April 15, 1999

April 15, 1999 | Commentary on Russia

The Collapsing U.S.-Russia Partnership

Judging by the increasingly hostile actions of Russia in recent months, it would appear someone forgot to tell Russian Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov the Cold War is over. In fact, Russia today is more anti-Western than at any time since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The ascendancy of the staunchly anti-American Primakov should have alerted Washington that U.S.-Russian affairs were going to take a turn for the worse.

Now, because of President Boris Yeltsin's ill health, Primakov is acting as de facto president, and Americans should be concerned. Under Primakov, Russia is helping China modernize its strategic weapons systems, selling ballistic missile and nuclear technology to Iran, and defending Saddam Hussein in the U.N. Security Council. Russia continues to support Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic war in Kosovo, and refuses to back NATO military action in Yugoslavia.

Unfortunately, some of the blame for this situation must be laid at America's doorstep. The Clinton administration made the mistake of supporting Yeltsin almost unconditionally. Consequently, it overlooked serious flaws in Yeltsin's policies. Important economic and political reforms -- ones that would have speeded the transition to democracy and a free-market economy -- either were never attempted or were bungled. The administration ignored corruption and mismanagement in attempts to privatize state enterprises. President Clinton supported Yeltsin even when the war in Chechnya led to the deaths of 90,000 Russian citizens.

Lingering doubts about Yeltsin's health make it imperative that the United States develop a post-Yeltsin strategy. A recent example illustrates the danger of dealing with a president who shows increasing signs of instability: Yeltsin on Feb. 18 said he had conveyed his opposition to an American use of force in Kosovo to President Clinton both by letter and by telephone, but the White House insists no such communication took place.

The United States and Russia have reached a watershed in their relations. 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, have brought President Clinton's policy weaknesses to a head. The administration must reconsider its idealistic hope for a democratic Russia and adopt a new approach that assesses U.S. interests realistically.

The administration needs to design a more effective policy to promote reforms that will allow Russia to integrate with the international community and promote economic growth. At the same time, U.S. assistance and cooperation should be tied to Russia's willingness to cooperate with America.

For example, the Clinton administration should recognize that Russia has abandoned its policy of strategic partnership with the United States and use all available leverage, including the denial of international economic assistance, to encourage positive changes in Russian foreign and domestic policy. The White House needs to establish a strong connection 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 arenas before the United States and the international community agree to reschedule its debt.

And even if Russia does prove cooperative, the United States should no longer provide it with massive financial packages, which have been squandered in the past through corruption and mismanagement. The administration should instead promote true reform by using U.S. assistance to help Russians acquire the market-oriented business and legal skills necessary to change their national economy. Businesses, universities and nonprofit organizations should be encouraged to offer academic and professional training in Russia.

To better revise our long-term strategy toward Russia, Congress should conduct a thorough re-evaluation of U.S.-Russia policy through a congressionally appointed panel including U.S. policymakers who have not devised or conducted U.S. policy toward Russia in the past six years.

Unless the White House moves quickly to address the threat posed to U.S. and global security by Russia's nostalgia, weakness and irresponsibility, America's relations with Russia will continue to deteriorate. And it is the Russian people who will suffer from the ongoing economic decline.

Ariel Cohen, is senior policy analyst in Russian and Eurasian studies in the Davis International Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. 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 Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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