U.S.-Russian Relations: What Should Be Done -and Not Done

Article excerpt


The advance of Russian forces into Georgia in August significantly worsened an already contentious U.S.-Russian relationship and sparked a new political debate in the United States about the nature of Russian foreign policy.

For the last month, policy-makers have been considering ways to punish Russia for violating Georgian sovereignty and its disproportionate use of force and to develop a unified Western position aimed at thwarting future Russian moves against its neighbors.

If we don't like what Russia is doing and where our bilateral relations are headed, then what are we going to do about it?

First, we have to recognize that Russia is a re-emerging power that does not - and increasingly does not want to - fit into the post-Cold War system that evolved when it was weak. This, in turn, sets off alarm bells for many of its now independent neighbors, who live with the legacy of Russia's imperial mentality, the political and psychological scars of the Soviet period, and the physical borders created by Stalin - borders that keep territorial disputes festering and populations divided.

Second, Russia's economic resurgence has made good relations with Russia more important to Europeans than to the United States. Not only do many of our European allies depend on Russian energy, but their economies are increasingly part of a growing, two-way stream of trade and investment. As it is, half of Russia's foreign trade is with the EU while about 4 percent is with the U.S. The Europeans give a higher priority than we do to tackling challenges connected with environmental and ecological degradation, organized crime and trafficking (both drug and human) from the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Given differences within the Western alliance, we have to face a key limitation: Even if we were not overburdened with two wars and a weak economy and lacking public support at home, the United States would have no effective way of responding militarily to the Russian invasion of Georgia.

Thus, Sen. John McCain's tough talk - We are all Georgians - provided only an emotionally satisfying battle cry to audiences at home, while Vice President Dick Cheney cannot deliver on his promise of NATO membership to Georgia because that is opposed by key NATO members. During his visit to Tbilisi, however, Mr. Cheney repeated the pledge to provide significant financial help for rebuilding Georgia - an idea put forward by Sens. Joe Biden and Barack Obama and then picked up by the Bush administration.

This assistance will be most useful, however, only in the context of a new, comprehensive policy toward Russia. Therefore, it now falls to both presidential candidates to shape a firm but realistic policy that will press the Russians to undo some of the damage resulting from their intervention, raise the stakes if Russia attempts similar actions elsewhere in the former Soviet space, salvage our ability to work with Russia on issues of common concern, and prepare for the next shoe to drop in Russian's re-emergence as a global actor.

These are some of the specific steps that should be taken:

1. We must not accept the dismemberment of Georgia or allow developments inside Georgia to spin out of control. The administration did too little to prevent Georgia's leadership from falling into the trap of attacking Russian peacekeepers in a sleeping city - even though it knew that fully mobilized Russian units were in striking distance just over the border. Now, we should insist that the Georgian government act responsibly in the shadow of an assertive Russia, by strengthening its political institutions and civil society. The billion dollars in assistance promised by the U.S. government, combined with the amounts likely to be offered by the Europeans, will help stabilize the present situation, but our financial and political assistance should be used to encourage Tbilisi to pursue a firm but nonconfrontational policy toward Moscow. …