Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary of State Rice in March 2006
It seems almost forgotten today that President Bush came into office in 2001 promising better relations with Russia and its new President Vladimir Putin. When Bush invited Putin to his Crawford Ranch in August 2001, he was jeered by D.C. pundits from both sides of the aisle for declaring that he saw into the Russian President's "soul". As former Bush speechwriter David Frum notes in his pro-Bush book The Right Man, few of these critics noticed a month later when Putin was the first world leader to call Bush on 9/11 offering America overflight and basing rights for the invasion of Afghanistan.
2002 began with heady talk of deeper cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in the war on terrorists, expanded energy investment, and even negotiating peace between Israelis and Palestinians. So what happened in the ensuing four years to bring U.S-Russia relations to this point? The short answer would be "Iraq" - but a non-partisan observer would have to admit that there have been several more compelling reasons for the strained relationship between Washington and Moscow.
Still time for a reapproachment?
Scroll down to read Nicholas Gvosdev's IHT article
First, the Kremlin's takedown of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and dismantling of YUKOS became a cause celebre in D.C., in spite of the fact that the oligarch was guilty of massive tax evasion and his associates have been convicted of multiple murders. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum discussed some of the reasons why Khodorkovsky went from being just another billionaire oligarch to a martyred political prisoner in her article "What Are the Russians Buying?"
Second, the Iranian nuclear program and Ahmadenijad's apocalyptic threat to "wipe Israel off the map" has made the work of Russian nuclear scientists at Busehr a huge irritant to Washington and contributed to increased suspicion of Russia in both political parties. Putin understands this and recently told Western journalists that Iran, because the Islamic Republic's constitution calls for destroying Israel, "is a special case" and that "Iran should abandon enrichment on its soil." Nonetheless, Russia's repeated offers to peacefully enrich Iranian uranium on Russian soil have been categorically rejected by Iran's mullahs.
The most important reason for the estrangement though, if we are honest, is the growing awareness on both sides that an increasingly prosperous Russia simply doesn't need America as much as it did ten years ago. Members of Congress and pundits from both parties still seem to struggle with the fact that we are no longer living in the 1990s, when the Yeltsin Administration perceived that it needed Western approval for its actions (with the exception of the bloody war in Chechnya), and Clinton and Yeltsin drank together late into the night.
This is the subject of Nicholas Gvosdev's piece in the International Herald Tribune from January 2006, and it is what makes Anders Aslund's recent favorable contrast of the Yeltsin era with the Putin years in The Weekly Standard seem like nostalgia for a time when anything seemed possible in the post-Communist world. The sad fact remains though that the standard bearers of "liberalization" became associated in the minds of many Russians with the inept and alcoholic Yeltsin, the rise of the oligarchs, and the overnight economic and physical dislocation of millions. The underreporting of what really happened to Russia during the 1990s has contributed to Westerners not understanding why Putin's favorite watchword has been "stability".
Gvosdev's essay is an excellent diagnosis of the clash between American and Russian perceptions of the post-Cold War world, and suggests some baby steps towards mutual recognition of our respective national interests.
Rival Views of the Thaw Provoke Another Chill
by Nikolas Gvosdev
International Herald Tribune
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
WASHINGTON -- The deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations can be attributed to many factors -an increasing trend toward authoritarianism in the Kremlin, geopolitical rivalries across Eurasia, concerns over energy. But at its foundation lie vastly different Russian and American narratives as to how the Cold War came to an end. Fifteen years later, these divergences are contributing to the new chill in relations.
From the U.S. perspective, the disintegration of the Soviet bloc in 1989, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991 was an unabashed victory for the West in general and the United States in particular. Nikita Khrushchev's boast that the Soviet Union would surpass the United States in economic performance by 1980, his prediction that "we will bury you" as history would prove the superiority of the Soviet system-all of this came crashing down in the face of the resilience of the West's democratic capitalist institutions.
In this narrative, a generous United States "spared" post-Soviet Russia the humiliation of total defeat and graciously allowed Moscow to continue to play the role of a major power even as its economy contracted and its military deteriorated. Brought into the Group of Seven, offered a substantive partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an ungrateful Russia tried to resurrect a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space and presumed to place limits on the freedom of action of the United States to spread peace and freedom throughout the world.
In the Russian version of this tale, the Cold War came to an end because Moscow voluntarily renounced its bloc (the famous "Sinatra Doctrine") and because the Russian Federation - the largest constituent of the USSR - took the initiative in managing the "velvet divorce" of the Soviet Union. Instead of prolonging the Cold War to the bitter end, Russia's decision enabled the United States to slash its defense budget and laid the basis for the longest peacetime expansion of the American economy in its history.
The violent cataclysm that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia (or, for that matter, previous multinational empires in Europe) was largely avoided. And the Russians believed the promises that with the end of the Cold War, so too would be erased all dividing lines in Europe. But in their version, there was no "happily ever after." The Russian reformers who so naÃ¯vely thought the United States really wanted a partnership with them were led down the garden path, giving up one Russian national interest after another, accepting "advice" that had the effect (intended, in the opinion of many) of collapsing the Russian economy, allowing Washington to isolate and marginalize Russia (from the Middle East peace process to the Kosovo intervention).
Like suckers, the reformers continued to subsidize the economies of the post-Soviet space while the United States (and the European Union) sang their siren song to the other states of the region, persuading them to leave the Russian orbit altogether (and using democracy as regime change by other means to overthrow Russia's remaining friends in the area).
For Americans, the dominant paradigm for the rehabilitation of former adversaries is the postwar transformation of Japan and West Germany - two states occupied by the United States, whose institutions were reconstructed according to American design and who surrendered a good deal of their national sovereignty, especially in the realm of security, to Washington's overall management.
By American reckoning, Russia is both ungrateful and unreconstructed, instead of accepting the realities of defeat at the hands of the U.S.-led "free world." Just as Japan's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was dismantled by the victorious Allies at the end of World War II, why should Russia retain any claim to Eurasia?
For its part, Moscow doesn't understand why earlier European precedents (was not post- Napoleonic France admitted to the Concert of Europe as an equal "Great Power" only a few years after the emperor was sent packing to St. Helena?) don't apply to post-Soviet Russia. And why can't Russia have its own version of the Monroe Doctrine? After all, recent elections in Venezuela and Bolivia demonstrate Latin Americans really don't want American supremacy in the Western Hemisphere any more than Georgians or Ukrainians want to deal with Russia.
As long as the American and Russian foreign policy establishments subscribe to these separate narratives, resentment and frustration will only continue to grow on both sides. A new Cold War may not be inevitable, but a cold snap is definitely in the air.
Nikolas Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.