A Half-Democratic Russia Will Always Be a Half-Ally to the United States

By McFaul, Michael; Zlobin, Nikolai | Demokratizatsiya, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

A Half-Democratic Russia Will Always Be a Half-Ally to the United States


McFaul, Michael, Zlobin, Nikolai, Demokratizatsiya


The improvement in Russian-American relations is one of the few positive factors in the muddled picture of international relations today. Russian president Vladimir Putin's support for the American struggle against international terrorism has elevated communications between two former enemies to a new level Politicians on either side of the ocean are calling the United States and Russia "allies." Noting the decisiveness with which President Putin supports the United States and Washington's extremely positive reaction to this, many Russian politicians and public figures have begun speaking openly of Russia's entry into Western organizations and unions. Membership in the World Trade Organization is discussed in Moscow as an obvious reward that Russia should receive for supporting American military actions; entry into the European Union is brought up as a relatively near goal, and so forth. The hopes are great, but do they reflect reality? Inflated expectations and skewed assessments of the speed and character of Russia's integration into the West are dangerous.

It is true that the new situation brings forth many hopes, but it also provides the groundwork for possible future disillusion. Russia's drive toward integration must be welcomed, but without open discussions concerning the entire range of problems hampering the development of relations between Russia and the West, Russian and American officials are simply exaggerating unrealistic expectations, the collapse of which could seriously complicate relations in the future. This is a replay of the situation ten years ago, when an absence of pragmatism led to the appearance of hopes that were never realized. The last euphoric moment left both sides with a bitter aftertaste and brought about a mutual cooling off. Discussing Russian entry into Western structures without considering realistic criteria is not only useless, but also hazardous, because it could lead to a new round of hostility toward the United States and the West as a whole.

U.S. president George W. Bush and Putin must develop a realistic approach to Russia's integration into the West. They need to distinguish between short-term and long-term goals. Relations between Russia and the United States are such that they can change fundamentally depending on changes in the political environment. Without a doubt, America needs Russia's help in the fight against international terrorism. But this fight is only an immediate goal and cannot serve as a foundation for a strategic partnership between Moscow and Washington. Strategic partnerships are based not on one country's "need" of another in a particular situation or on concessions, but on the concurrence of strategic interests. These can involve, for example, National Missile Defense (NMD). What will happen if the extremists get their hands on Pakistan's nuclear weapons? What will they do with them? President Putin asked this question of NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson in October and received no answer. The interests could include the coordination of policy in Central Asia. In its time, the Soviet Union spent billions of dollars but only secured the friendship of nations such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and North Korea. Russian membership in NATO and the European Union could also be one of these mutual strategic interest.

Russia's attitude toward entry into NATO is an example of disproportionate expectations. During his meeting with Lord Roberson, Putin spoke about the desirability of total cooperation between Russia and NATO. Neither of the two leaders saw any reason precluding Russian membership in the organization. Yet at the same time Moscow speaks of making NATO a political organization as a condition for joining. That is a dangerous thing to say. The Kremlin has to decide whether it is trying to change the essence of NATO or find ways of mutually beneficial cooperation. Speaking about changing the nature and structure of NATO not only irritates many members of the alliance, but also happens to be completely unrealistic. …

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