liberty. Without effective economic institutions, shock privatization therapy became the instrument for a massive embezzlement of the country’s riches. The same institutions that serve as guardians of the public interest in America served to despoil it in Russia.
The Russian encounter with decentralized liberal government proved similarly stressful, as whole provinces of the country fell under the sway of local gangster-potentates—the notorious oligarchs—who defied Moscow’s writ with impunity. This was, of course, deeply distressing to most Russians. Whether they have a greater tolerance for arbitrary power than other people is debatable; what is not in doubt is that Russians have a well-founded and enduring fear of disorder. The word besporyadok (disorder) is in Russian idiom a highly emotional term. It resonates deeply with a people who have known the appalling slaughter of World War I, the civil war, the famine of 1921–22, the demographic trauma of collectivization, the famine of 1932–33, the Stalinist purges and the Gulag, World War II, the famine of 1946–47, and the profound social upheavals of the last two decades. Russian history has been an experience of stoic accommodation to grim conditions punctuated every so often by dramatic trials of Herculean proportions. Where outsiders raised in comfort and security see opportunity in reform, Russians perceive a threat to their tenuous stability and security.
Russians of our generation have had more than their share of revolutionary surprises in recent years. Putin promises normalcy, and that’s precisely what they want. What the Council on Foreign Relations depicts as a stifling of dissent is understood by many Russians as insurance against turmoil. Russians want fewer choices, less confusing conflicts among political platforms, a managed and moderated pluralism, less challenging and more reassuring television, and suppression of the kleptomaniacal oligarchs who grew rich at public expense. They are indifferent to the possibility that de-privatization suggests a slippery slope of diminished property rights. The strong power of the state is the only source of stability they know. If neglecting civil liberties is the price the public must pay for social order, they will pay it at least as long as the state does not impose the kind of mindless conformity and massive terror that blighted the Soviet period.
In the United States many perceive Putin as conspiring against Russian freedoms; in Russia most see his growing authority as providing freedom from the caprices of excessively powerful private citizens. In other words, Russians have found more freedom in the authority of strengthening central government than they found in the anarchy of the 1990s. Illiberalism in Russia reflects the democratic expression of the popular will. Putin is satisfying popular demand. That is why, as a Russian journalist told one of us recently, the Russians think they now have “the most democratic government in their history.”
This is hard for Americans not tutored in Russian history and culture to understand. And if it also puzzles us why Russians are so suspicious of us these days, we must remember that the ugly Muscovite misadventures of the 1990s took place largely under American tutelage. We were the most obvious alternative model to the Soviet paradigm, and we supplied massive amounts of counsel and expertise, along with an impressive amount of financial aid. Russians associate these experiences with our inspiration, with the idea of imitating the American model. As they see it, a tacit partnership with the United States begun by Mikhail Gorbachev evolved under Boris Yeltsin into something that amounted to American suzerainty over important sectors of Russian society and its economy. Foreign advisers and international institutions dictated economic and legal policy as the public grew increasingly miserable, and as the notorious oligarchs grew obscenely wealthy. Reformers in the Russian government fed at the public trough, and some of their foreign advisers succumbed to the temptation, as well.
Of course, most of what went wrong did so not because anyone intended it; quite the opposite. To take one example of hundreds, in 1995 a team of American law professors, worried about conflicts of interest and inexperienced judges in post-Soviet Russia, wrote a corporations law that inadvertently became a means for engineering squeeze-outs of politically unfavored stakeholders, including foreign investors. This was the law used in the deprivatization of Yukos, for example.
The now notorious accumulation of scandal and tragedy has been perceived in the West, not unjustly, as well-intended reform gone unhappily awry. But to many Russians it is perceived as a reform precisely on target, a deliberate plot to ruin Russia. This interpretation of events, of course, accords with a thick residue of relentless Soviet-era propaganda, but even without the propaganda Russians have not been generally disposed to trust American motives. Nor do they regard as democratic or admirable our history of racial discrimination, the capricious nature of free-enterprise capitalism and the large underclass that it passes by. According to the wisdom of the street in Russia today, “There is too much freedom in America and too little security” (would the French disagree?); and, “All that Marx taught us about communism was wrong, but all he taught us about capitalism was right.”
Against this background, policies that seem so offensive to many in the United States are welcomed as just, appropriate and, yes, democratic in Russia. This background also makes anti-American rhetoric and body language in the Kremlin, which seems like so much ingratitude here, play so well as psychological vindication there. So, for example, Putin has purged the press lords Gusinsky and Berezovsky and the oil magnate Khodorkovsky. Judicial independence and due process are, of course, deeply suspect in these cases, and hence American opinion finds the procedure to be undemocratic. But only 8 percent of the Russian public regards the Yukos process as undemocratic, and both Gorbachev and Solzhenitsyn agree with the majority. So what prompts our distress elicits their satisfaction, and the irony is grounded in the perfectly natural different experience of the two peoples.
Another common American complaint is that Putin has subverted federal authority in the provinces. It’s true: He has brought the selection of governors largely under his own control, putting an end to renegade oligarchical plunder and corruption. The American complaint that Putin has increased the power of the police and security apparatus is also true: After Budennovsk (1995), Beslan (2004) and Nalchik (2005), Russians are not demanding a Bill of Rights, but better police and border protection. Putin is giving them what they are asking for.
His critics say that Putin has destroyed freedom of expression. He has limited it, yes, but the Russian multimedia giants of the 1990s were semi-monopolies, feeding from the public trough for the most part, yet pursuing their own political agendas at the same time. They embodied the worst excesses of yellow journalism, not reflective deliberation. Again, few Russians are complaining. Recent limitations on free expression are popular: Putin was re-elected by a 70 percent majority, and polls show that Russians favor some state censorship of the press by a similar majority.
It’s also worth noting that while the Russian intelligentsia reads the newspaper press, the broad public watches and learns from television. A substantial part of the Russian press is elitist, liberal and hostile to Putin (though no longer uniformly so), while the public is conservative, illiberal and supportive of Putin. Hence an important aspect of the limitation on criticism of the government in Russia is not censorship but public taste. In Russia the public is both less liberal and more democratic than the press. Americans ought to be able to comprehend this circumstance, as it is not wildly different from our own.
If we consider the arena in which our interests engage with the Russian government most directly, foreign affairs, McFaul commits the typically American mistake of imagining that a policy that is good for American interests must be perceived abroad as good for other nations as well. “A democrat in the Kremlin administration”, he writes, “would have celebrated the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.” In fact, the Orange Revolution portended for a time, until Putin and Yanukovych overturned it, an early Ukrainian move into the ranks of NATO, thus aggravating the Russian alienation from the West already realized in the loss both of its Warsaw Pact allies and the Soviet Baltic republics. McFaul similarly imagines that the expulsion of the U.S. military from Uzbekistan is contrary to Russian interests, but what is Russia’s aim in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China and Central Asia) if not to fortify its traditional influence in Central Asia at the expense of the naturally remote and alien Americans?
While most Americans tend to see U.S. foreign policy as based on principle, it appears to many on the receiving end to be old-fashioned Realpolitik. Russians almost unanimously perceive U.S. policy as hostile to basic Russian interests. Instead of seeing to the consolidation of democracy in the former Soviet space—which is what we and our European Union allies think we’ve been doing since December 1991—Russians see an effort to weaken and isolate Russia. NATO’s incorporation of nearly all constituents of the Warsaw Pact, the admission of these powers into the EU, and the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine are all of a piece to most Russians. NATO’s joint military exercises in Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan reinforce Russian perceptions. In disputes in the Caucasus, we have sent the CIA and the U.S. Army to support Georgian defiance of Moscow, and in the issues of the oil pipelines there we have supported non-Russian routes. Georgia and Moldova, two economic basket cases long locked in conflict with Russia, have enjoyed membership in the WTO for years while Russia still waits, hat in hand. American-sponsored NGOs in Russia, as agents of liberalism, are naturally perceived as hostile to Russian interests. Solzhenitsyn himself speaks of the encirclement of Russia and accuses us of trying to deprive Russia of its sovereignty, a concern so widespread that Russia is prepared to snuggle close even to the ugliness of Belarus (when not contending over gas prices) to gain leverage against further NATO expansion.
The Russians are acutely conscious that the dismantling of the Soviet totalitarian apparatus has hardly brought them a warm welcome into the Western community of nations. On the contrary, as the Russians have given up the ugly instruments of their former strength, we have exploited the new condition of their weakness. In the face of such a perception, the whole history of international affairs suggests the utter naturalness of Russian efforts to restore their position in their historical sphere of influence. In any event, the presumptions of American foreign policy are driving even Russian liberals to Putin’s side, and the public is genuinely—and quite democratically—angry with us.
If Russians in such a state of mind go looking for sub rosa intrigue, it isn’t hard for them to find facts that seem to confirm it. The first lady of Ukraine, Ekateryna Chumachenko, born of émigré parents in Chicago, educated at the University of Chicago and Georgetown University, is an American citizen and former employee of the State Department and the White House. Mikhail Saakashvili, elected president of Georgia in January 2004, is a protégé of George Soros, studied law in the United States, and was employed for a time by a New York law firm. They are both innocent of calumny, but it takes more than mere truth to get Ivan Ivanovich to quell his suspicions.
What are the real U.S. interests in Russia? They are simple and unmistakable, and two in particular are critical: cooperation on nuclear non-proliferation and the monitoring and suppression of terrorism.
On these two issues, the U.S. government needs all the help it can get, and scarcely any other nation is so capable of providing it as Russia. The Russians could and would help, even more than they are already, were it not for a familiar problem standing in the way: ideology. Yes, in the Soviet era the chief agent of discord between Washington and the Kremlin was ideology. It still is, but the ideological animus has changed sides, especially as the Bush Administration has moved ever further into the all-encompassing ambit of its second-term freedom agenda. We are the ideologues now: Bourgeois democrats of all countries, unite!
And yet when the U.S. government is not attacking Russian political practice, it is eagerly soliciting its assistance in issues beyond the easy reach of U.S. strength. How, both of us have been asked by Russian interlocutors, can the United States so vigorously criticize Putin’s domestic politics while simultaneously soliciting his cooperation in matters of vital U.S. interest—Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, say? Where else in the course of a civilized and realistic diplomacy does a party seek the help of another while simultaneously holding it up to public opprobium?
As George Kennan once pointed out (and as Allen Lynch reminded us), good U.S. relations with Russia depend on the Russian surrender of three things that have traditionally disturbed Americans: messianic ideology, totalitarianism, and imperial dominion over subject peoples. Kennan’s triad has now been satisfied. This was clear enough to Kennan by the hundredth and last year of his life. As he well understood, the Russians are going to do government their own way. It is beyond America’s capacity to do much about it, except to poison their regard for the United States and its interests in the attempt. Enough of the impediments of ideology. Let us look to our interests. ?