By Steve Nelson
Arizona Senator John McCain has wrapped up the Republican nomination for President
Last week was a typically schizophrenic one for U.S.-Russia relations. On one hand, we saw outgoing Presidents Bush and Putin agree to meet in the Russian resort city of Sochi in order to address their differences over a proposed American missile defense system in Europe. On the other hand, we saw Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate to succeed President Bush, argue that Russia should be kicked out of the G-8 club of industrialized nations.
In a speech delivered to the World Affairs Council of Los Angeles on March 26, McCain acknowledged both Russia and China as nations "that wield great influence in the international system". But while McCain made a point to emphasize that the U.S. and the China were "not destined to be adversaries", the Senator's stance versus Russia was decidedly more confrontational.
A U.S. Navy officer helps three babushkas celebrate Victory Day in Vladivostok, Russia
"We should start by ensuring that the G-8, the group of eight highly industrialized states, becomes again a club of leading market democracies: it should include Brazil and India but exclude Russia. Rather than tolerate Russia's nuclear blackmail or cyber attacks, Western nations should make clear that the solidarity of NATO, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, is indivisible and that the organization's doors remain open to all democracies committed to the defense of freedom," McCain said. In the same speech, McCain also referred to Russia as a "revanchist" state, implying that the Kremlin has set out to avenge perceived slights the country suffered following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Ironically, during the same week that McCain was calling for a tougher Western line against Russia, Moscow was negotiating with the Atlantic alliance to formalize arrangements for transporting NATO equipment across Russian territory in support of peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan.
Besides this highly publicized example of U.S.-Russia cooperation, as a ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator McCain is undoubtedly aware of other, less public examples of Americans and Russians cooperating in the Greater Middle East. For example, U.S. Air Mobility Command currently leans heavily on huge Russian Antonov transport planes to ferry war material into Iraq and Afghanistan. These aircraft are chartered by private logistics operators across the United States and Europe, but for security reasons their role is not advertised by either Washington or Moscow.
To be fair, Senator McCain is better informed on Russian affairs than his potential Democratic opponents in the general election, Illinois Senator Barack Obama and New York Senator Hillary Clinton. When asked in February to name the next Russian president, Senator Clinton stumbled over her pronunciation of Russian President Dimitry Medvedev's name before finally shrugging, "whatever." For his part, Obama basically echoed Clinton's contention that President Medvedev will be merely a puppet of the outgoing Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
What is missing from all of these pronouncements it seems, is any coherent vision for engaging Russia, beyond a longing for the certainties of the past. While Senator McCain has been careful not to suggest that America and Russia are returning to the Cold War, his remarks on the subject have been fundamentally marked by a sense of exasperation with Moscow.
Certainly, Russia today is not what it was during the Nineties. Under President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian economy and currency collapsed in 1998, and Russians could only standby as NATO expanded eastward to their border while their traditional allies, the Serbs, were bombed and then occupied by NATO forces. Ten years ago an ailing President Yeltsin sent Russian representatives to Washington, requesting loan guarantees from the International Monetary Fund. Last October, President Bush sent his Deputy Secretary of Treasury to Moscow, requesting more investment from Russia's $170 billion Stabilization Fund in the U.S. economy.
Clearly some things have changed, and it today is hard for many Russian to accept that Western criticisms of Russia's human rights record are sincere and not motivated by this shift in the balance of power. On the other side of the Atlantic, it is difficult for many old hands in Washington to accept that Russia today is neither the malleable basket case of the 1990s, nor an ideological foe like the old Soviet Union. As a result, almost all of the progress that is made in the U.S.-Russia relationship is happening in the private sector.
For example, Russian companies are now engaged with their Western counterparts in developing major oil and gas projects in former pariah states like Libya and Iraq, as well as in Africa. Russian conglomerates have been on a quiet acquisition spree in the U.S., buying up steel mills and aluminum foundries, with American seaport and refining facilities likely not far behind on their shopping list. On the flip side, the Russian government is allocating tens of billions in oil and gas revenues towards building infrastructure across the country, especially in the historically undercapitalized regions outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. And yet the largest real estate and roadway projects now underway involve firms from Turkey, Dubai and China, rather than America.
While President Bush may not have ever questioned the need for NATO's continued territorial expansion in the age of global terrorism, nor found a way to integrate the Russians into a global missile defense system, he did promote Russia as a friend rather than foe. Soon it will be time for Bush's successor to take the U.S-Russia relationship beyond the present cooperation in the Middle East and on energy issues, with the goal of helping (rather than lecturing) the Russian people toward a healthier and more prosperous future.
Kicking Moscow out of the G-8 would do nothing to advance either democracy or free trade in Russia. The fact is that Russia needs American investment and vice versa. While Russia is not likely to ever rival India and China as an economic behemoth on the global stage, it is and will remain a key partner for America in the fields of energy, technology, and security. It would be nice if the rhetoric from our presidential candidates would begin to reflect this reality rather than pandering to the stereotypes of the past.
To read more of the author's views about the Cold War-nostalgia of many Beltway thinkers and think tanks, click here.
Steve Nelson is a former intern at several Washington D.C. think tanks. The author currently works in the U.S. financial services industry. The views expressed here are his own.