Only a few years ago, Russia-watchers were warning that if NATO expanded to take in a few former members of the Warsaw Pact, the Russian reaction would be severe. NATO enlargement would undermine any Russian government that acquiesced to such a scheme and deeply harm prospects for Russian cooperation with the West.
And yet the past several years have seen not only NATO enlargement to Central Europe but a whole range of U.S.-led policies that would supposedly lead to a backlash in Russia: NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, Washington’s abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, NATO’s announced plans to enlarge further even to the Baltic states, and the recent establishment of what could be permanent U.S. bases in former Soviet Central Asian states.
The result? President Vladimir Putin has accepted all of this, is preparing for his third meeting in less than a year with his friend George W. Bush and is hovering at around 80 percent in opinion polls, with no serious opposition in sight.
What is going on? The answer is that Putin has ended centuries of Russian wavering between East and West and made a strategic choice that the country’s future lies unequivocally in Europe. The path to that goal, he understands, is restoration of the Russian economy, which is possible only with Western cooperation.
Putin’s choice does not result solely from a desire to take advantage of the war on terrorism to win Western support for his war in Chechnya. He had decided well before Sept. 11 that it was futile to resist policies that he clearly could not stop—the hallmark of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Having threats revealed to be empty, Putin knows, is worse than not issuing them in the first place.
His subordination of former foreign policy aspirations to the need to get along with the West results partly from a conviction that Russia belongs in Europe for cultural and historical reasons. But it is even more a product of the recognition that Russia has little choice, at least for now.
Although many in Moscow continue to lament that Russia is no longer treated as an equal partner of the United States, Putin understands that such an aspiration is no longer realistic. After 70 years of Communist rule and a decade of corruption and economic mismanagement, Russia today has a GDP the size of Belgium’s.
Its defense budget, for so long the symbol of its equality with the other superpower, is now around $50 billion, approximately the amount by which the United States will increase military spending this year. Measured in current exchange rates, the Russian defense budget is closer to $9 billion, or what the United States spends on defense in just under two weeks.
The new Putin strategy makes sense. Maybe in 10 or 15 years, when the economy is back in working order, Russia can again begin to challenge America’s global leadership and start jockeying for geopolitical influence in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere. For now, the priorities are at home—to improve the lot of the population, promote foreign investment, reduce the costs of foreign policy, and seek the regional stability necessary for economic growth.
If the United States is willing to fight Islamic terrorism and invest in Central Asia, Russia will welcome the contribution rather than fight it on geopolitical grounds. Russian soldiers do not worry about NATO enlargement to the Baltic states; they just want to be paid. Faced with a compliant Putin, it is no wonder the Bush administration tends to pay little attention to Russian concerns, whether on NATO enlargement, missile defense or the Middle East. The United States can pretty much have its way with Russia right now, and there is no need to shy away from important strategic decisions consistent with American interests and values. But Bush should also recognize that we are in the formative period of what could be a development of truly historic proportions, Russia’s definitive decision to become a Western country. And in the long run, the Russian people’s judgment on whether that is the right course will depend on whether they seemed to be getting a reasonable deal, a modicum of respect for their views and a willingness to take at least some of their interests into account.
As the triumphant Bush heads off to Moscow and St. Petersburg this spring to close deals on NATO-Russia relations, nuclear weapons and perhaps Iraq, he should keep this long-term perspective in mind.