U.S.-Russian relations are adrift. After a promising start, George W. Bush has failed to capitalize on his personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin to develop a comprehensive and meaningful relationship between the United States and Russia. Although neither country has adopted an openly hostile position toward the other, the level of engagement between Russia and the United States could be and should be much broader than it is today.
The Bush record on Russia is mixed. The president deserves credit for developing a close relationship with Russian President Putin, but he has failed to translate this friendship into concrete objectives that serve U.S. foreign policy interests. Bush has asserted that his three main foreign policy objectives are fighting terrorism, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and spreading liberty. Unfortunately, Putin has done little to help achieve any of them. His method of fighting terrorism in Chechnya has made Russia and its allies in this global war less secure. Russia has been reluctant to slow the transfer of nuclear technologies in countries such as Iran and its own nuclear weapons are not properly secured. Finally, Putin’s anti-democratic actions at home make him an ineffective ally in promoting democracy abroad.
More generally, there is simply little happening in U.S.-Russian relations today. The relationship is stable but stagnant. Unfortunately, this new era of disengagement and disinterest in U.S.-Russian relations has occurred simultaneously with negative changes in the way that Russia is governed. If autocratic practices and authoritarian institutions continue to gain strength, then Russia’s ability to integrate into the Western community of democratic states will become even more difficult. If Russia eventually reverts back to a full-blown dictatorship, then Russian-American relations will once again be dominated by conflicts and competition.
At this critical moment in Russia’s internal development, American foreign policy makers cannot afford to be disinterested and disengaged. The next administration, be it Kerry’s first term or Bush’s second term, must move immediately to re-engage both the Russian state and Russian society. U.S. officials must re-establish a meaningful agenda with their Russian counterparts by renewing efforts to decrease the number of nuclear weapons still in operation in both countries; committing to not develop or deploy new tactical nuclear weapons; and pledging to speed the pace and increase the scale of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (Nunn-Lugar) programs. A serious bilateral agenda should also include the removal of Cold War era trade restrictions, a new effort at expanding the number of and de-monopolizing the pipelines that now supply oil and gas from Russia to American allies, and a genuine multilateral effort aimed at ending the frozen conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Finally, the next administration must reverse the cuts in programs designed to foster the development of civil society in Russia, which include education exchanges, small grants programs, and society-to-society contacts.
As a parallel to this new agenda of engagement with the Russian state, American foreign policy officials must reach out to Russian society, and especially those elements in Russia which are today resisting the current authoritarian drift. At a minimum, U.S. officials must speak the truth about what is occurring inside Russia. The United States does not have the power to reverse anti-democratic trends in Russia overnight. Russia is too big; Putin is too powerful. But U.S officials must make clear which side of the fence they are on. If we truly want to succeed in fighting terrorism, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and spreading liberty around the world, there is no better place to start than with a new policy toward Russia.
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Michael McFaul is the Peter and Helen Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and an associate professor of political science at Stanford University.