Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 1

By Peter Rutland

President Bush came to Moscow, President Bush left. There were no surprises, no open conflicts, and thankfully no gaffes. The goal of the American visitors was to show the flag, to indicate by the president’s physical presence that Russia still matters for the United States. The goal on the Russian side was to prove that President Putin’s radical policy of integration with the West is paying dividends. Bush may have scored with his domestic audience, but the modest set of signed agreements only underlined just how shallow Washington’s commitment to Moscow is.

The agreement to cut nuclear delivery systems to below 2,200 per side produced neither relief nor trepidation, and Putin pointedly noted that Russia still believed that there should have been agreement on the destruction of disarmed weapons. The “NATO at 20” concept was overshadowed by front-page coverage, on the day of Bush’s arrival, of an announcement by Ukraine’s national security adviser that Kyiv is ready to join NATO. There was no concrete progress to report in lifting the Jackson-Vanik amendment on emigration policy nor in recognizing Russia as a market economy, two steps that would help promote U.S.-Russian trade. (Let alone Russian entry into the World Trade Organization, something that Putin set as a priority for 2002, but which is now quietly fading from view.)


But no news is good news in this case. It is important to recall the quite dramatic fluctuations that have occurred in Russian-American relations over the past few years. Both Russians and Americans were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Bill ‘n Boris partnership of the mid-1990s, the primary purpose of which seemed to be boosting the egos of the respective presidents. Then came the financial cataclysm of August 1998, an event which among other things wiped out the savings of most of Russia’s nascent middle class. Rightly or wrongly, for Russians that crisis had “made in the USA” written all over it. Shortly thereafter came the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, launched without any pretence at consultation with Moscow and followed by a surge of interest in Russian Mafia stories (remember the Bank of New York scandal?).

A year later, the incoming Bush administration made clear its intention to downgrade the status of Russia to that of a mid-ranking country. In an interview with Le Figaro, Condoleezza Rice even suggested that Russia was still considered a threat. It was five months before Bush personally met Putin, in Slovenia, long after European leaders had taken measure of the new man in the Kremlin. But when the two men did finally meet, the personal chemistry was positive, and U.S. policy began to thaw.


When Putin came to power, it was reasonable to assume that the KGB veteran would revert to the anti-Western policies of the Primakov administration. Yet this did not happen.

Putin has consistently pursued a policy of cooperation with Europe and the United States, making a stream of hitherto unimaginable concessions. Extend NATO to include the Baltics? No problem. Station American troops in Central Asia to wage war in Afghanistan? Fine. Unilateral American withdrawal from the ABM treaty? That is “no threat to Russian security,” said Putin. American special forces in Georgia? “No tragedy,” says the Russian president. These concessions began before September 11, and accelerated in response to the tragedy.

One after another, Putin gave up longstanding Russian strategic positions, issues of principle that had been considered lines in the sand even for the Yeltsin administration. No one I have talked to in St. Petersburg or Moscow has satisfactorily explained to me why Putin is doing this. He is certainly not acting under pressure from domestic constituencies. Quite the opposite: It is hard to find anyone in the Russian foreign policy establishment who agrees with Putin’s actions–and opinion polls show the public at large is equally skeptical.

Conservatives, from communists to military generals, consider his actions to be treason, and openly say so. Even Russian liberals such as Duma deputy Aleksei Arbatov or Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky feel that Russia’s dramatic guestures–and supporting the war against terror with intelligence-sharing and airpower access–have gone unrequited.

Russian liberals are still operating in the mindset of the detente era (which is when most of them cut their teeth as analysts). In detente, linkage was key: Cooperation was built through mutual concessions. Putin has somehow intuitively grasped that linkage is over, that in the post-Cold War world economic ties and political alliances (what Joseph Nye has called “soft power”) matter more than main battle tanks and nuclear missiles (“hard power”). In this new world, national interests have to be pursued through diffuse means, by the nation integrating and adopting prevailing political and economic norms.

Perhaps this is why Putin dragged the Bushes through a crash course in Russian high culture during their visit to St Petersburg, abandoning power politics for cultural one-upmanship. (The nightly news on NTV showed Putin’s surprised look when Bush took out his chewing gum while marveling at the decorations in the Kremlin.)

Yet Putin is alone in embracing this global vision: It is almost impossible to find anyone in the Russian commentariat who espouses such a sophisticated interpretation of Russian national interests. Even liberal, Westernized analysts still look at the world in geopolitical terms. They see Russia’s influence resting on its nuclear arsenal and status as an ex-superpower, and its capacity to project power in the “near abroad.” They are, in other words, oriented towards the past rather than the future.

This yawning gap between Putin and the foreign policy establishment leads to the interesting question of where on earth Putin’s ideas came from. It cannot be pure intuition, and it goes beyond simple pragmatism. Maybe he has been secretly reading the Economist all these years. Maybe there is a small, invisible team of long-term strategists who accompanied him from the KGB to the Kremlin. Maybe pursuing a pro-Western policy was another one of the secret conditions that Yeltsin laid down when he appointed Putin president. Russians have always been fond of conspiracy theories, especially when there is an anti-Semitic tinge–in this case provided by the figure of Boris Berezovsky, who played a shadowy role in Putin’s rise to power.

More seriously, from Putin’s memoirs one can see that the pivotal event in his political maturation was the experience of calling for help from the Soviet Army when his KGB office was besieged by an angry crowd in Dresden in November 1989. He was told that they had no orders to act (“Moscow is silent”)–a visceral lesson in the limits of military power.

A second question that arises is how long can Putin keep up his political levitation act–floating above the prevailing opinions in Russian society, without any visible means of support. Increasingly one hears hints of a comparison with Gorbachev, another innovative leader who got too far ahead of his country, and paid the price. For the time being, Putin’s grip on power is secure. Although they do not share his equanimity about Washington’s strategic intentions, ordinary Russians continue to express their trust in Putin, and seem content to delegate foreign policy making to him. Putin has skillfully boxed in right and left forces in the parliament, and has the media under his control. There is no political figure on the horizon who can mount a credible challenge to his authority.

But the past decade has shown that Russian politics is full of surprises. (As Yavlinsky has said, “Anyone who tries to predict what will happen in Russia is an idiot.”) Things could change quickly in the event of a military setback in Chechnya (something that looks increasingly unlikely), or another financial crisis (something that looks all too possible).

This view of Putin as an embattled, pro-Western leader is not widely shared in the United States. If it were, we would not waste time lecturing Putin on how Russia should manage its TV channels or the sanitary inspections of imports of American chicken parts. The Russian-American relationship is changing, to be sure, and changing for the better. But managing change is a challenge for both sides. It behoves Americans to pay a lot more attention to what Russians are saying and thinking, to get ahead of the curve and forestall any unpleasant surprises down the road.

Peter Rutland is a political scientist at Wesleyan University.