Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 7

By Sergei Oznobishchev

The Russian-American summit that took place in June near Ljubljana did not vindicate pessimistic forecasts, though these were not unfounded. Here is a typical summary, made just prior to the summit by a respected news agency, of an analysis of assessments offered in the media of various countries: “In the West, just as in Russia, there are no illusions regarding the summit in Slovenia. British and American newspapers believe that the very fact that the presidents will meet personally should be counted a success. Journalists [after all] describe the positions of Putin and Bush as irreconcilable.”

How is it, then, that this irreconcilability developed so quickly and with such apparent ease into almost undisguised friendliness? I do not think that the two presidents are such accomplished artists that they put on for the whole world a beautifully acted performance that might be called “Shoots of Friendship.” No, for all the conventions of these high level meetings, and the need for official smiles and overly long handshakes for the cameras, not even the greatest masters of the stage–not just the political stage–could have put on such a sincere show of mutual rapport. Objectively, the rapid deterioration in relations between our countries, where the political elites practically wrote each other off as potential partners in international business, did not augur well for a favorable outcome. In decisionmaking circles there were decidedly anti-American and anti-Russian feelings in Moscow and Washington respectively. Giving a paper at the Gorbachev Foundation in May this year, I offered the hypothesis, which many people did not think justified at the time, that there may turn out to be more subjective preconditions than objective ones for an appreciable improvement in Russian-American relations today.

In the end, that is how it turned out. There has been a historical precedent for this, incidentally–when amidst mutual recriminations and a high degree of confrontation in the 1980s (suffice to recall the epithet of the “evil empire” coined in Washington to describe the other side), Reagan and Gorbachev managed to move towards an end to the Cold War.

There is an internal contradiction in the very concept of the “new partnership” of the title. It implies that there used to be some sort of “old” partnership that was somehow forfeited. This was indeed the case in the early 1990s when Yeltsin declared that Russia and the United States were partners, allies and even friends. But despite such proclamations, American-Russian relations throughout the 1990s showed consistency in only one respect: They were consistently deteriorating. Russian politicians and analysts became increasingly aggrieved with Western leaders for their attempts to exclude Russia from the decisionmaking process on fundamental European and international issues. The main reasons for this were the selfish policy of NATO expansion (despite fierce opposition on the part of Russia) and the use of force to resolve the Kosovo crisis, bypassing UN procedures and opinion in Moscow. Meanwhile, Yeltsin’s inconsistency in securing domestic ratification of foreign policy agreements meant that the West came to rely less and less on Russia. As a consequence, the whole process of reducing and destroying weapons came to almost a complete standstill. The use of force to resolve the parliamentary crisis in 1993, the start of the Chechen war, and the frequent illnesses and “disappearances” of the Russian president forced the West to adopt an increasingly cautious–even wary–attitude to Moscow. Essentially relations between the countries–especially after spy scandals, diplomatic incidents, exposures and mutual expulsions–were balanced precariously on the edge of a “cold peace,” with the clear potential to descend into a farcical cold war (there would hardly have been sufficient grounds or funds for a full-scale cold war like that of the 1960s and 1970s).

But Putin and Bush took a liking to each other, which immediately presented an opportunity for a constructive solution to longstanding problems. Behind the outward displays of friendliness, of course, lay an understanding of the fact that the absence even of pragmatic interaction (or “equal cooperation,” as recent Russian national security documents like to put it) condemns us to live in a much more dangerous and unpredictable world, and pushes us towards excessive military spending.

The two presidents surprised many people by going far beyond the bounds of the official business of making each other’s acquaintance and exchanging the views they had prepared back at home. The main achievement of Putin and Bush was to avoid getting bogged down in the details of the mutual recriminations that had been building up, and to talk seriously about the fundamentals of the U.S.-Russian relationship. For decades, relations between the two countries suffered because politicians would, for the sake of appearances, get actively involved in secondary issues rather than solve the fundamental issues between them. It may be said, for example, that in the context of the problem of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which has yet to be effectively resolved, building a missile defense system is one individual option and certainly not the most effective way of handling this increasingly alarming phenomenon. Or, for example, a balanced analysis of NATO expansion would probably reveal that this is the last of a whole range of possible instruments for encouraging the process of “expanding democracy” to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and giving them back their European identity.

This set approach meant that Russian-American relations were too often teetering on the brink of crisis, and periods of declared partnership were quickly superseded by tension. Moreover, one result of the longstanding, unenterprising and at the same time self-centered policy with regard to Russia was the renewed “ideologization” of relations, in the sense that any decisions or measures taken by one party was automatically perceived negatively by the other. Far too many unresolved problems and issues of varying importance piled up, undermining relations; this is further evidence of how all has not been well for a long time.

Prior to the summit, some analysts, including myself, suggested a practical platform for future Russian-American cooperation: “To begin seeking a consensus on the fundamental concepts in the field of politics and security, on the priorities in terms of the threats and challenges to the security of both countries, and on measures to tackle them together. This work should be accompanied by dialog at all possible levels, and discussions should begin immediately to agree on its specific forms” (see Chto delat’s Amerikoi? [What is to be done with America?], S. Oznobishchev, I. Runov, Dipkurier NG, supplement to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 24, 2001). It turned out that the two sides adopted this very principle as the basis for their initial follow-up actions after the summit. At the postsummit press conference, President Vladimir Putin described the understanding reached on this issue as follows: “We must think together about the threats and concerns–we must define what the threats are, see where they are, and then decide how to confront them. It is better to do this together: To identify a common platform, and then look for a joint solution.” If the proposed “fundamental” approach to building bilateral relations triumphs, then the creation of a missile defense system and the expansion of NATO will simply be individual issues in the context of a joint security program. And if the two sides decide to resort to such measures, it will only be on the basis of a joint decision, and whether they consider these actions prudent if other mechanisms for ensuring security do not work.

It was the gap between word and deed in the 1990s that made the bilateral “strategic partnership”–about which so much was said–impossible. It seems that this time the opportunity is there to avoid past mistakes. This opportunity lies in the established “vertical of executive power” in Russia, and in the far broader opportunities the president now has for carrying out his international promises–as we have already seen with the ratification of the START II, nuclear test ban and “open skies” treaties, which Yeltsin was unable to achieve over many years.

There is every reason to suppose that, however much the bureaucracy moans and however much individual politicians pontificate, Putin will manage to quash the domestic opposition to cooperation with the United States that has gained force over the last few years. He will undoubtedly be helped by pragmatic considerations: Russia, which is striving to take its rightful place among other leading states, cannot achieve this without intensive contacts with the West, first and foremost the United States. Possible routes towards compromise began mapping themselves out immediately after the meeting was over. Speaking at the press conference, Putin once again conceded the possibility of Russia joining NATO. This paradoxical solution may contain a way out of the impasse that has been reached: Russia’s involvement in NATO will serve to change the nature of the organization, giving it a truly pan-European character and rendering its expansion acceptable.

At the same time, after this European tour the U.S. position was toned down. Having visited Madrid, Brussels, Gothenburg and Warsaw before Ljubljana, George W. Bush had obviously failed to secure clear support for his missile defense plans, which have not yet finally been formulated. It is worth remembering that in the 1980s too, European leaders seriously toned down attempts by the Reagan administration to erode the limitations of the antimissile treaty.

There are still a great many steps to be taken on the road to establishing new relations and producing a joint strategy, which the U.S. president hopes will happen. Both leaders effectively announced a program of joint measures, which, it is to be hoped, will be developed and enhanced from meeting to meeting, and from summit to summit, the dates of which have also been penciled in. It should not be forgotten that while relations can be destroyed very quickly, improving them is a long and complex process. This means that we will all need a great deal of patience before we can gain confidence in each other and really learn to work together rather than adopting diametrically opposed stances on practically every issue.

The presidents laid down their fundamental, common position: Russia and the United States are not enemies, and are no threat to each other, but are partners and may well become allies. What was said is nothing less than a reversal in our mutual perception of each other. Anyone who doubts this would do well to take a look at the national security documents of the two countries over the last few years: The contrast in the perception and categorization of the two sides will be truly striking.

Having once again initiated discussions of partnership, it is important that the two sides do not limit themselves to discussions, but begin to create a stable, positive equilibrium, moving onto concrete, practical measures. It would seem that the two sides are set to move in that direction: Bush and Putin agreed to instruct their ministers to continue working not only on specific security issues, but also on other prospective issues, including trade and economics. Here not only America but Russia too will need to do a lot to create reliable conditions for investment and business development. Putin acknowledged this.

In broad terms, Russia and the United States will have to do a great deal to adjust their image in order to be seen by the other side as a real partner, because without this it will be impossible to establish respectful and trusting relations. Russia will have to assuage U.S. fears in respect of the provision of basic rights and freedoms, first and foremost freedom of the press. Attempts to “privatize” independently run media outlets by structures controlled by the state do not reflect well on Russia’s image in the West. It should not be forgotten that for our Western arms control partners, the level of press freedom and basic rights and freedoms are an important element in assessing the possibility of cooperation with a particular state, and the extent of that cooperation. Although the application of this criterion in western politics is often relative and on a case-by-case basis, it has nevertheless been seen to play a role in foreign policy decisions in Western capitals on a number of occasions.

For their part, Western leaders must always be aware that while Russian politics today is becoming more defined, it is still–just like the country–in a state of transition where its priorities are being determined. In this state it is very dependent on the actions of the West. In fact, actions taken by Western leaders today, whether constructive or not, are capable of exerting a very considerable influence on the direction of Russian politics tomorrow.

In this context, Western politicians should understand that if they continue the shortsighted and self-centered policies of the 1990s, they will create huge problems for themselves in Russia and elsewhere. Only a joint determination to eradicate the concerns of the other side will be capable of converting the theory of partnership into practice. This summit meeting has resurrected that hope.

Sergei Oznobishchev is director of the Institute for Strategic Assessments.