Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 111

Two events — the upcoming U.S. presidential election and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement of his controversial “reform measures” — appear to have intensified discussions about the current state and possible evolution of Russian-American relations. One group of politicians and pundits in Moscow and Washington urge getting past the unrealistic democratic expectations for Russia and concentrate on the two countries’ common interests. But the other side argues that the difference in basic values and Russia’s intent to preserve authoritarian and subservient regimes in the “near abroad” will likely undermine the prospects for U.S.-Russian cooperation.

On October 13 the Gazeta.ru political website organized a wide-ranging online interview with the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Vershbow. The conversation neatly reflected the multiple ambiguities of the Russian-American relationship. Being an experienced diplomat, Vershbow put a special emphasis on the need to overcome what he generously calls “the remaining elements of mistrust” between Moscow and Washington and suggested the two countries join efforts to confront the formidable challenges of the new century, such as international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and infectious diseases. But in the U.S. ambassador’s cautious answers one can easily perceive the American government’s concerns regarding today’s Russia: the country’s backsliding on democracy, the Kremlin’s attempts at over-centralization at home, and its heavy-handed policies in the post-Soviet lands (Gazeta.ru, October 13). Are the two countries, whose ideological foundations significantly differ, capable of building lasting and mutually beneficial cooperation?

One school of thought in both countries contends that in the contemporary world Moscow and Washington simply do not have any other choice but to cooperate. Ideal partners simply do not exist in international affairs. After all, the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin clearly didn’t share FDR’s or Churchill’s political ideals, but with his help the Western democracies crushed Nazism. “Whether the United States likes it or not, Russia is an essential partner in any international coalition efforts to defeat al-Qaeda,” argue Andrew Kuchins and Dmitry Trenin, political scientists at the Carnegie Moscow Center (Moscow Times, September 24).

In the opinion of Dimitri Simes of the Nixon Center, President George W. Bush staunchly believes that “the strategic partnership with Russia is in America’s strategic interests” and he continues to regard Putin as a “serious and reliable partner.” The Bush administration, according to Simes, does not view the recent centralizing moves Putin made in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Russia as an “insurmountable obstacle” for the development of bilateral relations. In an interview with Gazeta, Simes lashed out at the group of Western politicians and analysts who had recently signed an open letter criticizing Putin’s domestic and foreign policies. It is an “indecent campaign,” he says, unleashed by a “coalition of neoconservatives, liberal interventionists, and plain Russophobes” who want to force the Bush administration to “give up the partnership with Russia” (Gazeta, October 4).

Significantly, some Russian and American commentators suggest the United States and the West should thoroughly revise their understanding of Russia’s political trajectory and give up the illusion of Russia’s possible democratic development. What is usually perceived as Putin’s anti-democratic proclivities, they argue, may well be his indifference to democracy; a reluctance to see its importance or a belief that it is impractical under the current conditions in Russia. According to Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst, American and European politicians tend to misinterpret Putin’s governance. The Russian president, in Markov’s words, is uninterested in political theories and values only practical results. “Putin thinks that political institutions can be useful for Russia only if they work,” he told RFE/RL. “And sometimes, because Russia has a weak civil society and weak government institutions, not all democratic institutions work. So, Vladimir Putin prefers to use democratic institutions when they work and to use other institutions when democratic institutions don’t work,” Markov noted (RFE/RL, September 30).

Other Russian commentators take the argument even further, contending that the “democratic scenario of development” has miserably failed in Russia. In the opinion of veteran political analyst Vitaly Tretyakov, “A purely democratic method of dealing with Russia’s problems and challenges has, alas, proved to be inefficient — and not just theoretically but empirically.” Thus, there was an urgent need for a policy shift — a need met by Putin’s reform plan focused on more centralization and state control. The true meaning of the Kremlin-sponsored reforms is that “Russia has abandoned the Western scenario of development and opted for the Chinese one,” Tretyakov wrote in a commentary published in Rossiiskaya gazeta (September 16).

But Washington successfully maintains mutually beneficial cooperation with China, Tretyakov and other like-minded analysts in Russia and America point out. So, the United States has to accept the situation in Russia and reconcile itself with the fact that the country has chosen its own path of development with a leader who enjoys genuine popular support. Moscow and Washington would do better if they focus on what unites them: in particular, the need “to collectively confront international terrorism and secure a long-term energy relationship” (Washington Times, October 12).

Not everyone seems to agree with this argument. An authoritarian Russia, the other group of analysts points out, will likely prevent the democratic development of its neighbors by trying to impose its will on the weak, undemocratic, and subservient regimes it would prop up along its borders. Such a policy might increase the potential for instability in post-Soviet Eurasia, which is definitely not in U.S. strategic interests. As examples, Ambassador Vershbow specifically stressed that the status quo in Trans-Dniester, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia is unsustainable. However, the Kremlin insists that the conflicts in those separatist enclaves should remain “frozen.” The growing inability to accommodate their interests in the post-Soviet space will further drive Moscow and Washington apart, some experts say. According to one pessimistic opinion, “Today, Russian-American relations have already degenerated into the struggle for third countries [within the CIS]; there is nothing else left” (Rossiiskie vesti, October 7).