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A Crossroads in U.S.-Russia Relations

In Moscow in the second week of December, I listened to a young Russian television executive describe how he conforms his programming to the current political reality of Russia. He said to me that as long as his local and regional channels do not report anything about Chechnya, and as long as they do not broadcast criticism of President Vladimir Putin or his administration, he feels “safe” that his television business will not be subjected to state intrusion. That statement captures just one of the many ways that civil life in Russia has changed under the Putin regime.

U.S.-Russia relations are at a vital crossroads. Although many of the disturbing trends that have emerged under Vladimir Putin’s leadership are reversible, a tepid American reaction to them will only reinforce the cruder political instincts of the Soviet era. Looking the other way as President Putin cracks down on human rights activists and journalists and consolidates control over Russian political life is not in the long-term national security interest of the United States or Russia.

The U.S. needs to strengthen its Russia policy – in fact, adopt a Russia policy instead of a Putin policy – by persistently and firmly seeking to promote a positive reform agenda. Too often our approach is dictated by Vladimir Putin’s personality. As the Washington Post reported recently in a story about Chechnya, “Inside the State Department, officials debated whether to do the right thing. They then decided, at high levels, no, why make Putin angry?”

A U.S. policy that revolves around Putin’s personality ignores the fact that Putin believes the loss of pervasive state control over politics and the economy and the diminution of Moscow’s influence in the former Soviet states (changes that occurred in the late Gorbachev and Yeltsin years) has hurt Russian interests. For Putin, clamping down on the press; gaining monopoly over the political process by shutting out the oligarchs; and reasserting control over the former Soviet states protect and strengthen Russia.

In response to these actions, the United States should encourage:

  • Straight Talk: In the area of democratization and human rights, President Bush should communicate to President Putin privately and to the people of Russia publicly that he recognizes and worries about signs that democracy is eroding.
  • Democratic Promotion Programming: The Bush administration should expand funding and democracy assistance to meet growing challenges in Russia. Instead, for next year, the administration proposed cutting funding to Russia and Eastern Europe under the Freedom Support Act from $148 million to $73 million.
  • Nunn-Lugar: Until recently, appropriations for the valuable Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program (CTR), which dismantles nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the post-Soviet region, were frozen by the Bush administration. Funding was only expanded by Congress recently, which authorized the administration to waive funds when certain conditions were met.
  • Regional Engagement: The U.S. should continue to look for ways to cooperate in promoting stability in areas along Russia’s periphery – working together to resolve frozen conflicts involving secessionist provinces in Georgia and Moldova; promoting economic and political reform in Central Asia; and stemming the spread of radical Islam in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The administration’s recent success in Sudan serves as a model in certain ways.
  • Engaging Russia More Deeply in Internationally Binding Cooperation: The U.S. should consistently strive to draw Russia into new networks of engagement while at the same time speaking unambiguously as to what it is that disqualifies Russia from genuine membership in the community of democratic states.

Consolidation of Control over Russian Political Life

Putin’s government has taken action to ensure that all challenges within Russian political life are subdued. The Kremlin has blatantly intervened to influence the electoral process and removed candidates from the ballot in regional elections without just cause. Indeed, the Duma elections on December 7 were termed a “regression in the democratization process” by monitors for the OSCE.

Regional leaders have also been subordinated by the Putin government. In the 1990’s, governors of oblasts (roughly comparable to states) and presidents of republics acquired significant political autonomy. To reassert Moscow’s dominance, Putin created seven new supra-regional executive authorities whose mandate is to enforce his policies at the regional level. He then emasculated the Federal Council, Russia’s closest approximation to the U.S. Senate, by removing governors and heads of regional legislatures from its membership. Under the new system, Putin effectively appoints most senators, making the Federal Council a rubber stamp for Kremlin policies.

Most recently, Putin’s aides have resurrected “party” politics in the regions by inviting or coercing regional executives to join Putin’s party, “United Russia.” This party, built on the remnants of the old Communist Party of the Soviet Union as well as the “Great Russia” nationalist parties, is expected to provide the Kremlin another institutional mechanism for controlling regional politics.

Actions against the so-called “oligarchs,” including big business leaders Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky and most recently Mikhail Khodorkovsky, show how the Russian state has been mobilized to eliminate those who present a political and economic force that would challenge Putin’s power.

Backsliding in Human Rights

Since Putin came to power, political pressure against non-governmental organizations has increased dramatically. From the arrest and harassment of human rights activists to the creation of state-sponsored “civil society” organizations whose mission is to crowd out independent actors, the Russian government has moved to shut down independent critics of its policy. Action has also been taken to limit Western contacts with Russian society – the Peace Corps was expelled, the AFL-CIO’s representative in Moscow was declared persona non grata, and American academics have been denied visas. The closing of the Chechnya office of the OSCE ended the presence of the only independent human rights monitoring body in the North Caucasus. Today Putin’s armed forces continue to abuse human rights on a massive scale in Chechnya, but this occurs in secrecy and out of reach from public scrutiny.

Stifling Freedom of the Press

Putin gave a very telling response to a question about “impeding the free press” when he said in September, “We have never had freedom of speech in Russia, so I can’t understand what I’m impeding… At the beginning of the nineties, we had the onset of a renaissance of freedom. This was also understood in different ways in society, and by the press as well… freedom and freedom of press in particular was understood as a free-for-all, as anarchy and as a striving for destruction at any price and at all costs.”

“Reporters Without Borders” recently published its first worldwide freedom-of-the-press index, ranking Russia 121st out of 139 countries assessed. The Russian state has acquired control over the only three independent television networks that had the national reach to count in politics, and silenced or changed the editorial teams at several national newspapers and weeklies.

Before Putin's crackdown began, some Russian oligarchs – perhaps to redeem themselves in Western eyes – operated independent media outlets the existence of which constituted a pillar of democratic expression. Those outlets have now been closed by Putin in order to preserve his own monopoly of political power.

Seeking to Reassert Control Over Former Soviet States

Putin’s strategy of weakening independent sources of power has extended beyond Russia’s border. Putin’s principal focus is Georgia, a country that is key to the attainment of U.S. policy goals in Eurasia. Russian officials are telling Georgia to end its political and security relationships with the U.S. and NATO, accept Russian military bases for the long-term, join the Russian-controlled CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union, and reconnect Georgia to Russia’s pipeline and transportation networks.

In Moldova, Putin is pressing President Vladimir Voronin to legalize Russia’s military presence and Russia’s secessionist authorities in Moldova’s Trans-Dniester region. Putin’s plan envisages handing these authorities a share of power in Moldova’s central government under an allegedly federal formula, and guaranteeing such a settlement through a predominantly Russian military force. Although this plan has been resisted by a surprisingly outspoken pro-European Moldovan popular movement, Kremlin representatives continue to push their case with Moldovan authorities.

From Belarus and Ukraine to Central Asia, Putin is now setting up a trading and monetary bloc of six countries under leadership from Moscow. This so-called “Eurasian Economic Union” is intended to create a sheltered market for uncompetitive products, and more specifically to orient Ukraine’s economy more firmly toward Russia. Moscow has been pressing its neighbors to sign and ratify the treaty creating the Economic Union, which would resurrect the rule-from-the-center economic approach of the former Soviet Union.

Based on what he said during the 2000 presidential campaign, many expected President Bush to be particularly firm with Russia in the areas of democratization and promotion of geopolitical pluralism in the former Soviet space. It was the Cox Commission “Report on U.S. Policy Towards Russia,” published in September 2000 and hailed by the Bush campaign, that blasted the Clinton administration for its “exaggeration of success and concealment of failure in US-Russia relations."

But as recently as September, President Bush gushed at a summit meeting with President Putin: “I respect President Putin’s vision for Russia: a country at peace within its borders, with its neighbors, and with the world, a country in which democracy and freedom and the rule of law thrive.” Human rights and pro-democracy groups are justifiably concerned by developments in Russia, and with the administration’s soft response. Human rights groups, as well as governments of the region, today see their objectives subordinated to U.S. interests in collaborating with Russia in the war on terrorism and matters pertaining to international security.

But gaining Russian support in matters of international security and the pursuit of positive Russian behavior in human rights and the former Soviet states are not mutually exclusive. To be sure, Russia is in a position to offer some help in tackling critical security threats, including Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and the ongoing standoff with North Korea. Russia’s chemical and biological agent stockpiles and expertise also make cooperation important to prevent their proliferation. But seeking Putin’s support on these issues – and it is actually in Russia’s own interest to do so – does not mean the administration should remain silent and dormant about negative trends.

On the contrary, the administration has several options that would be a more responsible reaction to disturbing trends in Russia.

Straight Talk

In the area of democratization and human rights, Bush should communicate to Putin privately and to the people of Russia publicly that he recognizes and worries about signs that democracy is eroding. Democracy-building takes decades and American public support for reformers and condemnation of anti-democratic trends can make a real difference. In the course of bilateral dialogue with Russian officials, the administration should not sweep human right violations in Chechnya under the rug, but instead raise concerns at the highest level. This would be consistent with the way the Bush campaign in 2000 said they would handle the Chechen issue, and it would be the right thing to do.

Regarding Russian meddling in the former Soviet states, the lack of administration reaction has resulted in growing anxiety in the region. The region needs reassurance that the U.S. stands with the newly independent post-Soviet states and is committed to their independence, integrity and stability. The administration should also be clear that Moscow should stop ongoing attempts to subordinate Georgia and Moldova, and it should push for the withdrawal of Russian troops. Ukraine should be told that the U.S. supports its opposition to a Russia-led “Eurasian Economic Union” since that would help to restore Moscow’s control over this part of Europe, on NATO’s and the EU’s new frontier.

Democratic Promotion Programming

The Bush administration should expand funding and democracy assistance to meet growing challenges in Russia. Instead, for next year, the administration will likely cut funding to Russia and Eastern Europe under the Freedom Support Act from $148 million to $73 million.

Congress has tried to move these numbers back in the right direction, but the final budget has still not been approved. Drastic cuts for educational exchanges between Russia and the U.S. are also slated. Working bilaterally and through NATO, the U.S. should also assist Russia with defense and security sector reforms, including the establishment of effective civilian and democratic control over the military.

Nunn-Lugar

Until recently, appropriations for the valuable Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program (CTR), which dismantles nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the post-Soviet region, were frozen by the Bush administration. Funding was only expanded by Congress recently, which authorized the administration to waive funds when certain conditions were met and which permitted, for the first time, the extension of the CTR program’s counter-proliferation activities beyond the post-Soviet space. Nunn-Lugar, by providing American assistance for reducing nuclear threats, would give Putin the chance to focus on the social and economic reforms that his country so desperately needs.

Regional Engagement

The U.S. should continue to look for ways to cooperate in promoting stability in areas along Russia’s periphery – working together to resolve frozen conflicts involving secessionist provinces in Georgia and Moldova, promoting economic and political reform in Central Asia, and stemming the spread of radical Islam in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Increased U.S.-Russian collaboration in Russia’s vicinity will enhance the credibility in Russian eyes of U.S. anti-terrorist actions there and reduce Moscow’s suspicion that Washington wants to limit Russia’s ability to exercise influence along its borders for appropriate purposes and encircle Russia via a permanent military presence.

Constructive and Internationally Binding Cooperation

The U.S. has no choice but to draw Russia into new networks of engagement, but must also recognize that there is much that disqualifies the country from genuine membership in the community of democratic states. President Putin claims a determination to seek closer integration with Europe and the U.S. Putin understands that Russia needs foreign capital and integration into the global economic system if it is to achieve his ambitious goal of doubling Russia’s GNP in the next decade. To reach this goal, Russia needs a calm international environment and smooth relations with the U.S. and Europe.

Russia’s integration with the West should be advanced as long as Russia reflects similar values. At last year’s G-8 meeting in Canada, Russia became a full G-8 member, and was assigned the rotating chairmanship in 2006. Russia views its membership in the G-8 as very important. Consistent with the recent Congressional resolution sponsored by Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain and Representative Tom Lantos, the U.S. should support Russian membership in the G-8 as long as Russian policy reflects principles of democracy, freedom and the rule of law, and it should suspend Russian participation when Russia does not. More generally, the U.S. should emphasize that positive Russian action in the area of human rights will advance opportunities for U.S. collaboration and strengthen Russian chances for membership in the World Trade Organization.

Ultimately, U.S. policy-makers dealing with Russia should bear a simple proposition in mind: Wishful thinking and expedient sloganeering are not substitutes for strategy. As was the case during the Clinton-Yeltsin years, too often the U.S. approach is dictated by the Russian president’s personality. U.S. policy towards Russia today is overly geared to accommodate President Putin’s mindset, in which Western values of democracy, freedom and independence are not necessarily a priority. U.S. as well as Russian interests would be better served by persistently and firmly promoting a positive reform agenda.

Mark Brzezinski was the director for Russian/Eurasian affairs on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and recently visited Russia to study on U.S.-European-Russian collaboration in the war on terrorism. He is currently a partner at McGuire Woods LLP in Washington D.c=, where he manages the firm’s international practice.

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