Executive Summary: The Watershed in U.S.-Russia Relations: Beyond "Strategic" Partnership

Report Europe

Executive Summary: The Watershed in U.S.-Russia Relations: Beyond "Strategic" Partnership

February 17, 1999 4 min read Download Report
Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen
Director, CENRG and Senior Fellow, IAGS
Ariel served as the Director of the CENRG and Senior Fellow for IAGS

The ascendancy of Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov, former Foreign Minister and once head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, in Moscow should alarm Washington. Because of President Boris Yeltsin's ill health, Primakov is acting as de facto president and is positioned to be a serious contender in the next presidential elections. His policies, supported by a communist-nationalist majority in the legislature, are being implemented by a cabinet that includes, as key economic policymakers, leaders of the Communist Party and former high-ranking Soviet officials. Under Primakov, Moscow is reverting to a zero-sum approach toward Washington that is more adversarial and reminiscent of Russia's czarist and Soviet roots. Yet Russia continues to demand U.S. support for economic assistance from the West.

The Clinton Administration, which until recently considered Russia policy the crown jewel of its diplomacy, personalized its support of
Russian reforms by backing President Boris Yeltsin. Consequently, it overlooked serious flaws in Yeltsin's policies. Important economic and political reforms that would promote the transition to democracy and a free-market economy either were not attempted or were badly bungled. Corruption and mismanagement in attempts to privatize state enterprises were ignored.

President Clinton supported Yeltsin even when the war in Chechnya led to the deaths of 90,000 Russians, and when the government failed to pay millions of Russians. Now Primakov's efforts to establish a "strategic triangle" with China and Iran to counterbalance America's superpower status, as well as his opposition to U.S. efforts to rein in rogue regimes in Iraq and Serbia, are bringing President Clinton's policy weaknesses to a head.

Russia is more economically desperate and politically unpredictable than at any time since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It has transformed its post-communist policies from those of an aspiring ally of the West to those of an aspiring rival. Neither friend nor foe, Russia today often challenges U.S. leadership and policy, setting itself up as a potential--and sometimes real--counterbalance to American influence.

Russia is providing China with pivotal assistance to modernize its strategic weapons systems, is selling ballistic missile and nuclear technology to Iran, defends Saddam Hussein in the U.N. Security Council, and supports Slobodan Milosevic on the issue of Kosovo. The Duma persists in rejecting the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START II) on nuclear weapons. And the Russian government, with support from the Clinton Administration, clings to the terms of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty between the former Soviet Union and the United States. The threat from Primakov's policies became clearest last October, when Russia conducted its first massive nuclear war games since the end of the Cold War.

In sum, Russia's actions today are becoming more anti-American and anti-status quo. As House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) has observed, "Our policy toward Russia appears near collapse."

A watershed point in U.S.-Russia relations has been reached: The idealistic hope for a democratic Russia that has driven Administration policies must be reconsidered, and a new approach based on realistic assessment of U.S. interests must be adopted. If the Administration does not address the threat to U.S. and global security that Russia's activities represent, America's relations with Russia will deteriorate. Containing or isolating Russia, however, is not the solution. Despite Primakov's hostile policies, the Russian people are not America's enemy.

The Administration must design a more effective policy to keep Russia engaged, to demonstrate to its people that America cares about their future, and to promote reforms that allow Russia to integrate into the international community. At the same time, U.S. assistance and cooperation should be conditioned on Russia's willingness to cooperate with America. U.S. support on such issues as the rescheduling of Russia's massive foreign debt should be linked to Russia's actions on issues affecting U.S. security, interests, and values.

Specifically, the United States should:

  • Recognize that Russia has abandoned its policy of strategic cooperation with the U.S. and use all available leverage, including the denial of international economic assistance, to encourage positive changes in Russian foreign and domestic policy.

  • Establish conditionality between debt rescheduling and progress in Russia's economic reforms and international activities. Russia must demonstrate that it can behave responsibly in the economic and security areas before the United States and the international community agree to reschedule its debt.

  • Focus assistance on technical advice and support if Russia proves to be cooperative. To integrate fully into the global community, Russians need market-oriented, analytical, business, and legal skills. Businesses, universities, and nonprofit organizations should be encouraged to offer academic and professional training in Russia. Russia also needs help in building institutions of democracy and civil society.

  • Conduct a bottom-up re-evaluation of U.S.-Russia policy through a congressionally appointed blue-ribbon panel that includes former U.S. policymakers who have not been involved in devising and conducting U.S. policy toward Russia in the past six years.

While Russia's integration into the international community should remain an important goal of U.S.-Russia relations, Russia also must be encouraged to make the necessary changes to avoid its further decline.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst in Russian and Eurasian Studies in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen

Director, CENRG and Senior Fellow, IAGS