Planet Earth: Russia and Transatlantic Relations

By Nikonov, Vyacheslav | International Journal, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Planet Earth: Russia and Transatlantic Relations

Nikonov, Vyacheslav, International Journal

THE IRAQ WAR HAS TRIGGERED "the most severe transatlantic tensions in a generation, dividing Europeans and Americans from each other and among themselves."(1) Most politicians and analysts drew the conclusion in the wake of that war that a single superpower of unparalleled strength had climbed to a domineering position, while the united west had become a non-entity. They said a crack was developing lengthwise along the Atlantic, and Russia would have to choose between an alliance with Europe and an alliance with the US.

That is a false dilemma. If Robert Kagan believes that America represents bellicose Mars and Europe embodies the peace-loving culture of Venus,(2) the place where Russia can make the best habitat for itself is the planet Earth, despite this country's interest in other celestial bodies.


The rise of the Russian Federation coincided with euphoric aspirations that the progress of democracy here would bring the country into the transatlantic community of civilized states. Former US secretary of state James Baker recalled Russian president Boris Yeltsin speaking enthusiastically in 1991 of a possible merger of the military structures of the Commonwealth of Independent States and NATO.(3) There were expectations of massive economic aid in the form of a new Marshall Plan. The west, for its part, harboured a hope that Russia would rapidly transform into a developed democracy with a flourishing market economy and would display solidarity with western leaders on the major issues of international policy.

The hopes did not materialize, and the various reasons call for individual analysis.(4) The lofty aspirations sank in the face of the disproportion in economic, political, military and other capabilities of Russia and the west. The weakening country sliding into political chaos could not expect others to treat its concerns as top priority matters. Moscow's pro-western course took a heavy blow as the prospects of NATO's eastward expansion began developing clear contours, despite the numerous assurances given previously to Mikhail Gorbachev. The war in Yugoslavia added to the difficulties of the pro-western forces. Against this background, the development of democratic institutions within Russia disenchanted even the Russians themselves, unaccustomed to democracy as they were, not to mention the Europeans or the Americans.

Russia failed to join Euro-Atlantic structures, and the transatlantic dimension of its foreign policy fell into three separate elements reflecting its relations with the US, with the European Union, and with NATO. All three were close to the freezing point at the turn of the century. The domestic situation was dominated by scandals involving corrupt officials surrounding Yeltsin, his family's influence, an incessant change of ministers, a new war in Chechnya and the attempts to answer the question "Who lost Russia?" Moscow realized that the breakthrough to the west had ended in a fiasco, and this understanding made it look for a new policy line and identity.

The west met President Vladimir Putin's initial foreign policy course with a strong suspicion bolstered by his remarks that "Russia will hardly become a replication of the US or Britain any time soon, as liberal values have deep historical traditions there."(5) While paying respect to the concept of the world's multipolarity, he declared pragmatism, economic efficiency and the priority of national interests to be the backbone elements of his policy.(6) Putin stepped up bilateral contacts with China and established multilateral contacts with it in the format of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization. Russia did not succumb to the US objections to its building nuclear reactors in Iran; furthermore, it rehabilitated contacts with Pyongyang and Havana.

At the same time, Putin kept emphasizing the importance of co-operation with the west. He turned down the idea of relying exclusively on Russia's own--rather limited--resources and proclaimed a strategic course of economic transparency and integration into the world economic system. …

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