Limited Possibilities and Possible Limitations

9 february 2005

Nikolai Zlobin

Resume: Over the last few years, the Russia-U.S. bilateral relations, far from growing stronger, have approached a dangerous point. The elites in the two countries have developed feelings of mutual disillusionment with each other, as well as the suspicion that the other side is secretly nurturing hostile plans. The presidents’ friendship has ceased to be a means for solving these problems and is actually becoming a means for veiling them.

Congratulating George W. Bush on his re-election as U.S. president, Vladimir Putin remarked that over the past four years Russian-U.S. relations had markedly improved. He added, however, that the dialog between the two countries would be difficult no matter who occupied the White House. The second part of Putin’s statement provokes no objections; as for the “improved” relations comment, this must have been wishful thinking on the part of the head of the Russian state.
In fact, bilateral relations between Russia and the U.S. have become obviously superficial. Their present agenda includes nothing fundamentally new compared with the Cold War era. The two countries continue to ignore a majority of their mutual problems, while focusing their efforts only on the traditional areas of cooperation – security, nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and trade in energy resources (the latter area of bilateral contacts emerged not long ago, and achievements in this field remain the least).

Over the last few years, the bilateral relations, far from growing stronger, have approached a dangerous point. The elites in the two countries have developed feelings of mutual disillusionment with each other, as well as the suspicion that the other side is secretly nurturing hostile plans. Figuratively speaking, the Russian-U.S. political space now consists of a small sitting-room where the two presidents demonstrate their mutual sympathies before the cameras, but beyond view is a large pantry into which they dump the increasingly complicated problems. Actually, the presidents’ friendship has ceased to be a means for solving these problems and is actually becoming a means for veiling them. Putin’s repeatedly expressed wish to see George W. Bush re-elected president in 2004, was yet more proof that relations between the two countries have become fragile and unreliable and that their foundation, resting on personal ties between the two leaders, has grown unstable.
On the horrible day of September 11, 2001, President Putin was the first world leader to telephone Bush. He assured him that Russia was on the U.S. side. Yet, despite the importance of that gesture, it was obviously not enough for building new relations between Moscow and Washington. It is obvious to the White House that Russia has never become a true ally of the United States. The Kremlin, in turn, has grounds for complaining that Bush, believed to be the most “pro-Russian” president in modern U.S. history, continues to force Russia out of its sphere of influence; Washington is ignoring Moscow’s interests, especially in the countries of the former Soviet Union.


The end of the Cold War introduced unique opportunities for a strategic partnership between the U.S. and Russia, which, however, have never been used. President Bill Clinton believed that support for Russian democracy would be a major factor in the success of U.S. foreign policy. Many influential members of his administration – from Vice President Albert Gore to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot – were involved in these efforts. However, the Clinton administration built only unstable mechanisms for coordinating mutual interests and conducting dialog in critical periods. The construction of a fundamental long-term basis for new relations was never started.

During the 2000 election campaign, George Bush accused the Clinton administration of “losing Russia.” Yet, after Bush came to power, he rejected all the mechanisms built before him and Clinton’s idea of U.S. participation in building a new Russian society and state. Bush reduced his Russia policy to relations between official structures – and only in the military and political spheres. This tendency markedly increased after September 2001. Hoping for Putin’s support in the war against terrorism, the White House backed the Russian leader’s actions, ignoring the Kremlin’s political evolution.

Washington’s strategy has proven to be erroneous: the possibilities for its influence on Moscow have decreased dramatically, while Russia is now farther away from democracy than it was four years ago. (In all fairness, it must be said that, apart from the White House’s position, these developments were also caused by objective factors: the high oil prices and economic growth in Russia have made it independent of international financial institutions.)

Thus, two different U.S. strategies vis-И-vis Moscow have proven to be unsuccessful. Today, there is no unity in the American Establishment as to what policy should be pursued toward Russia, as there is simply no more enthusiasm for the project.

The Bush administration has ceased to regard Russia as a strategic ally. The reason is not only the problems affecting Russia, but the White House’s general approach to international relations. Actually, Washington has ceased to rely on allies, and its foreign policy rests on the assumption that the United States, the world’s most powerful military, political and economic nation, does not need strategic support from the outside. America can (and does) accept support from other countries within the frameworks of temporary coalitions set up to solve one or another problem, but tomorrow it may lose interest in these countries, or even declare them enemies. Unfortunately, the Washington-Moscow relationship now works according to this principle.

The transition to tactical military and political cooperation and, using what U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has called a “flexible” coalition, strategically leads U.S.-Russian relations nowhere. Yet, it is convenient to the microscopic part of the Establishment in both countries which has monopolized the bilateral contacts; this monopolization is yet another serious obstacle to progress. Washington continues the practice of focusing its efforts on individual groups and personalities in Russia. This model has long exhausted itself, and its further use will effectively discredit the partnership idea.


Today, Washington does not see a role for Moscow to play in its long-term prospects. It professedly ignores the fact that Russia, as the owner of the largest nuclear arsenals outside America, is the world’s only country that is capable of calling into question America’s existence. Russia possesses colossal resources of radioactive materials that can be used in the production of nuclear weapons, as well as resources, technologies, practical knowledge and specialists required for producing other types of WMD. Without a partnership with Moscow, the U.S. will never be able to ensure WMD nonproliferation.

Russia is a U.S. ally in the struggle against international terrorism. Geopolitically, it remains a major power playing a key role in Eurasia (the Caucasus and Central Asia) and is a close neighbor to countries that are in the focus of Washington’s attention – Iraq, Iran, China, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea. Russia is a member of the UN Security Council, and America finds it difficult to present its international initiatives as legitimate without approval from the Security Council. Finally, Russia can influence the world energy market, and may be a serious alternative source of energy for the U.S. Russia’s integration into the global economy would benefit American companies as it would give them access to the Russian consumer, as well as to its labor markets.

What prevents Washington from turning toward Russia?
The main obstacle is the worsening social and political situation in this country. International practices in the second half of the 20th century demonstrated that a genuine strategic partnership emerges only on the basis of a common vision and a common system of values. Washington and Moscow do not share such a system; moreover, the differences in their basic values have increased over recent years. The U.S. no longer views Vladimir Putin as a democrat, at least in the way this word is understood in the West. Washington is confident that the growth of authoritarianism in Russia will inevitably generate frictions between the two countries. Sooner or later, the Kremlin’s actions will come into conflict with the interests of America and its allies.

Washington is perplexed by the fact that President Putin, despite his numerous general statements made since he came to power, has never formulated a clear-cut strategy for developing Russian-U.S. relations. As the White House has repeatedly made clear in conversations with Moscow officials, it would like the Russian leader to expound in public his vision of Russia’s U.S. policy and thus send a clear signal to the Russian and world elites. Yet, this has never happened, and the question remains unanswered whether an alliance with the West is Moscow’s real strategic choice.


Today, in the U.S., there are three opposing views on Russia. Some people believe that the new Bush administration must make a resolute statement about the developments in Russia. It must make every effort to stop the development of authoritarian tendencies there, and make it clear to the Kremlin that its degree of democracy is a more important criterion for Washington in assessing the situation in Russia than its readiness for cooperation in the war against terrorism. The West has a powerful lever of influence – through the Group of Eight, to which Russia was admitted during Clinton’s presidency “as a favor,” as some people say. Many of them are even ready for a confrontation with the incumbent Russian government. This group, comprising Democrats and some neo-Conservatives, is rather large and influential, especially in the mass media and nongovernmental organizations.

Another group holds that America should take a critical yet wait-and-see position and watch developments in Russia, namely, following parliamentary and presidential elections and the takeover of power. People holding such views believe that, on the one hand, the Putin administration is a political reality with which the world has to reckon with; on the other hand, U.S. interests in Russia require the development of a long-term strategy for relations with Moscow in the post-Putin period. This point of view does not have many proponents, yet it has much influence in the White House.

The third group combines some aspects of the first two groups’ approaches: it criticizes the Russian authorities on some major issues and, at the same time, advocates mutual cooperation wherever possible. It argues that influencing the situation in Russia and, simultaneously, retaining prospects for a strategic partnership is possible only through Moscow’s renewed involvement in a partnership with the U.S. and new attempts to integrate Russia into the West – but not through increased isolation of Russia in the world. Proponents of this view speak of the possibility for a new honeymoon between Russia and the U.S., like the one that took place more than a decade ago. In order for this to work, they argue that Washington must find the right model for encouraging Moscow’s cooperation. This group includes some traditional Republicans and moderate Democrats, among them some members of the John Kerry team.

The three groups, however different they may be, adhere to some common principles. First, unpredictability and chaos in Russia would pose a threat to the whole world. The West is interested in a strong and stable Russia that would support order on its own territory and make a real contribution to regional and global security. Not everybody, however, thinks that Russia is now able to cope with such a huge task.

Second, Russia must become a full-fledged democratic, rule-of-law state that would respect human rights, as well as possess a normal system of checks and counterbalances with a transparent and accountable government. Such a Russia may join the community of democratic states, in which the U.S. is strongly interested. Yet, many analysts are skeptical about this possibility, as well.

Third, adherence to the ideals of democracy and human rights is not a political program of America, nor are they tactics used in one or another situation, but the fundamental basis of the Western world’s system, irrespective of what parties and presidents are in power. It is from this principled position that the U.S. will always assess Russia. The view, widespread among the Russian political elite, that America will tolerate an authoritarian regime in Russia because Washington is more interested in a stable and predictable Russia, is naХve and vulgar. Historical experience, in which Americans strongly believe, shows that it is only democracy that can bring long-term stability and predictability.

Fourth, everybody in the United States agrees that Russia can be a leading nation in Eurasia. And it is in U.S. interests to see that Moscow stops demonstrating its imperial aspirations in its foreign policy, on the one hand, and rids itself of the “besieged fortress” syndrome, which is rooted in Russia’s past, on the other hand. This syndrome provokes a certain amount of xenophobia in the country’s domestic policy, together with an aggressive yet passive approach to world affairs. The part of the American Establishment that knows better Russian history, culture and mentality believes that a change will come about only after several generations change in the Russian elite.

Fifth, the West is interested in a united Russia, because its disintegration would have grave consequences for global security and stability. However, there is no agreement amongst the experts as to whether Russia’s territorial integrity can be preserved, what political and administrative methods can be used to solve this problem, and how effective these methods can be. In particular, there is no clear vision how the Chechen problem should be solved. Today, the United States can offer Russia only general political support; it is not prepared to offer Russia guarantees for the unity and integrity of its territory. Nevertheless, negotiations on this subject are possible. At the same time, Washington is not ready to give such guarantees to countries in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, yet it would not object to the inclusion of this issue in the agenda of Russian-U.S. relations.

Sixth, everybody agrees that Russia can become a factor in stabilizing the world energy market, and this would help the U.S. diversify its sources of imported oil and gas. For this to happen, however, Moscow must be politically prepared for a confrontation with OPEC and some Arab oil producers, with which it presently enjoys good relations. Russia, with its highly skilled manpower, may turn into a small yet attractive investment and production market for American businesses. The only obstacles to that is Russia’s demographic crisis, as well as the lack of Western business standards.

So, there is agreement in the American Establishment that the U.S. must seek to achieve two mutually related strategic goals: help Russia to become a full-fledged democracy, and consolidate its role as an ally in the war against terrorism and the construction of a new global security and stability system. These goals are viewed as a package, because achieving only one of them is actually impossible and would not meet U.S. interests. In any case, the two countries should broaden their traditional bilateral agenda.


The main content of U.S.-Russian relations in recent years has been not bilateral problems, but rather Moscow’s and Washington’s interests in third countries and individual regions, above all in Eurasia. To better understand the depth and complexity of the problems, it is necessary to make a brief digression into the past.
The Cold War ended without any documents signed that could have determined new global rules. During the years of confrontation between the two systems, the American elite sought not a breakup of the Soviet Union but rather to make radical changes in the Soviet political system, together with a normalization of relations. As it turned out, the West was completely unprepared for the Soviet Union’s collapse. The emergence of a large group of newly independent states in Eurasia triggered powerful tectonic shifts in geopolitics, demography, the global economy, as well as in national and religious systems that it is still impossible to estimate their scale and essence.

The last-remaining superpower, euphoric about its victory in the Cold War, realized only later that the disappearance of its main enemy could have a negative influence on global security. The former strategic alliances and geopolitical concepts collapsed; international institutions began to tremble; foreign policy grew improvisational; international law depreciated; and military doctrines went to pieces in the face of new threats and challenges.

The future of those countries that comprised the “socialist community” was perceived during the Cold War years in rather clear terms:  they would eventually return to the community of Western democracies. The prospects for a “non-Communist” Soviet Union were completely unclear for the West. Thus, the need to improvise in formulating a policy toward a dozen newly independent states, which were at different development levels, took the political and expert community unawares, as this community had used to view everything through the prism of Moscow’s conduct. Having won the ideological standoff, the United States and its allies thought their mission was largely completed. Meanwhile, the rivalry between Russia and the West for rebuilding the former Soviet republics is only beginning.

The intellectual weakness of the Russian and Western political elites, unable to correctly assess the fundamental changes brought about by the collapse of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, was among the main reasons behind the present crisis in the world order.

The zealous activity of the West in the post-Soviet space, and especially that of the U.S., irritates Moscow. Yet, Russia has never clearly formulated its priorities in such countries and regions as Ukraine, the South Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East (Iran). Conflicts in the post-Soviet zone often break out not because of differences in countries’ intentions or because they are reluctant to recognize each other’s interests in a given region, but because they have never taken the trouble to reconcile their interests and have never distinctly formulated them.

Is such an agreement possible? In the early 1990s, Washington gave its tacit consent for Moscow to keep its monopoly influence over the Caucasus, while Moscow undertook to ensure stability and order in the region. However, the situation in the Caucasus has since only worsened, while not a single conflict has been settled; the U.S. Establishment is growing doubtful about the expediency of that agreement. While observing Russia’s policy in the former Soviet republics, Washington is coming to the conclusion that this policy is ineffective and that it increasingly comes into conflict with U.S. interests.

According to Washington, many of the post-Soviet conflicts, for example the one in the South Caucasus, require an international format for negotiation and peacemaking efforts. The United States, Russia and, to some extent, the European Union are key actors capable of ensuring real sovereignty and territorial integrity for the countries of the former Soviet Union. Without their participation, regional stability is impossible. Washington is interested in such stability, specifically because one of the post-Soviet regions, the Caspian basin, is assigned a certain role in supplying energy resources to the West. The rivalry between Russia and the U.S. for influence in the post-Soviet space – to the detriment of each other’s interests – is irrational and dangerous.

Actually, Washington is very interested in Russia becoming its major strategic partner in Eurasia – from the Caspian Sea to the Far East. However, it is not certain that Russia is able to fulfill this function. Russia’s relations with the former Soviet republics are burdened with numerous mutual complaints. With countries in Northeast Asia things are different. Russia, which has never become part of Western civilization, has not been giving much care to the development of serious relations with its Asian neighbors in the last 15 years. As a result, it has lost many of its positions in the East. Despite the fact that Russia remains one of the most pro-American among the great Asian nations, and has tremendous Eurasian experience, the U.S. does not view it as a strategic partner in the region. Yet, the vacancy remains unoccupied, because other potential candidates, for example, Turkey, Israel, India, Pakistan or Japan, are unable to undertake this mission, either.

The elites, both in the U.S. and Russia, continue to feel mutual distrust, mixed with elements of paranoia and malicious joy. The mass media often paints a primitive and biased picture of the other country, strengthening old stereotypes and creating new ones, while ties between the two societies remain very weak. Washington is under constant pressure from various kinds of international lobbies, whose interests are often in conflict with Russia’s interests. In the meantime, Russia does not lobby its own interests in the U.S. and does nothing to shape a positive image there.


During his second presidency, George W. Bush will not take steps to broaden the dialog with Russia, nor will Moscow receive any long-term guarantees from him; Russia’s economic, social and political development will not be among the U.S. leader’s priorities. Bush needs the Kremlin only as an ally in the war against terrorism, which suits Putin perfectly.

However, America’s foreign policy, unlike Russia’s, is not presidential. The Congress, nongovernmental organizations, businesses, mass media, and even members of the president’s team will do anything to influence him. The Republican Party’s leaders do not want to be accused in the 2008 elections of “losing Russia” again, or of overlooking the destruction of democracy in the former Soviet Union while building democracy in the Middle East, thus putting U.S. national security in jeopardy. A lack of support from the American Establishment, even on such a minor issue as Russia, may complicate the solution of other problems for Bush.

Now it will, most certainly, be easier to change the U.S. president’s position toward Russia. For the American neo-Conservatives, who make the ideological foundation of the incumbent U.S. government, Russia’s retreat from democratic positions would be a serious defeat, which they would not tolerate. The neo-Conservative ideology is much more imperialist and global than even the views of the Democrats in Clinton’s times. The neo-Conservatives give more priority to global democracy than to the war against terrorism, believing it to be the most effective way to counter terror. Knowing the messianic nature of George Bush’s character and policies, one can assume that he will heed such arguments.

During his second presidency, it will be important for Bush not only to focus on his main mission, that of proliferating democracy and freedom in the world, but also to rally his party around this goal and even try to win over part of the Democrats and independent politicians. Bush built his 2004 election campaign on a combination of political and moral values, which won him unprecedented support among the voters. It is these values that Russia is now retreating from, thus dissociating itself from Bush, the neo-Conservatives and the realistically minded Republicans, not to mention America as a whole.

In light of the abovementioned views, Moscow should give up the convenient “simplicity” in its relations with the U.S. and initiate a new, broad dialog with Washington, even though it may not always be pleasant.

For example, in the dialog on the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Moscow should focus attention on ways to deny non-state structures access to the WMD market, and to build ground- and space-based elements for a joint ABM system. The Bush administration will not sign new long-term security treaties with anyone, as it will prefer to keep its hands free. This factor adds special importance to the efforts to broaden constant contacts between the U.S. and Russia in the nuclear field and to overcome mutual mistrust. The potentials of the two countries and the age of Russia’s WMD make it necessary to consider the possibility of an accidental nuclear war. The United States and Russia must immediately revise all aspects of their military doctrines that can be interpreted as being directed against each other.

As regards Chechnya, Washington does not view this problem as Russia’s internal affair – to Moscow’s obvious displeasure. Yet, the motives of the U.S. administration differ from the motives of a majority of European countries, for example. The Europeans give top priority to the human rights issue in the troubled Chechen Republic. For the U.S., they are aware of this problem, however, the White House is more concerned about Russia’s inability to cope with the terrorists and remove those factors that promote terrorist activities.

Washington views the situation in Chechnya as proof that Russia is incapable, politically and militarily, of ensuring security in its sector of the common front in the war against terrorism. The territory of the former Soviet Union has turned into one of the most explosive and corrupt regions of the world, while Russia has proven to be a weak link in the antiterrorist coalition. In the post-Soviet space, areas have emerged which are being used as training and rehabilitation bases for terrorists. In a worst-case scenario, Russia, unable to eradicate corruption in its army and law enforcement agencies, may turn from a victim of terror into its source.

Thus, the U.S. administration, unlike the Europeans, tends to accept the Kremlin’s arguments that Chechnya is one of the fronts in the global war against international terrorism. One should bear in mind, though, that the presidential administration of the U.S. is not omnipotent in formulating its policy, as it is oriented to the views of different groups and is under the influence of different factors. This circumstance partly explains the West’s benevolence toward emissaries of the Chechen separatist leaders and their readiness to give them political asylum, much to Moscow’s dismay. The pro-Chechen lobby in the U.S. is now much more effective than its pro-Russian counterpart, and Moscow should start making serious efforts in order to change public opinion in America in its favor. Otherwise, courts meeting to decide whether or not one or another Chechen leader should be given political asylum would always be inclined toward them, especially if the Russian law enforcement bodies continue submitting unconvincing and unprofessionally prepared documents to their foreign colleagues.

A radical change in Washington’s attitude to the Chechen resistance would require serious and comprehensive accords between the two countries. The Chechen issue must be included in a large package of agreements on cooperation in fighting terrorism. Stepping up this cooperation and raising it to a higher level would help create a favorable atmosphere in Russian-U.S. relations. This factor would cause the two allies to help each other with their problems – the U.S. problem in the Middle East, and the Russian problem in Chechnya.

Mending economic ties between the U.S. and Russia is a more serious and long-term factor in mutual relations than the war against terrorism or efforts to stop WMD proliferation. It should not be supposed, however, that the Bush administration will be able to speed up this long process. But economy can diversify the bilateral agenda. For example, Washington will continue supporting Russia’s early accession to the World Trade Organization, while the two countries may negotiate their large-scale cooperation in rebuilding Iraq, especially its oil industry.

The U.S. has a vested interest in a radical improvement of Russia’s energy infrastructure, as it would like to ensure reliable Russian energy supplies to the world market. Washington argues that Russia will have difficulty joining in efforts to meet the global demand for energy, although it continues to grow. This is because Russia’s cheap oil is almost depleted, and the development of new oil fields requires heavy, years-long investment. The U.S. can help Russia build a modern energy infrastructure and make this country more attractive to foreign investors.

Russia’s stepped-up efforts to take control of the energy industry do not inspire much enthusiasm in Washington, yet they will not cause the White House to stop its cooperation with Moscow. Yet, the U.S. is not interested in the “energy switch” becoming the key and, most importantly, unpredictable element of Russia’s foreign policy toward former Soviet republics and other countries. It is impossible to say yet where Russia’s present geopolitical convulsions will lead it, nor what the final priorities will be for its foreign strategy.

The centralization of power in Russia will reduce opportunities for U.S. investment in regional projects, as economic diversity will decrease and the Russian market will exist within limited political frameworks. The Kremlin’s growing control over the regions, which decreases their independence, causes U.S. companies to lose interest in local projects. Nevertheless, the American business community is certainly interested in what will happen to Russia’s Far East, Siberia and territories bordering on China in approximately 20 to 30 years. What will Russia’s borders look like? What will the environmental situation, political risks, economic security, and regional demography be like? Finally, who will be making the decisions in Russia?

Anyone speaking about a strategic partnership between Russia and the U.S. must understand that no one can achieve parity with America today. Yet, the United States, at the same time, is unable to cope with many problems on its own. These problems are much easier to solve on the basis of partner relations with other countries. In Eurasia, Russia can and must become such a partner. To this end, it must step up its dialog with the U.S. and offer a wide range of opportunities, including non-trivial ones.

In particular, Moscow and Washington could seriously discuss variants of their partnership based on regional parity. The U.S. and Western Europe coexisted for a long time in such a manner: in exchange for the security and protection of their interests, the European countries agreed to a reasonable limitation of their political independence. Today, we know what they gained from that partnership in the long run. Now, as the political and economic ambitions of the European Union are growing, the Old World is again facing the issue of maintaining a balance between European and American interests. Russia is facing such an issue for the first time.
Let us suppose that Russia undertakes a mission of representing, protecting and implementing Washington’s fundamental interests that are not in conflict with Russia’s own interests. These interests would be in Eurasia and, above all, in the post-Soviet space where Russia plays a key role. In exchange, the U.S. will represent and protect Russia’s interests in other regions of the world, for example, in Africa and, strange as it may seem, in Europe. The experience of U.S.-oriented countries, such as Poland or Turkey, shows that Warsaw and Ankara, in promoting their interests in the European Union, actively use their relations with Washington as an instrument of their European policies: the EU cannot ignore U.S. pressure. Considering the difficulties that Moscow is having in its dialog with the EU, support of its mighty overseas partner would provide Russia with much support.

Russia needs a long-term agreement with the world’s leaders within the framework of efforts to achieve mutual security and build a new world order. Russia and the U.S. have never held negotiations of this kind, but these talks could be a serious step in building a strategic partnership between the two countries. A partnership that is capable of successfully developing – even if relations between the two leaders become strained.

Last updated 9 february 2005, 13:25

} Page 1 of 5