March 9, 2004 | Backgrounder on Russia
As President Vladimir Putin awaits re-election for a second term with no significant challenges, U.S.-Russian relations are in limbo. The revival of statism and nationalism has seriously diminished Russia's chances of being regarded as a close and reliable partner that is clearly committed to democratic values. Nevertheless, there are ways by which the United States and Russia can restore their cooperation on the basis of pragmatism and the pursuit of compatible national interests, including enhancing each other's security, economic ties, democracy, and human rights.
In 2003, the U.S.-Russian relationship was fraught with multiple complications. Russia resisted the U.S. military action in Iraq, continued its military cooperation with Iran, developed multifaceted ties with China, attempted to play the anti-American card in its relations with Western Europe, and stepped up political pressure on the independent nations of the post-Soviet space.
Moreover, a joint war on terrorism and large-scale exploration of natural resources, especially in the energy sector, are yet to become a focal point of the bilateral relationship. At the same time, backtracking on democratic politics could change the nature of the Russian state and challenge America's national interests unless both sides can find a common ground and reconcile their mutual concerns.
In a fundamental difference between Russia and Central Europe, the Russian political establishment underwent little reform after the collapse of communism and has yet to complete the transition from the centuries-old Soviet and czarist worldview. The legacy of Russia's imperial and totalitarian past deeply affects Moscow's foreign policy rhetoric and performance. Anti-Americanism, exaggeration of differences between the United States and Western Europe, heavy-handedness toward smaller Central and Eastern European nations, attempts to recreate a sphere of influence in the former Soviet republics, and continuing relations with Iran, North Korea, and Cuba all continue to frustrate bilateral ties.
The Moscow elite finds America's global leadership overbearing and continues to view its own country as a great power, at times capable of competing with the United States for regional, if not global, dominance. Russian leaders, while recognizing their country's weakness, strive to maximize their freedom of maneuver. They believe in a "multi-polar world" model in which Russia forms part of the great concert of powers, including the U.S., China, and eventually India and a united Europe. Russia also is anxious to maintain good relations with the Islamic world, as both the September 2003 visit of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Putin's speech at the Organization of the Islamic Conference have demonstrated.1
The "old think" among Russia's foreign and security policy elites has caused the country to return to a strategic posture that is both prickly and at times anti-U.S. In military policy, despite low-intensity radical Islamist threats from the South, arms sales to countries that threaten international stability, including Iran and Syria, have been on the rise.
In February, Moscow conducted its largest military exercise in the past 25 years, which culminated in intercontinental ballistic missile firings. Though many missile strikes toward an "unspecified" enemy failed, the exercises were a throwback to the Cold War.2 So was the surrounding propaganda: Putin announced that the maneuvers were successful, and government TV channels reported only successful launches. By contrast, NTV, which is owned by the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, also mentioned failures.3
Russia's domestic policy has been marked by the consolidation of President Putin's authoritarian rule, including the control of all TV channels and manipulation of the news media. In addition, there is reason to suspect that the new government appointee at the largest Russian public opinion research organization, known as VTsIOM, will open doors for the manipulation of polling results. The Kremlin has intensified its manipulation of mass media, political parties, and vital financial flows in the economy.
The fairness of the State Duma elections last December, in which pro-Putin parties secured an absolute majority in the Duma, is suspect as the Kremlin exercised its powerful "administrative resources" through which it sways mass media outlets, regional governments, the military, the police, and control over the Central Elections Commission. The outcome of the elections led some in Washington to call for reassessment of the whole paradigm of the U.S.-Russian strategic partnership.4
Subsequently, the Bush Administration made an effort to smooth over relations while speaking frankly to Moscow. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to Moscow on January 26 is evidence of those efforts.
Secretary Powell sent clear messages to the Kremlin on issues such as withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia, securing the independence and territorial integrity of Moldova and Ukraine, and U.S. concerns about backtracking on democratic development in an op-ed published on the front page of Izvestia's January 26 issue, writing that "Russia's democratic system, it seems to us, has yet to find the necessary balance between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of power."5 Powell also hailed the strength of the bilateral relationship, adding that the two countries should continue developing relations while taking into account their national interests. Powell's op-ed was the shot across the bow, expressing the Bush Administration's concerns with the direction Russia has chosen for Putin's second term.
A Russian Sphere
of Influence in the CIS?
The U.S. has expressed concerns about the emerging Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union area. Russia's attempts to entrench its military presence from Moldova to Georgia to Kyrgyzstan, and its efforts to impose a regional free trade zone, all cause insecurity in the capitals of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).6
A significant U.S. concern is the future of Georgia and, more broadly, the Caucasus and CIS at large. Continuous Russian pressure on Ukraine, Moldova, and other countries could undermine bilateral U.S.-Russian ties. At the same time, as the U.S. focuses on the war on terrorism, primarily in the Middle East and South Asia, confrontation with Russia is counterproductive. Without clarification of strategies on both sides, and without policies constructed to pursue cooperation and avoid confrontation, Moscow and Washington this year could find themselves--unnecessarily--on a collision course from the Black Sea to the Pamir Mountains.
The tension escalates particularly in relations with Ukraine and Belarus, both of which are ethnically, religiously, and linguistically close to Russia and home to millions of Russian-speakers. Russia hampers their rapprochement with the West. To this end, it has given backing to Alexander Lukashenko's authoritarian regime in Belarus.7 In Ukraine, Moscow employs political and economic pressure to solidify the pro-Russia forces and weaken the pro-Western, democratic, and nationalist opposition ahead of elections this October.8
Tensions are also rampant in Russian-Georgian ties. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili made sincere attempts to improve relations with Russia during his February 2004 trip to Moscow, including a suggestion of a trans-Georgian oil pipeline to Russia. These steps were positively received in Moscow.9
Washington hopes that Russia will not launch a massive campaign to destabilize Georgia, as Russia should have no interest in turmoil along its southern border, in addition to which it has no alternative candidate to lead the country.
While the U.S. plans to continue to support the Saakashvili administration and to back completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, it is likely that internal policy disagreements over Georgia within the Russian establishment will continue until the summer, when a new Putin government is firmly in place. Ideally, Washington would like to see quick progress for reunification of Georgia, but without Moscow's support, such a development is unlikely.
There is a risk that Russia, which during 2003 has retreated from many global commitments, after this year's presidential elections may focus on its immediate neighborhood, scaling up its involvement in the CIS. This may include further acquisitions of energy, transportation, and other industrial assets; pressures to expand a free trade area; and more military and security cooperation under the umbrella of the CIS Mutual Defense Treaty.
As elsewhere, the U.S. has to pursue its national interests in its relationship with Russia and Eurasia. These interests can be divided into two categories: "vital" and "important."10
Objectively, the United States and Russia are allies in fighting international terrorism. Forces linked to al-Qaeda are financing acts of terrorism in Russia. The Chechen conflict, which began as resistance to the Russian imperial occupation at the end of the 18th century, has evolved into a separatist movement for national self-determination. Stalin subjected the Chechens to a genocidal deportation in 1944, and they were allowed to return to their homeland only in 1956.
Radical Wahhabi Islam, a recent import into this war, has hijacked the nationalist movement and spread to Daghestan and other regions of the Northern Caucasus. The radical forces aim to build an Islamic state on the doorstep of Europe between the Black Sea and the Caspian, expanding into Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and eventually Islamizing Russia. While Russia could have split the Chechens by conducting talks with non-radical separatists, so far it has chosen not to do so.
Theoretically, Russia and the U.S. should coordinate anti-terrorist policy and work closely to derail the economic foundation of international terrorist networks. The intelligence communities of both countries should interact, exchange information, and in certain cases stage joint operations designed to eliminate terrorists. These actions would engender a renewed partnership in combating terrorism and strengthen confidence in bilateral relations between the two nations. Instead, cooperation between Moscow and Washington was at its peak during the initial phases of the war in Afghanistan and has diminished ever since. While NATO reconnaissance flights along Russian borders irritated the Kremlin, Moscow's anti-American posture over the Iraq war in the U.N. similarly annoyed the White House.
The shifting geopolitical priorities in the global war on terrorism are dictating change. For example, the U.S. is planning to deploy more troops in Romania and Bulgaria to provide power projection capabilities into the Middle East and Central Asia. Small-scale forward bases in the Caucasus and Central Asia are under discussion among Pentagon planners. In the absence of a confidence-building dialogue between the U.S. and Russia, these moves may cause an adverse reaction in Moscow.
On February 10, Putin's Chief of Staff Dmitry Medvedev had talks in Washington with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and other officials. The CIS was featured in the talks, along with Iraq and other global issues. In a message to President Bush published February 11, however, Putin tried to smooth over any disagreements:
I am convinced that it is in our common interest to cherish the positive things that have been accumulated, and I think by practical actions we shall be able convincingly to show everyone that the partner foundations of our relations remain immutable and that any speculations about a "cooling-off" between Russia and the United States are far removed from reality. Russia will remain a stable, reliable and predictable partner.11
Yet there are other stresses, despite Putin's words. Ongoing Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation is a highly sensitive issue, especially after supporters of theocratic totalitarianism rigged parliamentary elections in February. Efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons may not be sufficient. Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons can become a major security threat to the U.S. and its allies, and threaten stability in the Persian Gulf. All these developments in the area of terrorism and terrorist-sponsoring states should lead Washington to recognize that partnership in this sphere might have clear-cut limits.
Since the U.S. relies heavily on imports of foreign oil, the development of energy resources in the Caspian Sea basin and joint exploitation of Russian oil and gas deposits have become an important aspect of U.S.-Russian relations. However, the two countries' interests over these resources may not always coincide. If Moscow pursues an aggressive policy in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, it could derail U.S. plans to establish a reliable pipeline system in these regions. However, a policy of cooperation would benefit both parties.
Western companies are invited to participate in development in Russia only where difficult geological and geographic conditions, such as deep water, permafrost, or extreme climates, necessitate technologies that the Russian companies lack. As long as oil prices remain high, the Russian companies are likely to have access to credit and not to need Western financing, even of larger projects.
The prospects for U.S.-Russian energy cooperation have been endangered by the recent withdrawal of the license previously granted to ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco to explore and develop the oil and gas fields of the Sakhalin-3 block, as well as by extortionate demands from the energy ministry for a $1 billion fee to pursue the project.12 The Sakhalin-3 experience could put the future of the total $6 billion-$10 billion U.S. investment in Russian oil at risk. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Verschbow said that this decision by the Russian government could impede a U.S.-Russian energy dialogue.13 It is likely that, in the future, the U.S. will react more strongly to hostile Russian actions against American companies. As Russian oil, steel, and software companies increasingly enter the U.S. market, they may become subject to similar hardball tactics.
The situation in the natural-gas industry is even more difficult, principally because the state-controlled Gazprom remains a monopoly. Until that changes, U.S. access to gas fields will remain limited.
The Bush Administration has sent Moscow a clear message that America's energy security priorities, including lowering energy dependence on the Middle East, are among its vital interests. Russia's respect for its American investors' access to markets, and protection of the companies' property rights, will go a long way to improve relations.
At present, Russia does not pose a genuine military threat to American interests in Europe and Asia. However, it seeks at times to complicate U.S.-European relations. Russia backed the French and German opposition to the U.S. military action in Iraq. For a few years, it waged a harsh but ineffective campaign against NATO enlargement that was designed to weaken the Atlantic alliance--one of the pillars of U.S. security.
Russia opposes the relocation of U.S. military bases eastward. At the international security conference in Munich, Germany, in February 2004, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov stated that Russia may scrap the CFE Treaty limiting conventional weapons and troop deployments in Europe unless it is changed to include Baltic militaries and rule out NATO forces in the Baltic States.14
At the same time, Russia refuses to pull its military out of Georgia and Moldova, even though it vowed to do so in an agreement signed at the 1999 Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Moscow's efforts to improve relations with the European Union (EU) were rebuffed, and enlargement of the EU is proceeding to Moscow's detriment. Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) has been virtually stalled due to EU members' opposition to Russian cheap domestic energy prices, which constitute a hidden subsidy to the Russian economy.
The Schengen visa regime, which governs travel into the EU from non-EU nations, is making travel tougher for Russians seeking to go to the EU. This causes the Kremlin's disenchantment with Russia's prospects in Europe and ratchets up the elite's anti-Western attitudes. Instead of backing Russia's wish to join the WTO, the United States could encourage Russia to move toward membership in the Global Free Trade Association (GFTA).15 GFTA is a proposed global free trade area for which any country would qualify provided it reached a sufficiently high level of economic freedom.
Intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads are a major threat to the United States. Russia and China are the only states potentially capable of a massive nuclear attack against the United States. Russia's state-of-the-art intercontinental ballistic missile, Topol-M, is entering service.
Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has pursued a buildup of strategic missile forces, including research and development of new systems allegedly capable of defeating U.S.-built ballistic missile defenses. Putin stated that the new program would not be a threat to the U.S.16 Yet Russian military doctrine has become increasingly offensive, clearly aimed at repelling the kind of "air-space attack" that only the U.S. and its allies are capable of staging. Russia's doctrine is also allowing pre-emptive use of force, including nuclear weapons, and the development of mini-nukes.17
In addition, the Russian military still has vintage ICBMs in service that are armed with multiple, independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). These are known as RS-20 "Satan" missiles18 As both Russia and the U.S. are likely to abide by the START-III arms control ceilings, the U.S. has called for the destruction of these weapons. Recently, however, Sergei Ivanov unexpectedly made an announcement that the Satan would remain in service until 2016.19 This definitely boosts the strength of Russia's strategic nuclear forces.
This challenge demands that the United States and its allies deploy a reliable missile defense system in the near future. The emerging missile defense system, however, would be incapable of defending America from a massive Russian attack.
The political pressure that Russia applies to its neighbors to the west and south could impede their development along a democratic and market-oriented model, step up social tensions, endanger territorial disintegration, and instigate armed conflicts. The "big brother" syndrome is ingrained in Russia's dealings with the former Soviet Republics, and the Russian elite continues to look upon the countries of the former Soviet space as its sphere of influence. This leaves open an imperial option or, at least, a scenario of border revisions in the future. Realizing that these nations are truly independent and sovereign is difficult for Moscow.
That is, in part, why Russia concentrates on its military presence in the former Soviet space, including through CIS "peacekeeping missions." Russian military bases and units in the Trans-Dniester (Moldova), Georgia (Abkhazia and Adjara), Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are tools of Russia's political pressure on the governments of these states.
The Russian state is relying too much on its military presence as a political tool in the post-Soviet space. It is also overreacting to U.S. military deployments in the adjacent regions for the purpose of combating international terrorism. Many in the Russian elite are concerned that the Americans have established a permanent presence in the region. "They [the United States] will never go away, we are witnessing a long-term American presence in Central Asia, and possibly, in the Caucasus," says a senior Russia expert who requested anonymity.20
Such speculations are broadly used by Russian nationalists to revive the "enemy image" of the U.S. Some experts maintain, though, that "Russia is as yet undecided: should it perceive the United States presence on the broad sweep of the former `Soviet Motherland' as an ally, partner, rival, or enemy."21
The results of the December 2003 parliamentary elections demonstrate that nationalists such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal-Democratic Party, Dmitry Rogozin's Motherland Party, Communists, and others have consolidated their position in Russia's political life. They are engendering increased xenophobia. Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, Russian nationalist policymakers call for the deportation of non-Slavic people, primarily Caucasus-born, from Moscow and other large cities.
Russian nationalists are also lobbying for "protecting Russian speakers" and the Russophone population in the post-Soviet space. The selectivity of their complaints exposes a deeper, more sinister agenda, however: While they protest the "violations of Russian speakers' rights" in the Baltic nations, they choose to disregard the infringement of these rights by the Central Asian authoritarian regimes whose anti-democratic worldview they share.
The increasing authoritarian trends in Russia challenge the fundamental U.S. mission to consolidate freedom. In 2003, democracy and the rule of law were declining in Russia. Since 2000, all independent television channels have been shut down under powerful administrative pressure or taken over by the government's allies. Radio stations and print media are also being gradually brought under control. Self-censorship is used across the board: The authorities "guide" journalists on what to report and what to withhold, and are quick to clamp down on dissenters.
Moscow has stepped up its control over regional administrations through the extra-constitutional institution of unelected presidential envoys (four out of seven of whom are former military or security-services generals) and through its power to recall elected governors. This is at odds with the basic principles of federalism and abuses the rights of legitimately elected governors and regional legislatures.
The conduct of last December's State Duma elections provoked discontent among many Russians. Federal, regional, and local administrations have spent vast resources to secure the victory for pro-government parties, primarily United Russia. To back "the party of power," government-run television channels aired elaborate programs on the candidates while denying equal access to the opposition. David Atkinson, head of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly delegation to Russia, described Russia's recent parliamentary elections as "free but unfair."22
Only a high level of respect for individual freedom and property rights would guarantee Russia's political stability, economic growth, and integration into a democratic international community. Russia's authoritarian regime is likely to engineer "foreign threats" for domestic consumption, including pursuit of anti-Americanism, to justify its own existence. Authoritarianism and anti-Americanism in Russian public opinion and policies threaten further progress toward the rule of law, civil society, and a market economy. Neutralizing Russian anti-Americanism should also be on the U.S. public diplomacy priority list.
The United States and Russia should restore their cooperation on the basis of pragmatism and pursuit of their compatible national interests, including enhancing each other's security, economic ties, democracy, and human rights. Specifically, the Bush Administration should:
Russia and the United States are facing a choice: They can build a constructive relationship based on joint repelling of mutual threats and recognition of each other's relative power, capabilities, and limitations or they can revert to Cold War-style confrontation. Put another way, they must choose between respecting each other's national interests and engaging in petty fights over status; developing lucrative economic partnerships or playing power games that benefit third parties; fostering 21st century norms of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law or retreating to heavy-handed authoritarianism and risk international opprobrium.
The U.S. has chosen a path of productive partnership with Russia and should encourage Moscow to choose well. People of both countries want freedom, security, stability, and prosperity. It is up to their leaders to deliver the goods.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Yevgeny Volk, Ph.D., is The Heritage Foundation's Moscow Office Coordinator.23
1. "Saudi Prince's Visit Draws Moscow, Riyadh Closer," People's Daily (English), September 5, 2003, at http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200309/05/eng20030905_123765.shtml (February 26, 2004); "Putin's Asia Pacific Trip," RFE/RL Analytical Report, Vol. 4, No. 42 (October 22, 2003), at http://www.rferl.org/reports/securitywatch/2003/10/42-221003.asp.
3. Vladimir Isachenkov, "Russia's Putin Oversees Military Maneuvers," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 17, 2004, at http://www.ajc.com/news/content/news/ap/ap_story.html/Intl/AP.V3501.AP-Russia-Military.html (February 26, 2004).
4. "US Senator McCain Slams Russia Violations Under Putin," Agence France-Presse, February 7, 2004, at http://coranet.radicalparty.org/pressreview/print_right.php?func=detail&par=8219 (February 26, 2004).
9. Jean-Christophe Peuch, "Georgia: Saakashvili in Moscow, Looking to Start Ties with a Clean Slate, RadioLiberty-Radio Free Europe, February 10, 2004, at http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2004/02/d56922de-8b78-490f-bb52-590117ab4426.html. See also "Moscow Finds a Partner in Georgia's Saakashvili," Gateway to Russia, February 12, 2004, at http://www.gateway2russia.com/st/art_210305.php (February 26, 2004).
12. Valeria Korchagina, "Energy Minister Says State Is Seeking $1Bln for Exxon Sakhalin-3 License," St. Petersburg Times, February 6, 2004, at http://www.sptimes.ru/archive/times/941/news/b_11600.htm.
17. Nikolai Sokov, "Russian Ministry of Defense's New Policy Paper: The Nuclear Angle," CNS Reports, Monterrey Institute of International Studies, at http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/reports/sok1003.htm (February 26, 2004). See also Colonel (Ret.) Mikhail Pogorely, " Russia's New Military Doctrine," Global Beat Syndicate, October 28, 2003, at http://www.nyu.edu/globalbeat/syndicate/pogorely102803.html (February 26, 2004).