The U.S.-Russia Relationship: At a Crossroads

Moscow's Red Square
Moscow’s Red Square

The United States’ relationship with Russia is at a crossroads. In the last six months, Russian President Vladimir Putin has consolidated power by cracking down on dissidents, stifling the free press, and arresting Russia’s richest man, oil tycoon Mikhail Khordorkovsky. Recent elections (which outside observers deemed neither fair nor free) left the country’s emerging democratic parties struggling for their political lives while Putin stocked his government with more KGB veterans like himself.

The U.S. needs to respond to these developments. Russia is still one of the most powerful countries in the world, has a vast nuclear arsenal and could potentially be a valuable ally in the war on terror. Until recently, however, the Bush administration has had little to say on Russia. According the Washington Post, debate in the White House had been dormant since “Bush famously said after meeting Putin in 2001 that he had gotten a ‘sense of his soul.'” It was only last month that the administration – preoccupied with terrorist threats and events in Iraq – finally realized that a policy based on the president’s personal relationship with Vladimir Putin was not working as hoped. Yet as the Post points out, the administration’s new approach “carries minimal practical weight” because President Bush has merely “confined his response to expressions of displeasure.”

U.S. policy towards Russia cannot be based on presidential chemistry or limited to comments of disapproval. With this in mind, the Center for American Progress asked three leading experts to evaluate our relationship with Russia, discuss the road ahead, and make concrete policy recommendations on how the United States should address recent alarming developments there.

Michael McFaul, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, argues that the future of Russian democracy is the single most important issue in U.S.-Russia relations today. If Russia should ever return to a dictatorship, he believes relations between our two countries will become “strained, competitive, and possibly even confrontational again as they were for most of the twentieth century.” McFaul argues that to ensure this doesn’t happen, the U.S. should tell the truth about democratic erosion in Russia, show solidarity with Russian human rights activists and fully support American-funded democracy programs like the Freedom Support Act. Read McFaul’s “Russia’s Transition to Democracy and U.S.-Russia Relations: Unfinished Business.”

Sarah Mendelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, points out, “If U.S. policymakers have been concerned by the course of events in Russia, it has been very hard to tell.” She believes it’s time to develop a new approach toward Russia and argues that the U.S. needs to work with Russia and Europe to end the bloody conflict in Chechnya and foster a relationship based on core values instead of presidential dynamics. The alternative – continuing with business as usual – emboldens those who haven’t cooperated in the first place and ignores a growing threat to U.S. national security. Read Mendelson’s “Wanted: A New U.S. Policy on Russia.”

Mark Brzezinski, the director for Russian/Eurasian affairs on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, believes the U.S. should promote stability in areas on Russia’s periphery (specifically Georgia, Moldova, and the countries of Central Asia), commit to fully fund Nunn-Lugar (the program designed to dismantle and corral Russian nuclear weapons) and draw Russia into international networks so that the country has an opportunity to become a member of the community of democratic states. Read Brzezinski’s “A Crossroads in U.S.-Russia Relations.”

Each of these experts brings a different viewpoint to the debate on U.S.-Russia relations. All three agree, however, that the Bush administration should

  • Forcefully and meaningfully speak out against undemocratic developments in Russia.
  • Stand with human rights activists who are concerned with Russia’s behavior in general and with the war in Chechnya specifically.
  • Develop a “Russia policy” to replace the current “Putin policy.”
  • Fully fund critical programs like Nunn-Lugar and the Freedom Support Act that not only help Russia, but also address vital American national security concerns.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.