Three Principles of Realistic Russia Policy


#14 - JRL 2006-118 - JRL Home
Date: Wed, 24 May 2006
From: Andrei Tsygankov <>
Subject: Three Principles of Realistic Russia Policy


            Much has been said about the United States and Russia developing diverging perceptions of post-Cold War realities. Now that the two nations may be approaching a new confrontation, it is important to reassess principles that drive America’s Russia policy. Drawing on the experience of the past twenty years, one might suggest three guiding principles: engagement, reciprocity, and patience. Carefully applied, they in time can bring more security and stability to the world.


1. Staying Engaged


Engaging Russia is critical for making progress in arms control, counter-terrorism, and establishing regional security arrangements in Eurasia. It is equally critical for developing cooperation in economic and energy matters. Although many in the West understand this, the engagement with Russia has been modest. The majority of the political class continued to mistrust Russia well after the Soviet disintegration and showed interest mainly in reducing nuclear threats coming from the region. Despite Gorbachev’s and Yeltin’s expectations, the West never introduced anything remotely similar to the Marshall plan after the Second World War. The Western leaders went only as far as to extend Russia some symbolic forms of recognition, such as membership in G-7, while abstaining from more serious commitments to transforming the post-communist economic and political institutions.


            Today, opponents of engagement with Russia in the West are strong. Since the “who lost Russia?” debate initiated by critics of Clinton’s foreign policy record in 2000, criticism of Western, particularly American, policy toward Russia has become especially loud. Politicians from John McCain to John Edwards warn about Russia’s “imperialism” and “de-democratization” and recommend measures of disengagement as a way to deal with new Russia.


            Punishing or ignoring Russia is not likely to discipline it, however. Russia continues to be in a position not to yield to pressures from the U.S. Against expectations, such pressures are likely to strengthen Russian nationalists and push Russia further away from the Western nations. NATO expansion, as well as military interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, has done their damage in this respect. Nationalists in Russia will only be grateful to politicians, like McCain and Edwards, for assisting them in constructing an image of America as a threat.


2: Engaging on Mutually Acceptable Terms


            Engagement will only be effective when conducted on reciprocal or mutually acceptable basis. Anything short of reciprocity is likely to result in cheating by the sides involved. Hegemonic engagement on American terms will come at the price of Russia’s own interests and perceptions. One the other hand, attempts to appease Russia by jeopardizing US own interests are not likely to last, either, because of lack of sufficient support within Western societies. Former Cold War enemies will only develop the required trust when they openly engage in direct negotiations of mutually acceptable forms of cooperation.


            Unfortunately, many in the United States are convinced that they are doing Russia a great favor by insisting on universal applicability of Western market democracy and pressing ahead with making Russia in its own image. Russia’s insistence on its own interests and cultural specifics often gets dismissed as reflecting the views of remnants of anti-Western nationalism. Possessing enormous power and resources, the West has a tendency to perceive non-Western nations as passive and backward followers, rather than equal participants in the world development. This attitude remains a serious obstacle to mutual understanding required for reciprocal engagement.


            Over the last ten years the United States often displayed the noted attitude. Not listening to what Russians themselves, across political spectrum, identified as their national interests and acting against such identification was, unfortunately, all too common. Russia’s insistence on the need to provide security and stability in the former Soviet Union was often labeled as “neo-imperial” temptations. Russia’s opposition to NATO expansion was frequently dismissed as a pure paranoia. In economic reform, many in Russia preferred gradual pace and strong role reserved for the state. Yet, U.S. officials forcefully communicated to their Russian counterparts that they believed in shock therapy, or fast solutions, not gradualism. More recently, Washington embarked on the project of changing regimes and expanding liberty in the world, which in the Eurasian context means greater destabilization of the already highly volatile region. These are hardly best terms for engagement with Russia. American officials want to participate in changes in Russia and Eurasia, but often are unprepared to compromise on their policy vision.


            A genuinely successful engagement is difficult to design and maintain. Given the history of Russia-West hostilities and divergent current interests, there will always be differences in their approaches to solving existing problems. Nevertheless, engagement on mutually acceptable terms is worth a serious effort considering that the alternative is a resentful Russia. Faced with powerful Western pressures, Russia may not always be able to defend its vision of national interest, but it will be likely to cheat out of its obligations if it had been coerced into such obligations.


3: Tempering Expectations  


            In addition to engagement and reciprocity in relations with Russia, the West ought to be patient and not expect miracles. Unreasonable expectations about Russia have not been uncommon in the past and should not be a guide in the future. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many have hoped for Russia to quickly leave its past behind and to emerge as a market democracy with special relationships to Western nations. The reality proved different. In the economic and political realm, Russians have built their own distinct institutions and remain wary of intentions of the United States.


            This does not necessarily mean that Russia is “off track” economically and politically. Although not without its share of problems and policy errors, Russia’s overall progress in adjusting to new global realities has been considerable. Domestically, the emphasis on economic modernization and increased state capacity found considerable support from the public. Most polls indicate that Russians appreciate the shift toward a more active state role, although there is still an expectation of enhanced performance.


This means that expecting Russia to comply with Western standards of democracy is hardly realistic. Support for such compliance within elites or larger society is simply not there. American officials should formulate some long-term objectives that would also be acceptable to the Russian side. Organizing relationships with Russia with these objectives in mind, rather than pushing aggressively for Russia’s compliance with Washington’s demands, is more likely to produce results. Only most vital issues of bilateral relationships reflecting broad social needs should be selected. Such model of relationships may also reduce an unnecessary personalization of relationships and simplified “good” versus “bad guys” perceptions. Personalization of relationships with Russian presidents, as Clinton’s experience teaches us, may contribute to emergence of a regime that would only be rhetorically democratic and pro-Western, but in reality would alienate majority of Russians and serve the interests of narrow political circles. 


            This way of determining policy agenda is likely to take time, but it may produce a more robust and predictable relationships in the future. Over time, realistic expectations about Russia, attentiveness to attitudes across Russian society, and willingness to be true to assumed commitment should help to erase the currently existing image of the U.S. as overly pushy and opportunistic. It is hard to believe that the United States, or the West in general, will ever possess enough power to fully determine the shape and direction of Russia’s developments. Yet so long as Russia’s leaders seek to learn from Western thinking and actions, the West will continue to make important contributions to how Russia progresses into its future.