Russia Profile


February 19, 2008


Waiting for a U.S. Russia Policy
Will the Next Administration Take Up the Challenge?


Comment by Andrei Tsygankov


Andrei P. Tsygankov is Associate Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University. He has written widely on Russian foreign policy and is currently researching a book on US-Russia relations after Sept. 11.

The United States currently does not have a Russia policy. Lacking a realistic assessment of the Kremlin’s intentions and capabilities, Washington is unable to formulate a coherent response to an increasingly assertive Russia. Even the containment of the Cold War­ as imperfect as it was ­ served as a better guide to policy. It defined Russia as a hostile challenger to the West’s role in the world, but it was also based on clear expectations of Soviet behavior that prevented a number of dangerous crises from developing. Despite its problems, President Bill Clinton’s way of dealing with Moscow had its own logic as well. During the Clinton era, the White House aimed at incorporating the weakened and largely pro-Western Russia into the U.S.-dominant part of the world as a junior partner, or a dependent and inward-looking post-Soviet nation.

President George W. Bush’s administration began its term in office by proclaiming that Russia was no longer enough of a priority to be dealt with on a bilateral basis. That the administration didn’t have much to say on Russia’s role in the post-Cold War world amounted to ignoring, rather than seriously rethinking, the country’s place in the international system. As the Kremlin pressed to be recognized by Western nations, and as the United States lived through the traumatic experience of Sept. 11, Bush’s strategists returned to the expectation that Russia might play the role of a junior partner ­ this time in the “war on terror” coalition. That coalition soon unraveled, however, and Washington continued to do business with Moscow as if it were still the 1990s. Business as usual meant that Russia remained dependent and insecure ­ a partner that was comfortable for the United States in the sense that it created no problems for the execution of its grand plans.

Beginning with Russia’s opposition to Washington’s attempts to install loyal regimes in Iraq and ­ by non-military means ­ in the former Soviet region, that policy too ceased to exist as a viable framework. President Vladimir Putin’s speech in Munich in February 2007 marked a new stage of strategic uncertainty in the two countries’ relations. Since that time, Russia has ceased to tolerate the U.S. projection of power and influence across the world; instead, the Kremlin has gone on the offensive, asserting its own economic and political interests in the former Soviet sphere, Europe, Asia and Middle East. The U.S. and Russia continue to cooperate in sharing intelligence, and some sources indicate that this cooperation is getting stronger. The two nations have also reached some understanding on developments in North Korea and Iran. Beyond that, the U.S. and Russia are ­ depending on the issue ­ aliens or rivals. They are not enemies, but this strange mixture of cooperation and rivalry serves as yet another indicator of the lack of clarity in relations with Russia. In the absence of such clarity, the future of the two countries’ relations in a rapidly changing international environment is bound to have further complications.

During my interviews with members of Washington policy circles, I was repeatedly told that the community of Russia watchers is split. The split goes all the way to the White House and is responsible for the absence of a coherent policy toward the country. Those concentrating around Vice President Dick Cheney believe that Russia’s assertiveness must be reversed since it challenges the very foundations of the American mission in the world ­ development of power preponderance and promotion of a Western-style democracy. On the other side of the divide are President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who believe that they are making incremental progress by cooperating with Russia on a host of issues and that it is best not to make too much of the Kremlin’s increasingly noisy demands to give Russia greater stakes in the international system. As Rice stated recently in Davos, “the United States and Russia are working constructively today on many issues of mutual interest … and we are determined to remember this, even when we hear unwise and irresponsible rhetoric from Russia."

A number of American experts sympathetic to the idea of strengthening cooperation with Russia understand that not making too much of Moscow’s assertiveness no longer amounts to a sound policy; however, their views are yet to be heard by the White House. Overall, Washington continues to live in a dream world, in which there is only one superpower-leader and others are merely followers of its agenda. Not making more room for others ­ including Russia ­ and expecting them to be satisfied with existing international economic and political arrangements is unrealistic and will only produce greater resentment toward Washington.

A strong presidential leadership committed to devising mutually acceptable rules in the two countries’ behavior could have prevented the current deterioration in their relationship. Yet during the last five years such leadership was not coming from the White House, and the promising post-Sept. 11 cooperation never materialized. A future administration must move beyond George W. Bush’s indecisiveness and design a coherent Russia policy based on a mutually shared understanding of national interests.