Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 28

Clearly, the recent democratic transitions in Georgia and Ukraine have put the U.S.-Russia relationship under strain. The crucial factor in U.S.-Russia relations may now be the future evolution of the political system inside Russia. Thus far, the Bush administration has tended to turn a blind eye toward Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rollback of democracy, on the grounds that the strategic interests of the United States in coping with terrorism and nuclear weapons proliferation override concerns over the level of democracy in Russia.

These were some of the points to emerge at the annual conference of the Project on New Approaches to Russian Security (PONARS) that took place at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC on February 4. The discussions were off the record, although the papers are available on the Internet (csis.org/ruseura/ponars/policymemos/pm_index.cfm). For PONARS discussion on domestic issues, see EDM, February 7).

In her paper for the conference, Sarah Mendelson argued that the stability of U.S.-Russia relations is in a deplorable state of affairs, and that there is potential for the United States to influence the course of Russian political evolution by supporting organizations that work among the one-third of the population that adhere to democratic values.

James Richter from Bates College cheekily offered a psycho-biographical explanation for the good relations between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. He suggested that both men are focused on order and discipline, and that their personal biographies reflect a commitment to those values, after a period of wayward youth (a little more prolonged in the case of Bush than Putin). Correspondingly, Richter wrote in his policy memorandum, “These men reject the so-called postmodern diplomacy of the European Union, they distrust the constraints of multilateral institutions and use them only to pursue more narrow purposes.”

Despite all the rhetoric about strengthening the Russian state, Vladimir Popov from the New Economics School in Moscow argued that Russia’s actual state capacity continues to erode under Putin, as measured by objective indicators such as murder rates, corruption levels, and federal tax receipts as a share of GDP. Another commentator noted that Russian state capacity is now a global security issue: What if the terrorists who succeeded in capturing the school in Beslan had gone after a nuclear plant? The Beslan siege also struck directly at Putin’s claim to be the protector of Russia’s citizens. Ekaterina Stepanova, from the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, noted that the Beslan terrorists fused together two previously separate terrorist tactics — hostage taking and suicide bombing. A similar pattern was seen on 9/11, when aircraft hijacking was combined with a suicide mission.

Regretting the recent drifting apart between Russia and the United States, Vyacheslav Morozov of St. Petersburg State University argued that the concept of “Europe,” a powerful symbol for Russians, is now being redefined to exclude Russia as a place where there is no democracy, where European values do not hold sway. “Europe” is now being used as an either/or concept with no middle ground. This “separates the countries moving steadily towards democracy from their unfortunate neighbors who are destined for a miserable and hopeless existence under authoritarian regimes.” In the 1990s Russia was allowed to exist in an ambiguous position, developing special partner relationships with NATO and the European Union. That era is now over, and Morozov regrets the shift, not least because it undermines the already embattled minority of Russian liberals. He also regretted the tendency to conflate the concept of democracy with the West, though he did not provide any examples of how to escape this juxtaposition.

Stanford University’s Pavel Podvig reminded the gathering that there is still unfinished business from the Cold War for the two sides to address, such as the risk of accidental missile launches, due to the fact that each side still maintains some sort of launch-on-warning capacity. On the other hand, Alexander Pikayev of the Carnegie Moscow Center suggested that Russia and the United States have a very different stake in issues like nuclear proliferation. He suggested that for Washington, stopping countries from acquiring nuclear weapons is connected to a broader agenda of power projection. Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) “proliferation could serve Russia’s declared objective of facilitating the emergence of a multipolar world.”

One former U.S. official provocatively argued that there is no point discussing the state of U.S.-Russia relations, since Washington no longer has a Russia policy per se. It just has a set of global policies towards terrorism, WMD etc. that affect Russia in certain ways. This disjuncture became glaringly apparent in Ukraine last December, where the U.S. strategy of supporting democracy struck at what Moscow regards as Russia’s strategic core. The United States did not intend to challenge Russian interests, but that was undoubtedly the effect. Moscow is living in the past and refuses to accept the reality of its asymmetric relationship with Washington. Hence the real question should be what sort of role does Russia want to play in the world, and not the state of Russia-U.S. relations.

In response, another current U.S. official suggested that it is premature to write-off Russia as a country of importance to the United States. Russian power is now on the rise, after eroding for a decade, while U.S. power is likely to decline. At the same time the trends in the global agenda (terror, oil, proliferation) all bring attention back towards Russia. While it is true that Russian power has been recovering, this has not been as fast as the Kremlin thinks — and the gap between perception and reality raises the possibility for excess zeal and possible confrontation.