As the international community finds itself in a state of flux with the unprecedented global war on terror and the deepening crisis in Iraq, leading Moscow strategists are trying to define Russia’s relations with the West, and in particular with the United States. At two recent high profile Moscow gatherings – an annual session of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (SVOP) and a round-table discussion on U.S.-Russian relations organized by Nezavisimaya gazeta – the current status of interaction between Washington and Moscow was at the center of a vigorous policy debate. Although few Russian strategists dispute that Russia’s future lies in cooperation with, not isolation from, the United States, their perspectives on the terms of this cooperation vary significantly. But there was one common point argued by Moscow’s political pundits: In its attempts to find accommodation with America, Russia’s top priority should always be its own national interests.
A solid majority of the so-called “pragmatists” in the Russian foreign policy establishment appear to believe that good relations – and, still better, some sort of an alliance – with the sole global superpower are key to Russia’s continuing modernization. What seems to bother Russia’s analysts and policy makers most, however, is the unpleasant feeling that Moscow has clung to a relationship that it values more than does Washington. One participant in the SVOP meeting described the psychological predicament of Russia’s political class using a colorful analogy. “It’s like a woman in a civil union who says ‘I am married,’ while the man thinks, ‘I am not married.’ America is free to act as it wishes, and we think we’re married,” he said. “We’re playing the role of the naive wife.”
Two issues in particular appear to be acting as irritants in the U.S.-Russia relationship, most local analysts hold. The first is that, while it tries to shape cooperation with the United States, Russia is reluctant to perceive the war in Iraq as a part of the international struggle against terrorism. And second, the Kremlin is also rattled by America’s growing influence in post-Soviet Eurasia – a territory that Russians traditionally regard as their geopolitical backyard.
Russia’s attitude toward the U.S.-led operation in Iraq – as it was revealed in Moscow political discussions — is very ambiguous. In the opinion of Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov, America’s invasion of Iraq was a “grave mistake” that weakened the coalition and negatively affected bilateral U.S.-Russian relations. At the same time, the majority of political thinkers seem to agree with President Putin’s formula of a year ago that Russia does not want to see the United States defeated in Iraq.
This general position, however, can be interpreted in a number of ways. What exactly is meant by “not wanting the United States to be defeated?” asks Dmitry Trenin, a senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “Not actively harming the U.S. cause, but leaving it to dig itself out, as the war is not ‘our war?’ Or supporting the United States in the UN Security Council in return for its ‘understanding’ vis-à-vis Russian commercial interests?” So far, Russia’s stance on this issue remains murky. Furthermore, the view that Russia should be America’s partner in the war on terrorism is far from universal. For example, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, has energetically argued that al-Qaeda is not an enemy of Russia and that an alliance with the United States can only bring trouble.
Another sphere where Russia and America don’t see eye to eye is the post-Soviet space. Most commentators suggest there will be tough competition between Moscow and Washington for influence in the CIS where the United States – as some analysts suspect – is seeking to transform its military presence in countries like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Ukraine into economic ties. There are at least two reasons why Moscow has to assert its position in the CIS much more aggressively, Russian strategists say. First, Russia has too few allies to carelessly ignore attempts to squeeze it out of its vital security zone. And second, the CIS is the principal export market for Russian goods. As Trubnikov put it, “we are against the presence [in the post-Soviet space] of the out-of-region countries irrespective of whether it’s the United States, China or some other state. [The CIS] is a sphere of our vital interests… There’s a line that should not be crossed.”
The general attitude of Russia’s security and foreign policy community was neatly encapsulated in a thesis advanced by one analyst who suggested Russia should be more assertive in defending its “national interests.” “The policy we need is not ‘America first,’ but ‘Russia first,'” he said (The Moscow Times, April 19, 30, Novaya gazeta, April 29, Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 19, May 12).