Executive Summary: Putin's Foreign Policy and U.S.-Russian Relations

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Executive Summary: Putin's Foreign Policy and U.S.-Russian Relations

January 18, 2001 4 min read
Ariel Cohen
Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The

Since his election as President of Russia in March 2000, Vladimir Putin has embarked on an intense effort to enhance Russia's international status and return it to the ranks of the world's great powers. This effort includes strengthening Russia's influence with its neighbors, states in the Middle East, and the Europe Union. Heavily influenced by the agenda of former Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov, who advocated creation of a "multipolar" world in which America's status and power decline, Putin is using arms sales and energy exports to expand Russia's spheres of influence.

Putin's policies therefore will present numerous challenges to the new Bush Administration. In some areas, such as strategic arms reduction, economic development, space exploration, and international terrorism, Russia is likely to cooperate with the United States. In other areas, such as national missile defense and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Washington will need to be both careful and cautious in addressing its concerns with Moscow.

Until recently, the Clinton Administration all but closed its eyes to Russia's activities that countered U.S. interests, such as negotiating a "Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation" with Beijing, selling arms to Iran and China, supporting Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, and ignoring massive money laundering of public funds and, possibly, foreign assistance dollars. President Clinton apparently believed that the abstract notion of good relations with Russia, Russia's democratic transformation, and his personal friendship with Boris Yeltsin were far more important; but his soft approach to these transgressions could prove costly, because Putin's agenda could foster conflicts in regions that are important to the United States, from the Persian Gulf to the Taiwan Strait. The Bush Administration's new policy toward Russia must therefore be based on efforts that protect America's national security interests.

The leaders of the United States and Russia are at an important juncture; their decisions will define the basis of U.S.-Russian relations in the 21st century. Both President Bush and President Putin must make the right choices now so that future generations of people enjoy peace and prosperity and are not held hostage to such threats as ballistic missile attack or economic turmoil.

Putin has expressed a desire to visit the United States and meet with President George W. Bush. The last U.S.-Russian summit took place in June 2000, when President Clinton traveled to Moscow; it was near the end of Clinton's term, and Putin had only recently assumed office. Despite all U.S. efforts, no breakthroughs were announced, and the atmosphere reportedly was businesslike if not chilly.

There is much room for improvement. President-elect Bush should consider inviting President Putin to a summit in Washington after his Administration has conducted a thorough review of Russian policy and has put in place its decision-making mechanisms on foreign policy and national security matters. Such a summit could take place in Washington either before June 2001 or in conjunction with the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy, later this summer. At such a summit, the Administration should:

  • Pursue Russia's acceptance of the deployment of a national missile defense system for America. Such a system would not be aimed at reducing or eliminating Russia's potential for deterrence. It would be designed, first and foremost, to shield the American people against missile attack by rogue states that possess small numbers of weapons or by terrorist groups. Moscow already has expressed an interest in joint development of boost-stage interceptors for theater missile defense.

  • Establish more stringent nonproliferation and arms trade criteria. Russia's track record, especially in weapons and military technology sales to Iran and Iraq, is poor. Moscow should agree to restrain the sale of arms and military technology to rogue states.

  • Convince Russia to halt proliferation activities with Iran and Iraq. The Bush Administration should offer incentives to Russia, such as increasing quotas for commercial satellite launches and the purchase of nuclear power-station fuel (uranium), to encourage it to halt its proliferation activities with Iran. It could offer Russia preferential treatment in Iraq after Saddam is gone and sanctions are lifted.

  • Seek limits on Russian cooperation with China. Russia's military and industrial ties to China have contributed to China's aggressive remodernization of its military and to its proliferation activities. Despite recent reports that Moscow and Beijing are about to sign a political treaty, the United States and Russia should open discussions on the nature of the potential threats that such Chinese activity poses to both countries.

  • Express support for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Administration should offer technical support to Russia for developing policy, laws, and regulations that meet WTO standards.

Clearly, President-elect Bush must offer Putin an open hand. However, if Putin and Moscow refuse to cooperate with the Bush Administration in such areas as missile defense, weapons proliferation, and regional security, the President must make it clear that U.S. support for Russia's priorities, such as debt rescheduling, cannot be guaranteed.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Ariel Cohen

Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The