Russia: The U.S. Response to Changing Policy Imperatives

The 1990s were a disappointing decade for Russia, marked by severe economic decline and two devastating wars in Chechnya. Internationally, with the collapse of the USSR, Russia lost much of its stature on the world stage, and Western countries made incursions into its former spheres of influence—most notably by expanding NATO and intervening militarily in the Balkans. As the 21st century opens, the Russian state seems barely capable of the most basic political, social, and economic functions and incapable of projecting power abroad.

In the wake of the Cold War, Russia is still trying to reposition itself in its single most important relationship, that with the United States, and to define a new role regionally and globally. The greatest fear of Russian leaders, intent on retaining Russia’s position as a great power, is to see their state relegated to the status of a “third world” country—”Upper Volta with missiles,” as one Russian commentator once put it. The quest for international respect will pose major challenges for a new U.S. administration seeking to manage the relationship with Russia.

Russians have put much store in their new president, Vladimir Putin, who is promising to bring stability and prosperity at home and respect abroad. Putin is a product of the Russian political elite—a state functionary affiliated with the security services, plucked from relative obscurity by Kremlin insiders, and then designated to replace the ailing Boris Yeltsin and send a strong message to the outside world. His ascendancy represented a statement on behalf of all Russians that “we will henceforth define our own political and economic path.” As a result, Putin will be forced to chart a policy course among the shoals of elite and public opinion and the competing demands of powerful political factions to whom he is beholden.

New Policy Imperatives in Russia

Stability and control have supplanted marketization and democratization as Russia’s policy imperatives. Stability, in the form of peace, security, and legal order, has been repeatedly singled out in public opinion polls as the overriding goal of the Russian people. Control implies reestablishing a centralized, paternalistic government that will check the chaotic devolution of authority to Russia’s regions, strengthen the powers of the presidency, increase state regulation of the economy, and boost the powers of law enforcement agencies, the security services, and the armed forces to combat crime and corruption and threats from separatists.

Government policy actions this year have been consistent with these imperatives. To date, they have included the restoration of the Presidential Security Council as the primary decisionmaking body; the reduction of the powers of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament; legislative attempts to enable Putin to remove regional governors; the creation of seven super regions in the Russian Federation and the direct appointment of presidential representatives to supervise them; and decrees to bring regional and federal laws into conformity. These measures have been complemented by the determined pursuit of the war in Chechnya to overcome the national humiliation of defeat there in 1996; the resurgence of the FSB, successor to the KGB; detentions and arrests of researchers, journalists, and oligarchs perceived to be acting contrary to state interests; and increasing restrictions on press freedoms.

The Russian political elite sees economic development as the best way to strengthen the state and restore Russia’s international position. To succeed, Putin must deliver on the economy. But with Russia’s economy—dysfunctional and mutant, with a logic and rules all its own—only a conscious, comprehensive reform effort has even a chance to work. Serious reform would require a leadership that understands the current system and is willing and able to tackle it in all its complexity. But dismantling the existing economy would make Russia unstable, weak, and vulnerable for years—clearly an unacceptable prospect. So the Putin administration must find ways to achieve economic growth at minimal cost to political and social stability. That may be possible for a time. By building on the devaluation of the ruble after the 1998 financial crisis and on profits from high oil and gas prices and by stemming the direct looting of government resources and the squandering of budgetary funds, Putin could spur short-term growth. But long-term economic health—sustainable high rates of growth capable of supporting Russia’s reemergence as a major power—is highly unlikely.

Emphasizing the economy has implications for Russia’s foreign policy, as outlined in the new Ministry of Foreign Affairs doctrine produced in July. It means securing a breathing space and minimizing difficulties abroad. It also means stressing commercial and trade issues, obtaining debt relief, attracting foreign investment, and emphasizing cooperation with international economic and political structures such as the European Union. But the U.S. relationship remains crucial for Russia. Moscow will seek to regularize high-level contacts while working to limit any deployment of missile defense, prevent any significant change in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and discourage any further enlargement of NATO—especially one that might encompass the Baltic states. Russia will also want to assert itself in geographic areas that have been declared national priorities, including the Baltics, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Caspian Sea. The latter area with its energy reserves is particularly important to Russian economic interests.

Chechnya will remain a sticking point. The war is a defining moment for Russia. It is an ethnic war where a minority has been brutally persecuted—irrespective of the merits of the stated goal of countering terrorism. The approach is an explosive one for a multiethnic state. Although Russia is more than 80 percent ethnic Russian, it is also home to many non-Russians—around 27 million people from some 100 different ethnic groups. Although other secessions along the lines of Chechnya are unlikely, it will be hard to consolidate the state around a national core when many non-ethnic Russians who are Russian citizens have perished at the hands of the national army. Widespread disaffection among non-Russians (especially Muslim groups), suspicion of the ethnic Russian chauvinism of the center, and more rather than less instability seem the likely result.

Chechnya is more important for relations with the United States than it may initially seem from the point of view of U.S. national interests. It reveals much about the likely nature of Russian policy under Putin and some of the difficulties and dangers that Russia faces. That the war has raged amidst planning for liberal economic reforms indicates that Putin’s policies will be both progressive and regressive from the U.S. perspective. Economic reform and pragmatic relations with the West may be pursued while domestic dissent is stifled in the name of establishing strong central state control. Furthermore, the war in Chechnya is an important policy tool for the Putin government. It is not just a counterterrorism operation or simply a national tragedy. It is a projection of state power, no matter how flawed its execution.

This duality will make it increasingly difficult for a new U.S. administration to reconcile the universal principles and values Americans hold dear—human rights, democratization, and integration of the world economy—with the strategic imperatives of relations with Russia. If U.S. interests in Russia are defined by a new administration as ensuring human rights and establishing an open, liberal market economy, then the United States and Russia will likely clash on fundamental issues of values. Russia will represent a threat simply because it will itself be an exception in both cases.

Maintaining an accurate image of post-Cold War Russia will be essential for a new administration. Russia is like Great Britain and France after World War II, a former great power in the throes of decay that has lost both an empire and the means to preserve its crowning achievements. As the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine and the catastrophic fire in the Ostankino television tower both illustrated last August, the imperial military legacy and infrastructure cannot be maintained on a shoestring. Rebirth is many years in the future, if ever, and Russian policymakers will face hard choices about where ultimately to apply the state’s scarce resources. Meanwhile, Russia has the capacity to cause great harm both to U.S. interests through its nuclear arsenal and technology exports and to its own people and the states around it—especially those to the South. Russia is likely to be a negative rather than a positive power for the foreseeable future, posing more problems than opportunities for U.S. policymakers.

Preserving Appearances

Still, certain approaches to managing the relationship can safeguard U.S. priorities. Given Russia’s desire to be accorded respect internationally, and taken seriously by the United States in particular, symbolism and appearances are key. Skillful diplomacy will be required to ensure that Russia perceives no diminution of status in its relations with Washington. The attention now paid to Russia should continue, even if form rather than substance dominates summit meetings in the future. Consultation, dialogue, and the semblance of cooperation will be crucial.

Missile defense is likely to be a central issue. The United States should make an earnest effort to gain Russian support for (and participation in) any transition to a world of greater missile defense. At least in principle, that should be possible, as no defense being contemplated by the United States would threaten Russia’s nuclear status. But if Russia cannot be brought along, then any abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty should be done as openly as possible to minimize the impact on the overall relationship and to preserve prospects for mutual reductions in nuclear arsenals. The same approach applies to NATO enlargement, which should be presented as a technical issue—when countries meet the specific and rigorous criteria for inclusion, they can join. No one is excluded, not even Russia.

A somewhat different approach will be required with regard to the conflict in Chechnya, which is likely to drag on as a guerrilla war. A new U.S. administration, like its predecessor, will want to emphasize that criticism of Russia’s conduct in the conflict, including how it treats its own citizens, does not challenge its territorial integrity. But the United States must be careful not to make common cause with the slaughter of Russian citizens, while supporting legitimate action against activities by terrorist groups in the region.

This leads to the question of policy linkage. If Russia must distinguish between countering terrorism and brutalizing civilians in Chechnya, the United States must also delink its priority issues like nuclear nonproliferation from Chechnya. Washington must protect its own vital interests and not compromise on them—by, for example, cutting funding to programs in Russia that enhance the security of nuclear installations—as part of sanctions against Russian conduct in Chechnya. At the same time, the United States must also speak out consistently and firmly when fundamental values are challenged through political repression, including a crackdown on Russian civic organizations, or brutal reprisals against minority groups. Russia is now integrated with the West to such an extent that if it is allowed to diverge from standards of human rights, rule of law, and democracy, promoting these values elsewhere will be difficult.

Russia’s domestic affairs have their own dynamics. The United States can no longer make shaping Russia’s economy and polity in its own image the focus of its Russia policy. But support for indigenous Russian efforts to liberalize and reform the economy and politics—especially in Russia’s regions—should continue. Such support is a sign of commitment to the state’s overall development rather than an attempt to impose prepackaged Western formulas, and will help build a reservoir of good will toward the United States. On the macroeconomic level, continued assistance, debt relief, and loans should be contingent on real evidence of reforms in areas where aid is to be applied.

A new U.S. administration must bear in mind that Russia’s current predicament will certainly continue far beyond its term in office. A host of pressing issues—not only comprehensive economic reform and resolving the ongoing war in Chechnya, but also military reform, Russia’s demographic and health crisis, and severe environmental degradation—have been and will continue to be neglected in the name of stability. All require hard choices that will rupture national consensus and destabilize the polity. They cannot be neglected forever. Over the long term, the United States will be dealing with a continuously weakened Russia, even though it may have acquired some superficial attributes of a stronger state.