July 13, 2006

July 13, 2006 | Commentary on Russia

The Bush-Putin G-8 summit

The July 15 G-8 meeting and Bush-Putin summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, marks the most serious trial of U.S.-Russian relations since the Soviet Union collapsed. Mutually assured grievances have led some in Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike, to question whether President Bush should attend, and whether Russia should remain in the G-8.

On the recent trip to Moscow the city was rife with rumors of impending war in the Caucasus. The liberal Russian elite fears the newly found oil wealth is driving an assertive foreign policy increasingly at odds with the West.

In Washington, many called President Putin's ban on Radio Liberty and Voice of America rebroadcasts in Russia a deliberate affront on the eve of the summit.

Vice President Dick Cheney's May 4 speech in Vilnius lambasted Russian policies which have deflated U.S. hopes for a democratic, market-oriented postcommunist Russia. The political capital granted to Boris Yeltsin when Russia was invited to join the G-7 in 1997 is nearly exhausted.

Russia, for its part, opposes further NATO enlargement to include Georgia and Ukraine and fears Western support for Russian pro-democracy NGOs might one day provoke a "color" revolution in Moscow. Russia also blames the U.S. for blocking its accession to the WTO.

Mutual antagonism aside, Russian and Western interests dovetail in many respects. A number of geopolitical and cultural factors preclude closer cooperation.

Several Russian policies have contributed to the current nadir in U.S.-Russian relations, including the attempt to build an anti-American coalition on Iraq with France, Germany, Iran and China.

Russia's meddling in former Soviet republics -- cutting off gas supplies to achieve political goals -- has further irked Washington. Furthermore, Russia has given economic and diplomatic support to secessionist movements in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, and joined forces with China to orchestrate eviction of the U.S. military base in Uzbekistan.

Russia's embrace of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has exhausted the White House's patience. Russia's push to create a global natural gas cartel with Iran and conventional arms sales to protect the nuclear sites arouse suspicion that together with Beijing, the Kremlin is willing to provide Mr. Ahmadinejad the same political cover Saddam Hussein purchased with oil-for-food contracts.

Russian-Iranian past declarations calling for squeezing the U.S. out of the Persian Gulf are also a source of concern, not just in Washington, but in Europe, Japan and the Gulf itself. With 40 percent of the world's oil passing through the Straits of Hormuz, shutting America out would leave Eastern and Western energy interests at Tehran's mercy.

Another headache is Russia's use of oil revenues. Russia's position in the global hierarchy depends on Western demand for its oil and gas exports. The Kremlin is flush with cash, and great revenues call for "great deeds." These include funding for cutting-edge military technology and separatist movements in former Soviet republics.

There is also the political culture among elites of KGB and militsia (police) ethos, mixed with some 1990s "wild East" Moscow capitalism. Neither siloviki (power brokers) nor their oligarchic business partners favor "democrats" -- or Yankees who demand access to oil and gas patches. But in Moscow this is labeled the "patrimony of the people" -- which Russia's government controls.

Communist ideology has been replaced with a revived Moscow-centric Russian Orthodox worldview. This quasi-religious geopolitical system of beliefs views Russia as the heir of Byzantium, the "Third Rome," which is distinct from the U.S. and Europe.

This places Russia closer to the "East" -- China and the Muslim world -- than to what Russian nationalists call the materialistic, postmodern, soulless "West." Russia hails Islam as one of its "authentic" religions, and recently obtained observer status in the Organization of Islamic Conference and the Arab League. Russia also is expanding ties with the Iranian ayatollahs and Hamas, which undermines its credibility in the Global War on Terror.

Finally, the YUKOS affair has betrayed the virtual absence of rule of law in Russia with its politically motivated, heavy-handed intervention in Russia's most efficient energy company. Western energy majors have been locked out of oil, gas and pipeline projects in Russia, and Russia has continued to block efforts to disrupt its monopoly on energy transit infrastructure from the former Soviet Union to Europe.

Despite strained U.S.-Russian relations, Russian leaders understand that outright confrontation with the U.S. and its allies is economically unfeasible and counter to Moscow's long-term interests. The West remains Russia's principal customer for its energy and raw materials.

The U.S., for its part, still seeks cooperation with Russia on Iran, oil and gas, counterterrorism and nonproliferation. U.S. policymakers understand that singlehandedly taking on global terrorism, Iran, Russia and China simultaneously will constitute a dangerous overstretch.

At the summit, President Bush should focus on Iran and the global energy shortage, convincing Mr. Putin of U.S. openness to cooperation while holding the line on U.S. interests. Mr. Putin should be aware that a nuclear armed Iran may support anti-Russian and radical Islamic forces in the Caucasus.

Russia also needs a transparent business environment which allows international firms to participate in Russian oil and gas projects. Discrimination against foreign companies and businessmen will hinder Russia's accession to the WTO.

Furthermore, the Moscow and Beijing alone cannot eliminate security threats emanating from the Caucasus and Central Asia -- expansion of radical Islamic terrorism, trafficking in drugs, weapons and human beings, and proliferation of weapons-of-mass-destruction technology. Russia and China stand to benefit from U.S. involvement in these efforts.

Finally, it is essential for the Russian administration to understand that U.S. support for political and media freedoms and human rights is not aimed at toppling the Putin regime but is a sine-qua-non for further Russian participation in the G-8.

At the G-8 Bush-Putin summit the U.S. should endeavor to return to the cooperation which characterized U.S.-Russian relations in the 1990s and after September 11, 2001. However, in the absence of positive changes, the U.S. may recommend expanding the G-8 to include China, India and Brazil in the economic tier, while returning to the G-7 format in the political tier.

Ariel Cohen is research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation and author of "Eurasia in Balance" (Ashgate, 2005) and "Russia-Kazakhstan Energy Cooperation" (GMB Publishing, 2006).

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

Related Issues: Russia

First appeared in  the Washington Times