As President George W. Bush reshuffles his cabinet, Moscow political elites are discussing what kind of changes in policy, personnel, and cooperation can be expected during his second term. The nomination of Condoleezza Rice as U.S. Secretary of State has been interpreted by the bulk of Russia’s political class as a signal that there will be no significant shift in relations between Washington and Moscow. But while the majority of Russian politicians and analysts do not envision major changes in Russia-U.S. relations, some experts warn about possible conflicts of interest in the former Soviet lands, arguing it would be unrealistic to expect that relations in the next few years will simply be business as usual.
Most Russian policymakers reacted calmly to Colin Powell’s exit and his replacement with Rice, Bush’s national security adviser in his first term. Rice, a trained Russia specialist who played a key role in defining Washington’s strategy toward Moscow as Bush’s top foreign policy advisor, is a familiar face among the Kremlin officials. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who would be Rice’s Russian counterpart, said Russia is ready to work with the new U.S. Secretary of State. “Condoleezza Rice is an experienced politician, and she is up to date on all issues regarding U.S. foreign policies in her capacity as national security adviser to the U.S. president,” he said on a visit to Lisbon. “We are looking forward to cooperating with her” (Itar-Tass, November 16).
In the opinion of Russia’s two top lawmakers, Moscow should not expect any surprises with Rice in her new post. “Foreign policy will remain a 100% the same,” Konstantin Kosachev, head of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, commented when asked about her nomination. His colleague from the Russian parliament’s upper chamber agrees. “It has to be remembered that foreign policy during President Bush’s first term was conducted with Rice’s active participation,” notes Mikhail Margelov, head of the Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee (Interfax, November 16).
Most members of Moscow’s analytic community generally share this assessment. “Replacing Powell with Rice would not lead to any significant changes,” argues Ivan Safranchuk, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information. “The policy would only change if the president had changed” (Moscow Times, November 18).
Remarkably, a senior U.S. diplomat was quick to confirm that Bush policies toward Russia would remain basically unchanged. “I don’t foresee any fundamental changes,” U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow said in an exclusive interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta, adding that the main outlines of American foreign policy would be defined by President Bush himself (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 18).
As many international and local observers noted, Bush’s re-election delighted the Kremlin, because most Russian strategists appear to believe that U.S. Republicans form their foreign policy goals on the basis of national interests rather than values and are consequently less likely to be critical of Russian domestic affairs. But some Moscow foreign policy experts argue that this assumption may well prove flawed. First, they say, Bush won the tight presidential race mainly due to his strong advocacy of a specific value system.
In terms of his foreign policy approach, the American president is probably more an idealist than a traditional champion of Realpolitik. Significantly, Ambassador Vershbow has repeatedly stressed, including in his latest interview, the importance of Moscow and Washington sharing common values in order to have a true strategic partnership. Furthermore, the Bush administration’s reluctance to openly criticize Putin’s backsliding on democracy may turn out to be an illusory boon for Russia. As Dmitry Suslov, an analyst at Russia’s Council of Foreign and Defense Policy, pointed out, “The less the U.S. raises the issue of democracy in Russia, the less it values Russia [as a partner]” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 15).
Second, Russian and U.S. national interests may diverge too: geostrategically, there are potentially strong tensions inherent in the coexistence of U.S. and Russian power in places like the Caucasus and Central Asia. Many Russian pundits see the presidential election in Ukraine as a geopolitical tug-of-war between Moscow and Washington. Margelov also concedes that there are other contentious issues: they include “the transit of Caspian oil, the inclusion of post-Soviet countries in NATO’s orbit, and a rivalry for influence in other former Soviet republics” (Moscow Times, November 18).
In addition, as some other Russian analysts point out, the Iraq war confirmed that the United States increasingly sees special value in the so-called “new” allies and partners — both inside and outside NATO. Most of these countries — such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states, as well as some CIS countries — are wary of Russia’s geopolitical designs. While the East European countries of the former Soviet bloc have already escaped to the protective umbrella of the Atlantic Alliance, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan would like the United States to counterbalance Russia in the post-Soviet space, notes Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director at the USA and Canada Institute.
Thus, Moscow is probably making a mistake by feeling “too euphoric” about the Bush re-election, Kremenyuk says. “It’s impossible to enter the same river twice” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 15).