American Policy & Russia's Future; Illusions and Realities

By Cohen, Stephen F. | The Nation, April 12, 1993 | Go to article overview

American Policy & Russia's Future; Illusions and Realities


Cohen, Stephen F., The Nation


Events in recent years have brought us to a fateful moment in the history of American-Russian relations-one full of great hope but also many illusions and great peril. The hope comes from the rethinking and reform now under way in both Countries, which hold out the possibility of a fundamentally new, demilitarized and truly cooperative relationship between these longtime superpower rivals. The danger lurks in a potential collision between post-Communist Russia's complex realities and post-cold war America's simplistic expectations about its former adversary--a collision that might lead if not to a new cold war then to an uneasy peace. That danger is now escalated by the Clinton Administration's unwise interventions in Russian domestic politics and support for President Boris Yeltsin's declaration of a "special regime" that threatens to terminate Russia's historic and exceedingly fragile democratization experiment.

Whatever direction the relationship takes, Russia will be the United States' largest foreign policy concern for many years to come. On the one hand, Russia's future development-- because of the country's history, size, location, economic potential, weapons and unprecedented capacity for nuclear mishap--will profoundly affect prospects for stability and international security in large parts of the world. On the other hand, an end to Russia's collapse--its political, economic, social and even psychological crisis--is nowhere in sight.

And yet, the United States lacks 'any well-conceived and workable policies toward Russia, and has had none since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Organizational energy and even financial commitment in Washington cannot themselves produce such policies, as the Clinton Administration appears to believe. The underlying American problem is conceptual and ideological. Unless we change our mythical and missionary ways of thinking about post-Communist Russia, the problems and dangers we face will only grow worse.

The collapse of the Communist Party and breakup of the Soviet Union generated both alarm and euphoria in U.S. policy circles--alarm over the disposition of Soviet "loose nukes," euphoria over the pro-American possibilities thought to be inherent in post-Communist Russia. The alarm was well rounded, but the euphoria derived from several largely false assumptions, among them:

[sections] that the events of 1991 constituted a "new Russian Revolution" that had swept away the Soviet system, and with it most of the obstacles to fundamental reform;

[sections] that fundamental reform in Russia now meant the creation of Western-style democracy and free-market capitalism, possibly even a replica of the American system;

[sections] that while problems persisted, Russia could quickly--as in the catch phrase "get through the winter"--exit its Communist past onto a democratic-capitalist road if there were uncompromising political leadership (President Boris Yeltsin and his team headed by former Acting Prime Minister Yegor Galdar), radical economic policies ("shock therapy") and sufficient Western support;

[sections] that America should therefore intervene energetically by undertaking a missionary crusade (a "new Marshall Plan") to shape and hasten this Russian transformation and to defend the Yeltsin-Gaidar leadership against its "reactionary, conservative, hard-line Communist" opponents;

[sections] that such policies, in Washington and Moscow, would form the basis for a new U.S.-Russian relationship by turning post-Communist Russia into a like-minded "friend and partner" in international and security affairs;

[sections] that large and stable constituencies for these policies existed both in Russia and the United States.

Largely because of these assumptions, the Bush Administration pursued a twofold policy toward Russia, which remains in place today. The Administration negotiated, and offered to subsidize, a major reduction of Soviet-built strategic nuclear weapons, including those in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. …

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