The Bush administration’s decisions to expel 50 Russian diplomats on charges of spying underscores the extent to which the Cold War framework still dominates foreign policy thinking at the highest levels in the United States.
Consider these recent statements: According to President George W. Bush, Russia “may be a threat, if they decide to be, but they’re not the enemy.” Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, said, “I sincerely believe that Russia constitutes a threat for the West in general and our European allies in particular.” Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, said of missiles, “Russia is an active proliferator. They are part of the problem.” And this from Secretary of State Colin Powell: “The approach to Russia shouldn’t be terribly different than the very realistic approach we had to the old Soviet Union in the late 1980’s.”
It is, as one wag put it, as if someone pushed the pause button in the early 1990’s when these officials last left office and was only now allowing the tape to roll again.
While the tape may have paused, the world did not and Russia has moved forward in fundamental ways. True, Moscow still controls thousands of nuclear weapons, with many still pointed at the United States. Russia retains an impressive nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons infrastructure. And its sales of advanced technologies to third countries is still cause for worry, not to mention the persistence of an active internal and external security service.
But it would be foolish to focus just on the similarities when the differences are so great. Russia today is not the Soviet Union of the late 1980’s, or even the Russia of the early 1990’s. While Russians—as many as 80% according to a recent poll—may feel nostalgic for the Soviet years, it is the stability and predictability of life they miss, not the superpower standoff or the restrictions and excesses of Soviet communism.
Russians today enjoy the basic freedoms—of speech, of assembly, of religion—that are the hallmarks of a free society. Russia has dismantled the command economy, transferring most economic power to private hands. And for all its faults—which are many—the Putin administration can at least take credit for forging a political consensus in favor of far-reeaching economic reforms that, if implemented, may put Russia on the road to prosperity.
In emphasizing weapons, spies, and traditional security issues in its bilateral relations with Russia, the Bush administration is trying to transpose yesterday’s agenda into tomorrow’s world. That misses the point. Russia is not the Soviet Union—at home or abroad. It has given up global pretensions, even accepting a painful retreat from the Balkans and the Baltics. And the thrust of its foreign policy is in new directions. Russian policy today is carefully calculated from a position of weakness to maximize economic advantage as well as enhance security.
Russia’s interests lie close to home and are pragmatic. Relations with Europe are emphasized over the United States because an enlarged European Union will soon account for 50% of its trade. Visits to former friends, like Cuba, stress repayment of debts to Russia. Weapons sales to Iran are sources of hard cash, not geostrategic moves to outflank Washington. In spite of concerns about enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it is EU expansion that is the most crucial development for Moscow because it has direct relevance to Russian prosperity.
In security terms, Russia’s focus is on the former Soviet republics and the states on its southern flank around the Caspian Basin. Here, Russia sees itself caught between a rock and a hard place—NATO to the west and chaos to the south. But economic interests are closely tied to security and Caspian energy resources are a significan element in Russian calcuations for exports to Europe. With Washington challenging Moscow’s monopoly over energy transportation routes and its commercial aspirations, the Caspian Basin has become a flashpoint in U.S.-Russian relations.
These tensions do not have to result in the kinds of crises that beset U.S.-Soviet relations. But defusing these tensions will require the administration to abandon the language of threats and the focus on weapons that dominated the “realistic approach” of the 1980’s.
The Bush administration must accept that foreign policy toward Russia, as elsewhere, should be based on the world of today. The spy scandal is too much of a diversion back to the world of yesterday.