Dangerous Relapses

8 may 2006

Sergei Karaganov, Doctor of History, is Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs of the National Research University–Higher School of Economics (NRU–HSE), and Honorary Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Russia.

Resume: Russia has reached a limit in conservative evolution. If we cross
this line, we will give the “knights and pages” of the Cold War in the West
an excuse for worsening relations with Russia. These people feel lost; they simply cannot live without an enemy, nor are they able to acknowledge past mistakes.

Recently, two remarkable foreign policy papers were released in the United States. One is the president’s report, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, which is the first such document to be issued since 2003. The Council on Foreign Relations, America’s most prominent foreign policy organization, prepared the other, entitled, Russia’s Wrong Direction: What the United States Can and Should Do. The two documents of course differ in scope, but are crucial for understanding where U.S. foreign policy thought is directed, where the White House is heading, and in what direction the different groups of the policy-making elite are attempting to push U.S. policy toward Russia.


The first thing that strikes the eye from reading the documents, especially in the presidential report, is democratic Messianism as a keynote of U.S. foreign policy. The words “democracy” and “freedom” occur several times literally on every page. The spread of these ideals is declared not only as the principal goal of U.S. foreign policy, but also a cure-all for the world’s misfortunes: poverty, tyranny, diseases, and terrorism, as well as the main instrument of ensuring U.S. security. Elements of political realism, the understanding that America cannot always be guided by high-minded ideals in its policy, do exist but somewhere in the background.

One could cynically dismiss the calls for the spread of freedom, democracy and human rights as traditional election campaigning by the Democrats (after all, it has traditionally been the Republicans who have been more pragmatic, appealing to the realism of force rather than the idealism of freedom and democracy in the world). The description of the triumphant march of democracy in the world, showcasing the democratic “success stories” of Afghanistan, Georgia and Saudi Arabia, where Islamic radicals won the country’s first ever election on the municipal level, or Kyrgyzstan, where the situation is increasingly destabilizing and on the verge of chaos, is bound to raise some eyebrows. Finally, for all the empathy that the world feels for America’s suffering in Iraq and the tragedy of the Iraqi people, it is a bit of a stretch to call civil war-ravaged Iraq a victorious democracy.

It is also somewhat surprising that the list of the most tyrannical regimes, including North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Zimbabwe, and Belarus, does not include certain notorious regimes, including those in the FSU area, some of which produce oil and natural gas.

Yet, even if we disagree with the U.S. president (due to Russian political experience or cynicism born from seven decades of abortive Communist Messianism, a decade of quasi-democratic revolution chaos and the last few years of “managed democracy” that have been void of ideas or ideals), we cannot but feel respect for the leader of a nation who is attempting to restore Western humanistic ideals in a world that is rapidly losing faith in them. I actually believe that the deeply religious George W. Bush thinks of himself as a democratic messiah and is obsessed with the ideas and slogans that he is proclaiming, while the ruling elite (some of it believing in these ideals, some half believing, and some not believing at all) must adjust to them. In pursuing a specific policy line, George W. Bush and his inner circle deviate from the proclaimed lofty objectives or use them for very practical purposes – i.e., advancing U.S. interests. Nevertheless, the United States does have ideals, occasionally acting to its own detriment in the name of these ideals, while criticizing its representatives and denying them support. Yet, it still manages to get involved in a war whose catastrophic consequences and implications for American interests were predicted by nine-tenths of experts. Where are those critics now who kept saying at that time that the Americans started the war in Iraq over oil? What have the Americans gained from this operation except the loss of power, prestige and money? Thus far, it has been other oil-producing countries that have gained from it, above all Russia.

American democratic idealism should not be underestimated, nor should we judge American leadership by those who have lost faith. Such a temptation is fraught with costly mistakes.

Another important subject of the president’s message is the declaration of war – I believe, for the first time ever – on Islamic radicalism. All the right words about respect for the great and proud Islamic civilization were spoken. But it was also said that the fight against most militant and billigerent form of Islamic radicalism is the greatest ideological conflict at the beginning of the 21st century; that all great powers have joined forces on counterterrorism; and that this situation drastically differs from the 20th century, when the great powers were divided by ideology and national interests.

Bush stated what many were thinking about but did not dare say aloud. Now it will be more difficult for Russia to ignore this reality, especially since we were the first to take up arms and, having paid a terrible price, won the battle – not yet the war – in Chechnya against this most militant and belligerent form of Islamic radicalism and terrorism.

Yet, by their ill-judged intervention in Iraq the Americans have made this struggle far more difficult for everyone.

Russia’s unique history and geography, as well as many of its partners, are responsible for pushing it onto the battlefield of this new confrontation. Now we are faced with the extremely difficult task of avoiding this fate to the maximum degree possible. 

Predictably, Iran – said to be the evil of all evils, overflowing with tyranny, Muslim radicalism, terrorism, and the proliferation of WMD – was declared America’s number one enemy. It looks like the United States has abandoned its attempts (at least for the next two years) to convince Tehran to mend its ways, and will now rely on mostly coercion to achieve its goals. This will not frighten Iranian radicals, but it will certainly drive Iranian reformers into a corner. It would be wiser to fight Tehran’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons rather than fight the Iranian leadership.

One provision of the National Security Strategy that has caused the most controversy is the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to U.S. national security. This option can be used on any scale against regimes or terrorists who have acquired or seized weapons of mass destruction and are threatening, or have the capability, to use them. I was struck by the unanimously negative reaction to this provision in the Western media. I was even more stunned by the criticism that the doctrine received from Russia. After all, preemptive action to counter an attack is an axiom of military theory and practice. Those who did not follow this theory in the past and built Maginot lines invariably suffered severe punishment. In our increasingly dangerous age, the need for preemptive strikes becomes more and more evident.

Does Russian military doctrine not provide for such actions as well? Indeed, if it does not, our strategists must be fired on the spot. But as far as I know, such options have never been precluded, and all our potential adversaries understand this. I am sure that the General Staff knows what it is doing.
It is another matter altogether, however, to argue that the United States is attempting to monopolize the right to preemptive actions, saying that (other) nations should not “use preemption as a pretext for aggression.”  Please, let’s be serious. If there is a direct threat to a country’s vital interests and national security, no one will ask Washington what to do.

The presidential report put forward a positive program to control WMD proliferation, and Russia would be ready to subscribe to it almost without reservations. Indeed, Russia is naturally interested in playing a key role in the implementation of this program, and without Russian participation no such program can be effectively implemented.


The presidential report offers a vision of Russia that the White House would like to convey to America, the world, and Russia herself. The report reiterates that there should be no rivalry between the great powers, stressing the importance of Russia for the United States and the world. It expresses a readiness to work closely together in areas where our interests coincide, and take problems in stride where they don’t. These are words from the old “positive” lexicon. But there are also some new notes. For example, it is stated that some recent trends (in Russia) point to a diminishing commitment to democratic freedoms and institutions. Russia is urged to move forward, not backward. The report also contains a veiled warning that relations could worsen should Moscow hinder democratic development not only at home but also in neighboring countries. The presidential report does not proclaim a turnaround in Russian-U.S. relations, yet it definitely implies such a possibility.

By contrast, the report issued by the Council on Foreign Relations puts a much greater thrust on the possibility and even the desirability of a turnaround in Russian-U.S. relations.

I will not provide an overall review of the report out of respect for the Council that I have been cooperating with for 30 years, and out of respect for the experts and politicians who took part in preparing it, for I have been linked with many of them by professional and friendly relations for decades. Briefly, I would hate to think that many of the report’s astounding evaluations were caused by ideological bias. They obviously resulted from simple misunderstanding. I will only say that this particular report highlights the need for a deep and frank dialog between the elites of our countries. Presently, this dialog is practically non-existent, and certainly more lacking than during the Cold War era. Allow me to consider some of the basic points of the report.
The Russian economy is developing very successfully. While this is certainly good news, many people in Russia would not share this degree of optimism.

At the same time it is stated that in its domestic policy, Russia is backtracking on the democratic gains of the past. Corruption is growing. Over-centralization of power at the expense of building modern state and public institutions is approaching a critical point indicating the decline in the efficiency of state governance.

These assertions have a substantial element of truth. Actually, if I were to write a report about the development of Russia’s domestic policy, I would have thrown in a few more serious critical remarks.

The problem with the report in question, however, is that it presents practically all aspects of Russia’s domestic policy in a black light – it’s all gloom and doom. Thus, it creates the impression that the 1990s witnessed the thriving of democracy, while the middle of this decade is only characterized by its demise.

The authors refuse to face up to the fact that Russia, which no one has ever really helped to reform, is passing through a natural period of conservative consolidation after the chaos of the 1990s. And it is rather strange to hear criticism from people who publicly approved of the use of tanks and guns against the Russian parliament in 1993, supported the methods by which Boris Yeltsin was elected in 1996, granted loans to his bankrupt government in 1998, and stood by the Kremlin in 1999 when it had virtually lost touch with reality and become ineffective, while the state was visibly disintegrating. I was with or on the side of those who had used tanks and provided that support, but I felt ashamed not only for myself and for my country but also for leaders of the democratic world, including the U.S. president, who had openly backed the execution and methods of governance that were being practiced at that time.

While I may be somewhat dismayed about the backsliding on some democratic principles and in disagreement with many aspects of Russia’s domestic policy, I will make a heretical point for a person of democratic and liberal persuasions: When all is said and done, Russia has never been a more thriving or freer country than it is now. We were only slightly freer in the turbulent 1990s, while just a handful of people enjoyed a normal life, let alone prospered at that time.

The report makes gloomy forecasts, stating that Russia’s future is unpredictable. But when was it more predictable than right now? A stagnation/authoritarianism scenario is possible, but it is equally possible that within the next several years, the country could turn to more modern and effective development. On the other hand, we are practically past the Weimar period of our history, while any retreat to a totalitarian or ultranationalist regime is extremely unlikely. 

The description of Russia’s foreign policy produces an even stranger impression. The authors of the CFR report say that this policy, except perhaps for Russia’s cooperation on Iran and WMD nonproliferation as a whole, is becoming almost completely anti-American.

Of course, Russia feels more confident, perhaps even overconfident, and now wishes to protect its own interests, while giving up the servile “what can we do for you” policy of the first half of the 1990s that some Americans must be feeling nostalgic for now.

However, is it realistic to call Russia’s present policy anti-American? Here are some of the manifestations of “hostility” mentioned in the report. It turns out that we are pushing China into a confrontation with the United States by selling arms to it or conducting joint military exercises. We support antidemocratic regimes in Central Asia and ousting the United States out of the region. As far as the last-mentioned point is concerned, I believe that the Americans were pleased to leave Uzbekistan, shifting responsibility onto Russia. But then the Russian president supported the deployment of the U.S. and NATO base in Kyrgyzstan. What are we expected to do – overthrow bad or very bad local regimes and pave the way to chaos, radical Islamism and drug barons?

We stand admonished for conducting dialog with Hamas. Personally, I do not believe that a country that has suffered so much from Chechen terrorism should have hastened to open negotiations with a terrorist organization even if it legitimately came to power. But in his message, the U.S. president told Hamas essentially what the Russian authorities did: recognize Israel’s right to exist, conduct a responsible policy, and we will work with you.

Cooperation in the energy sphere, although not very effective but still highly positive, is described as anti-American. Even the delay in the construction of an oil pipeline to Murmansk is seen as an anti-American move.

It is proposed that this narrow level of cooperation be narrowed further, not expanded.

And this is the strangest thing of all. A narrowing and downgrading of cooperation is being proposed at a time when the United States has become considerably weakened because of Iraq, while the new agenda – the Greater Middle East, energy, WMD proliferation, the integration of new giants into the world system and other global challenges – requires closer cooperation than ever before. The United States is obviously not in a position to deal with these problems single-handedly, while its traditional allies cannot or do not want to play a global role.

By far the greatest sin of Russia’s foreign policy, however, was the “politically motivated” energy blackmail against Ukraine. I do believe there was a political ingredient in the gas price hike, but there was definitely more bad politics and corruption in the decade-long practice of selling natural gas to Ukraine at below-market prices. For the past few years, we had been subsidizing the Ukrainian ruling class to the tune of more than $4.5 billion a year – probably 30 times as much as what the United States had provided to Kiev. So, is the transition to market prices, the abandonment of paternalism, and the treatment of Ukraine as a completely sovereign state also anti-American policy?

What is especially striking is that the authors of the report fail to see a number of important spheres where Russia and the United States are closely cooperating. We have consistently supported the U.S. peace operation in Afghanistan, and closely cooperate on the North Korean nuclear problem. During the crisis involving Iraq, unlike many U.S. allies, Russia did nothing to undermine Washington’s positions. Moscow warned in advance that it saw military action as bad judgment, and it proved right. Now, there are very few people who would describe Russia’s present policy on Iraq as unconstructive.
The report is not entirely negative. It calls for constructive cooperation in nonproliferation and a number of other spheres, but on the whole both its tonality and recommendations are negative.

However, whereas the report is rich on criticism, it is rather short on advice. It recommends cooperation only in areas that are beneficial for the United States. It also proposes predicating U.S. policy toward Russia on the level of its democratic development. (On this point, however, most Republican authors expressed disagreement, arguing that only anti-American moves should be countered.)

In this context, the report offers a curious list of instruments to pressure Russia.

First, downgrading the level of cooperation within the Russia-NATO Council. Now, we thought that our cooperation with NATO helped the organization by providing it desperately needed legitimization.

Second, restoration of the G7 within the G8 – preliminary consultations without Russia, which somewhat downgrades her status. Well, psychologically, this is not a very nice prospect, but Russia today is little reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the late-Gorbachev era or of Boris Yeltsin’s Russia. Moscow is more confident and no longer places much significance on outward signs of respect or disrespect. Furthermore, the G8 remains somewhat weak and not as yet in a position to fill the emerging vacuum in international relations. The group’s enlargement to include India, China and possibly Brazil is high on the agenda, so the threat of reviving the G7 within the G8 does not look very credible. Meanwhile, the G7 within the G10, which is bound to come about sooner or later, would look very strange indeed.

So what conclusions should we make from the analysis of these two reports?

First, we have reached a limit in conservative evolution. If we cross this line, we will give the “knights and pages” of the Cold War in the West an excuse for worsening relations with Russia. These people feel lost; they simply cannot live without an enemy nor are they able to acknowledge past mistakes. However, they will only be playing into the hands of our own “knights and pages” who, driven by their parochial mentality and old stereotypes, would like to fight against America, not fight for Russia, thereby pushing the country into ruinous isolationism.

We cannot allow the creation of an “unholy alliance” of the most backward elements within our policy-making class. They and their predecessors have already caused us colossal damage by playing into each other’s hands during the real Cold War.

Second, Russia should not be too cynical toward the democratic rhetoric of the United States or Europe, as we sometimes are toward such rhetoric in our own country. Many people, including political leaders, believe in what they say, and if we want to be together with the developed and relatively free world, we should start playing according to the common rules of the game not only in word but in deed.

Third, we should not be afraid of criticism. We should not become complacent. Criticism should be heeded; the views of “knights and pages” should be taken into account. But we are now acquiring a sense of our motherland and statehood, and we should go our own way, modernizing, strengthening and democratizing the country for our own benefit and therefore for the benefit of the entire civilized world.

Finally, we are being pressured, both at home and abroad, to return to the prehistoric era of the Cold War or “peaceful coexistence.” We must not yield to this pressure either politically or intellectually. We have gone through the tragedy of confrontation. We should not get ourselves involved in a farce as well.


Unfortunately, however, there are certain people in the West who seem to be itching for a fight with Russia judging by the spate of provocative ramblings lately. Foreign Affairs, the world’s most respected and popular American journal on foreign and defense policy, in its latest issue (March/April 2006) published an article by two young authors – an Assistant Professor and an Associate Professor from good, yet minor, U.S. universities. Having read the article, I smiled and recalled my younger years when, during the Cold War, I spent – or rather wasted – more than a decade studying nuclear theology and writing numerous articles, memorandums and booklets on this issue.

Two things in this article by the American authors struck me most: first, their utter lack of professionalism, not to mention the lack of knowledge of the subject and even its appropriate terminology. This is especially strange as the U.S. has for 60 years, since the end of World War II, been the leader and trendsetter in the theory of nuclear deterrence and has produced many outstanding specialists in this branch of science or theology.

The second thing that struck me was the article’s main message: the United States may soon gain a first-strike disarming capability against Russia and China, that is, the capability to deliver a nuclear first strike without suffering any consequences. Such a capability would let the U.S. break out of the restraining and civilizing bounds of the mutual assured destruction (MAD) theory, which thus far has kept countries from using nuclear weapons, while forcing them to exercise military and political caution in all other spheres.

Surprisingly, this article – which, as a university professor, I would certainly reject as a Bachelor’s graduation paper or even a third-year student’s term paper – has been widely discussed in the Russian press. Serious newspapers and venerable authors published lengthy articles in a bid to disprove the claims.

The main point of the article is that the United States’ current modernization programs, which involve “incremental improvements to existing [weapon] systems” rather than their buildup, will enable the U.S. to totally destroy Russia’s steadily shrinking and decaying nuclear arsenal by a first strike. The authors place emphasis on the quantitative and qualitative decline of Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal. In doing so, they ignore Russia’s recent efforts to modernize its nuclear forces, and argue that the U.S. missile defense system, although relatively ineffective, would vindicate itself in a situation where the United States gains a first-strike capability.

As regards the essence of this subject, it has long been proven that those who will be the first to deliver massive nuclear strikes, will be the second to die – even if because of the ecological consequence of those strikes.

It is even more obvious that no U.S. leader would ever dare deliver a first strike because the theoretical possibility will always exist that several retaliatory missiles might breach missile defenses. One must bear in mind that any retaliatory strike would be launched on warning, and Russia’s early-warning system, which is not very reliable today, would only increase the probability of such a strike should a nuclear confrontation ever become a reality.

Therefore, from the point of view of established strategic theory, fabrications of this kind are either pure provocation, or sheer nonsense that is occasionally recanted even in the U.S.

As regards the U.S. antimissile defense, as far as I understand from comments by Russian and American experts and from defense publications, even its most zealous supporters admit that this system cannot and will not work even against just several single missiles (that is, of course, if the latter are equipped with systems enabling them to breach missile defenses). Furthermore, after having spent massive funds on its missile defense and related technologies, which must have provided a boost to U.S. technological development, the United States is actually freezing the system’s construction. Thus, it remains doubtful that we will ever witness anything close to the realization of the fairy-tales that we were treated to, first by Ronald Reagan and then by other Republicans, before the incumbent Administration came to power and during its first days in office.

Finally, any expert, even with a slightest bit of knowledge, knows that a retaliatory strike – or any strike for that matter against a “potential enemy” – can be delivered without necessarily having to launch the missiles from one’s own territory. This is why the United States, Russia and other countries are so concerned about the threat of so-called nuclear terrorism. If nuclear warheads start spreading throughout the world, irreparable damage can be inflicted on any country without a formal declaration of war. This is just one of a dozen ways to prevent a strike against one’s territory.

As I mentioned earlier, this article made me recall my younger years. In those days, I wrote policy papers, books and theses and was one of the few people – and, quite possibly, the only Russian – to have access to particular documents of the U.S. National Archives. From this source, I read, for weeks on end, declassified Cold War documents of the National Security Council on strategic planning. I still keep quotes from these sources, so it gave me much pleasure to shake off the dust from these old files and draw my “good old weapon.” These documents all make one absolutely unequivocal conclusion: nuclear war became unacceptable to the United States as far back as the early 1950s, actually since the year 1950 when American strategists concluded that Russian bombers were capable of delivering at least one nuclear bomb to U.S. territory. The rhetoric of threats continued, but the real strategy was soon reoriented toward the prevention of war.

Many renowned official U.S. strategists wrote about this situation, among them Paul Nitze, one of the authors of the nuclear deterrence strategy. In 1954, during discussions on the National Security Direction NSC 5410, President Dwight Eisenhower expressed skepticism as to whether any nation would survive – in any recognizable way – after a nuclear war. He said that every single nation, including the United States, which entered into such a war as a free nation, would emerge from it as a dictatorship. This would be the price of survival. This statement by the U.S. president deserves special attention.

Eisenhower meant that the explosion of even one (low-yield by modern standards) nuclear bomb on U.S. territory would shatter the American way of life, as well as its social system, that its leaders loved so much and fought so hard to preserve. National Security Direction NSC 5440 of December 13, 1954, said that U.S. military action against the Soviet Union to reduce the latter’s might should not be a priority either for the U.S. or its allies. Being familiar with this and many other documents, I can say with almost absolute confidence that the United States’ political leadership, fearing a retaliatory strike against the U.S., has never planned to use nuclear weapons – even in the event that the Soviet Union attacked its allies in Europe. (One must not be misled by the rhetoric and military plans that the U.S. presented to its allies, who were also increasingly prone to discount America’s promises.)

Presidents John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and I believe all other subsequent presidents, supported Eisenhower’s position. The plan known as ‘extended containment strategy,’ i.e. U.S. readiness to use nuclear weapons in response to a hypothetical threat of Soviet attack against Western Europe, was a bluff. Nevertheless, like the Soviet bluff, it worked. Fearing a U.S. first strike in Europe, Moscow was building armies that were capable of immediately moving warfare to NATO territory. As a result, Russia had more battle tanks than the rest of the world combined. Today, looking back at those policies, it is clear that both sides believed in that phantasmagoric idiocy and spent hundreds of billions of dollars on bluff.

It surprised me that a reputable American magazine published an article on a problem that had long been overcome and shelved by the political leaderships of the two countries, and blatant attempts are once again being made to set our two countries against each other and make them “potential enemies.” Indeed, as long as there exist nuclear weapons, there will be deterrence, but this fact has been pushed into the periphery of Russian-U.S. relations.

It is possible, perhaps, that the authors, professors of two American universities, do not know that the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and later the U.S. and Russia, made public declarations not to aim their nuclear weapons against each other. Furthermore, both countries have made unprecedented efforts in cooperation in the nuclear field and have become partners. Yet it is difficult to imagine that the authors can be that ignorant.

What caused the publication of such an article then? Is it explainable by the ordinary enthusiasm of provincial teachers or, perhaps, lack of material for publication? The latter explanation is doubtful. There must be many respectable analysts and policymakers eager to contribute their articles to Foreign Affairs.

Another possibility is that someone is hoping to provoke Russia into a harsh political reaction and to aggravate the already fragile relations between the two countries. Several groups inside the American political establishment must fuel the tensions. By way of example, I can refer to the abovementioned report by the Council on Foreign Relations, which is definitely an attempt to revive tensions. There is yet another possibility that such commentary is meant to provoke anti-American, anti-Western and isolationist sentiments throughout Russia, thereby strengthening the positions of groups that already entertain such attitudes in this country. If this is the case, then this move aims to weaken Russia, tie its hands and stop its foreign-policy progress, which is becoming ever more influential on the international stage.

There is another possible explanation. One of the main objectives of the arms race was to bleed the enemy economically. The United States succeeded in these efforts to a much greater extent than the Soviet Union, although it must be said that the latter occasionally launched fake projects, thereby causing the Americans to spend great sums of resources in response to the perceived threat and much more than the systems really cost. One of the main motives for the Star Wars initiative, as well as the idea of a U.S. national missile defense, was the hope that Russia would take the bait and launch a counter-system of its own. Thus, the Star Wars theory was meant to undermine an already ailing Soviet economy. Eventually, that did happen, although on a much smaller scale than the Americans had expected.

Still another possibility is that a certain group of individuals in the U.S. is provoking Russia into spending its petrodollars and funds from the Stabilization Fund – not on the development of cutting-edge technologies, education, the creation of a multi-vector energy system, and finally, the country’s modernization – but on a senseless arms race.

Finally, the article may be intended to instill a sense of fear in China and prevent the natural Russian-Chinese rapprochement by implying that Russia is a weak ally. Meanwhile, at the present time neither Beijing nor Moscow is planning to establish any sort of mutual military-political alliance.
I do not insist on any of the above explanations, but if the latter three explanations are correct, it has been clumsy work.

With that said, it goes without saying that in today’s increasingly unpredictable and dangerous world Russia does need to modernize its nuclear potential. But we must do this in an economical and sensible fashion, in accordance with our requirements and capabilities, without reacting to bluff, thereby allowing ourselves to get involved in a new arms race.

Last updated 8 may 2006, 11:28

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