Normalizing U.S.-Russian Relations

Article excerpt

Key Points

Ten years after the Cold War, the United States is still looking for an organizing principle to guide policy toward Russia. Because of its systemic weakness, neither partnership nor competition is an appropriate concept. Washington should put aside its search for a comprehensive concept in dealing with Moscow and pursue a case-by-case approach rooted in specific U.S. interests.

Priority interests involve a redefined strategic relationship, including Russian acquiescence to national missile defense; collaboration by Moscow in combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and other destabilizing technologies; and inducing Russia to base its behavior on respect for the international norms to which it is committed. The United States should be prepared to deemphasize other issues, such as conventional arms sales, that do not threaten core national interests.

The Bush administration needs to communicate its intent to respect Russian interests, while making it clear that a productive relationship will depend primarily on Russian willingness to adhere to the values shared by the United States and other democratic nations. The choice of what kind of relationship Russia wants is largely in its own hands.

However, Russia's chaotic policymaking and the mismatch between its ambitions and capabilities preclude resolving key bilateral issues. Therefore, prospects for engaging Russia constructively appear dim and the United States will have to go it alone in areas where Russian acquiescence is lacking.

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Ten years after the end of the Cold War, mutual hopes that a comprehensive partnership would replace containment as the major organizing theme in U.S.-Russian relations have not been realized. The record of the 1990s has left both Russia and the United States unsatisfied. Russia looks back at the decade with bitterness and a feeling of being marginalized and slighted by the world's sole remaining superpower. It is also disappointed by its experience with Western-style reforms and mistrustful of American intentions. The United States is equally disappointed with Russia's lack of focus, inability to engage effectively abroad, and failure to implement major reforms at home. A comprehensive partnership is out of the question. Renewed competition or active containment are also not credible as organizing principles. Russia's economic, military and political/ideological weakness makes it an unlikely target of either U.S. competition or containment. Not only is Russia no longer a superpower, but its status as a regional power is in doubt.

Current thinking about Russia is divided among four basic approaches: Forget Russia, Enfant Terrible Russia, Evil Russia, and Russia First. The Forget Russia view holds that Russia is too weak, too corrupt, and too chaotic to matter. After 10 years of trying to help Russia, the United States should focus its resources and attention on more deserving and important world issues.

The Enfant Terrible view holds that, although Russia has been an irresponsible and irritating partner, it is too weak to hurt the United States and therefore need not be feared in earnest. President Vladimir Putin's visits to Cuba and North Korea, courtship of Slobodan Milosevic, and welcoming of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to Moscow are of little strategic consequence and thus not worth our attention. This view presupposes the existence of an important U.S.-Russian bilateral agenda and the need to protect it from childish and irresponsible Russian grandstanding.

The Evil Russia view holds that Russian courtship of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea is a deliberate effort to undermine U.S. influence in the world and recreate the Soviet empire. Analysts embracing this view take less notice of Russia's diminished capabilities than of ambitious rhetoric by Russian politicians. Given Russia's evil purposes, the United States is already on a collision course with it and might as well do everything it can to box Russia in. …