When George Met Vladimir: Bush and Putin Have Given New Impetus to an Implausible Goal: Russia's Integration with Europe

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A murmur of voices foretelling Russia's eventual integration with Europe, including accession to the European Union and membership in NATO, is suddenly gaining volume. The new swell appeared on the horizon after the first two meetings between the United States and Russian presidents this summer. Whether that augurs a historical wave depends on the force and finesse with which policymakers in Washington, Moscow, and Brussels get down to solidifying a long-range strategy.

Greater public emphasis than ever was unleashed on this pivotal issue after President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their first summit. A link was established between the two leaders that no one expected. Since then, Western goals vis-a-vis Russia that often appeared unrealizable, or too remote to attract immediate focus, have come to stand at the center of attention among officials, journalists, and think tanks around the world. Convergence between the West and Russia on an economic and security vision for Europe and the world is becoming more a common objective to be actively pursued than merely a distant dream.

Bringing all of the former Soviet republics and East European countries into the Western democratic, free-market fold has been the object of concerted transatlantic policy moves since the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, when President George H. W. Bush occupied the White House. Full integration specifically of Russia into the key institutions of Europe and the West--the EU and NATO--and into the global economy at large, is seen as the best guarantee of strategic security and of that country's future economic and social development.

But taking aboard vast, chaotic, and formerly inimical Russia, as opposed to, say, Poland or Lithuania, has often appeared impossibly problematic. What has changed is that Putin apparently has come to see that Russia may have nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, it seems to have hit home for his U.S. counterpart, who at the start of his administration appeared to want to just ignore America's defeated Cold War foe, that he faces a real and unprecedented opening in Putin's policy toward the West.

The broad backdrop against which this new trend is emerging has three main dimensions. One is the ongoing membership enlargement of both the EU and NATO. The second is Russia's concomitant search for a new development model after seven disastrous decades of Soviet central planning laid waste to its economy. Third is the U.S. search for a solution to perhaps its most pressing foreign policy problem: helping Russia, which possesses enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over, to develop the institutions it needs to become a normal, liberal state.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the now fifteen-member EU has sought to bring in the Eastbloc countries transitioning to market economies. Brussels now appears set to admit its first post-communist members from among ten central and East European formal applicants around 2004, with the Czech Republic and Estonia among the lead candidates. For these ten aspirants economic transition and integration with the EU are one and the same.

To date Russia has neither formally applied for membership nor declared explicit interest in joining the EU. In 1994, then-President Boris Yeltsin signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, and Moscow holds Russia-EU summit meetings every six months, implicitly toward eventual accession. But Russia lacks an association agreement, or so-called Europe agreement, which is the basis upon which its East European neighbors are negotiating accession.

Until recently, EU membership for Russia appeared impossible to many. Optimists viewed accession as no closer than fifteen to twenty years away. The fundamental obstacle is achieving a level of reform in Russia sufficient to meet the requirements of the Union's so-called Copenhagen criteria regarding free markets and democratic governance. …