Until very recently the Kremlin dismissed the possibility that Washington might seriously reevaluate the format and style of its relations with Russia. At his extended press conference on January 31, Russian President Vladimir Putin ridiculed the “adversaries” who expressed doubt about Russia’s place in the G-8 because, “They are stuck in the previous century.” His confidence was based on a unique insight: “I know the mood of the G-8 leaders.” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, returning from an official visit to Washington last week, has to break some very unpleasant news to his boss: The prospects now look rather different from the picture so aptly described by Putin as: “The dog barks, the caravan rolls on.”
During Lavrov’s visit, the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force chaired by John Edwards and Jack Kemp released its report, “Russia’s Wrong Direction: What the U.S. Can and Should Do.” The report received extensive comment in the Russian media (Kommersant, March 9; Ekho Moskvy, March 12). Some newspapers added critical opinions of other experts (Izvestiya, March 9) and some noted that the Council on Foreign Relations was not exactly the think tank closest to the White House and that Ambassador Stephen Sestanovich, who directed the work, was a key figure in the Clinton administration (Vremya novostei, March 7), but some reports emphasized the clear link between the conclusions about Moscow advancing in the wrong direction and the criticism of Russia in the U.S. State Department’s report on human rights (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 10; Gazeta.ru, March 9). Meaningful parallels were drawn with Winston Churchill’s famous Fulton speech that marked the onset of the Cold War exactly 60 years ago (Ezhednevny zhurnal, March 9).
It might appear ironic, but the main thesis of the Task Force report — that the progressive curtailing of democracy in Russia leaves space only for limited and selective cooperation with the United States — is entirely compatible with the recent course of Russian foreign policy. Indeed, if Moscow wholeheartedly embraces Uzbekistan as a strategic ally after the Karimov regime brutally suppressed a popular uprising in Andijan and expelled the U.S. Karshi-Khanabad airbase, it follows that the Russia-U.S. “strategic partnership” is somewhat limited. The divergence between the Kremlin and the White House is now most apparent in the Middle East. Lavrov managed to provide U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with sufficient explanations about the motives for inviting the Palestinian Hamas delegation to Moscow and the content of the rather unproductive talks, but then he rushed to join Putin in Algeria where a $7.5 billion deal on selling Russian arms was finalized (Kommersant, March 11). The Edwards-Kemp Report singled out Iran as the most promising area for in-depth cooperation, but the start of discussions in the UN Security Council on its nuclear program has shown that Russia is resolutely against any sanctions, so this promise quite probably will also prove a disappointment (Newsru.com, March 10).
Emphasizing the readiness to challenge the opinions of Western partners, the Russian Foreign Ministry resolutely rejected the “double standards” in the latest State Department report on human rights (Lenta.ru, March 10). Lavrov even sought to pre-empt the attack from Washington with an article that outlined the fundamental differences in foreign policy philosophy, focusing on projects for advancing democracy and freedom in the world that were unacceptable for Moscow (Moskovskie novosti, March 3). These differences became even sharper in the programmatic speech of Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration and the chief “ideologist” in the Kremlin, who stressed the crucial importance of Russia’s “sovereignty,” understood as its ability to manage its own affairs and thus “politically synonymous with competitiveness” (Vedomosti, March 6).
Two things spoil the prospects for “selective cooperation” for Moscow. The first one is the fact that the privilege to chair the G-8 in 2006 was granted to Russia as a confirmation of its role of “strategic partner,” so the devaluation of this role logically leads to shrinking of this privilege. Moscow attaches enormous importance to organizing a perfect summit in St. Petersburg so even jokes by some British columnists about European guests demonstratively leaving the banquet table before the dessert is served can hit a raw nerve (Financial Times, March 10). The CFR Task Force, however, proposes something more serious: The revival of the G-7 format, which might be complemented by a wider group where Brazil, China, and India together with Russia could be full members (Gazeta.ru, March 9). Such a prospect would signify a devastating blow to Putin’s ambitions, particularly if U.S. President George W. Bush would indeed find a good reason to stay home in July, as an increasing number of experts advise.
The second problem with stepping back from partnership to cooperation is that the Russian political elite that appears so tightly united around Putin is in fact pursuing a variety of strategies of personal integration with the West (Kommersant, February 17). Surkov argued that the “off-shore aristocracy” could be transformed into a real nationally oriented elite, but his audience had plenty of reasons to worry for the safety of their private connections with Europe, as Russia retreats into a progressively more “selective” cooperation that increasingly resembles self-isolation (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 7).
One soothing message for the “patriotic” but intimately Westernized bureaucrats was Anatol Lieven’s article entitled “Do not condemn Putin out of hand” (Financial Times, February 28) reprinted in the pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya pravda (March 2). His insistence on giving the benefit of the doubt to Putin’s courtiers who “will move freely between the state and market sectors, and in the process will be handsomely rewarded” earned scornful condemnation from liberal Russian commentators (Grani.ru, March 6). What makes this kind of argument more convincing is that it is always so much easier not to take demanding steps that would require consistent follow-up, presuming that the ability of the West to influence Moscow is quite limited. It is in fact far greater than even the authors of the Task Force report admit, and Russia’s dependency upon the EU energy market provides more instruments for a pro-active policy. It is not too late for President Bush to take a new look in Putin’s eyes and re-evaluate the Russian leader’s intentions.