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Russia Profile
May 25, 2007
Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel:
Mixed Signals
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov
Contributors: Ethan Burger, Nikolas Gvosdev, Andrei Lebedev, Andrei Tsygankov, Andrei Zagorski, Stephan Blank, Ira Strauss

Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin took part in two important international meetings. First, he met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Moscow, and later he hosted the regular Russia-EU summit in Samara. Both ended with no specific results, but they appeared very different in tone.

Secretary Rice went out of her way to downplay the differences between Washington and Moscow. Although Rice and Putin disagreed on practically the entire agenda ­ from Kosovo to missile defense to Russia's democratic development ­ Rice chose to emphasize the Bush administration's desire to concentrate on "the considerable degree of cooperation with Russia" and seek "a lowering of the rhetoric." She said she had discussed Russia's domestic politics with Putin, and she elliptically referred to the "scars" Russia has from the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Rice even acknowledged that Russia has a point in criticizing the outdated Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and called for resolving differences at the upcoming CFE Review Conference. "I don't want the considerable degree of cooperation that we have on a number of issues to be lost," said Rice as she worked to repair the channels of communication between Russia and the United States.

In short, Rice intended to avoid broadening the rift by showing a measure of respect for Russia's views. Although Rice did not come away from Moscow with any agreements, she left the door open for possible breakthroughs in the future.

The Russia­EU summit, however, did not share the same fate. With Poland continuing to block Russia­EU talks on a new strategic partnership agreement and Estonia calling for sanctions on Russia, the summit was predestined to be a failure. On the eve of the meeting, both sides openly wondered whether it made any sense at all to hold the event.

With few substantive issues on the Russia­EU agenda (although one practical result of the meeting was the agreement to develop an early warning system on possible disruptions in energy supplies), the meeting was marred by mutual recriminations over Russia's recent pressure on Estonia and the Russian government's treatment of The Other Russia, which staged another "Dissenters' March" in Samara on the sidelines of the summit.

EU Commission Chairman Jose Manuel Barroso made it clear that the EU strongly supported Estonia and Poland in their disputes with Russia, saying: "We had the opportunity to say to our Russian partners that a difficulty for a member state is a difficulty for the whole European community. The Polish problem is a European problem. The Lithuanian and Estonia problems are also European problems." German Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuked Putin for trying to prevent Garry Kasparov from leading the opposition march in Samara (although the demonstration by The Other Russia actually took place in Samara quite successfully and was not suppressed by the police, as some Western media wrongly reported).

Where Rice was looking for ways to minimize the differences between the United States and Putin's Russia, Barroso and Merkel chose to accentuate the growing disparities between Russia and the EU.

Which approach is likely to work ­ that of the EU leaders or that of Rice? Will Russia and the United States be able to bridge their differences in the foreseeable future? Why did Rice try to smooth things over while the EU leaders decided now was a good time to provoke Putin? Is there any prospect of a new Russia-EU agreement? Does Russia need it? Does the EU?

Nikolas Gvosdev, Editor, The National Interest, Washington DC:

I think this is a case where separating rhetoric from reality is important. Secretary Rice's conciliatory statements notwithstanding, there is very little that she or the Bush Administration can offer Moscow short of making major concessions­such as halting the plans for deploying anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe, eschewing further expansion of NATO or delaying the final status for Kosovo. There is little chance that a change in the tone of U.S.-Russia relations will lead to major breakthroughs.

Chancellor Merkel is in an entirely different position. A rhetoric clash with Putin and the appearance of failure at the latest Russia-EU summit gives her much-needed political coverage from critics both in Europe and the United States who have argued that the deepening German-Russian relationship have come at the expense of shared transatlantic values.

On a separate note, a more deft and clever Russian approach toward Estonia and Poland could also have worked wonders; there is a growing degree of resentment in Western Europe, and particularly in Germany, about Eastern Europe's tendency to annoy Moscow. But the Russian establishment should listen to Barroso's warnings more carefully and accept the fact that its former satellites are full members of the European Union - and do in fact have influence.

Andrei Tsygankov, Professor of Political Science, San Francisco State University, San Fransisco, CA:

It is quite possible that relations between Russia and the United States had hit rock bottom and that they cannot worsen any further. The recent trip to Moscow by Condoleezza Rice confirms that, despite multiple efforts by people like Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) to isolate Russia by suspending its membership in the G8 or limiting its integration into the world economy, such efforts are not popular. During the upcoming election season, the Bush administration needs to be able to claim good working relations with large powers, including Russia, and therefore will not resort to tough rhetoric in relations with Moscow. Bush and his party understand that they are far more vulnerable to criticisms of "losing" Russia and other potentially important partners than to criticisms of not being tough enough on "Putin's authoritarianism." This is good news for Russia. The agenda for U.S. - Russia cooperation in counter-terrorism, energy security and non-proliferation remains as promising as ever, and the post-2008 era may see some important breakthroughs.

The situation with the EU is different, yet even here you see a similar pattern of "domestic" politics: In terms of the EU's relations with Russia, realists ­ with Angela Merkel at the center ­are in charge, yet they are heavily constrained by the actions of isolationists such as Poland and Estonia. It is important to understand, however, that for Poland and Estonia, isolationist rhetoric and actions are tough tactics, rather than a strategic orientation. In reality, the confrontation with Russia is designed to give them a greater share of economic profit from the existing relations with their eastern neighbor, mainly by preserving the privileges of transit nations that are threatened by the planned Russia-Germany pipeline. In the short term, Poland and Estonia have nothing to lose by playing hardball. If Germany and others support them in their efforts to pressure Russia, Poland and Estonia gain greater access to Russian agricultural markets and can collect taxes from energy pipelines passing through their territory. If not, they can at least claim that Russia is nothing but a non-cooperative bully and perhaps obtain important "solidarity" gains from Europe and the United States for standing up to Moscow.

At this point, as we can conclude from the summit in Samara, the record is mixed. The EU may be convinced that Russia is acting like a bully, but it is far from being ready to embrace Poland and Estonia's isolationist agenda, since such an agenda can only be short-lived. Provided that Moscow doesn't succumb to pressures and continues to defend its interests rationally, its economic integration with Europe and the world economy is going to continue, with political improvements to follow.

Andrei Lebedev, Senior Associate, the State Club Foundation, Moscow:

Suddenly Washington and Brussels had decided to play good cop/bad cop. Certainly this was not a product of collusion, and can hardly be explained by one and the same reason. On the eve of the summit in Samara, the European leaders faced the choice of distancing themselves from the conflicts of some EU members with Russia (thus treating these conflicts as purely bilateral matters) and supporting "their own," thus strengthening the unity of their organization. They chose the latter, following their instincts instead of the appropriate way of settling commercial and diplomatic disputes. Their evident fear of being portrayed as autocratic or unreceptive to the demands of EU members held Brussels hostage to these demands. The EU leadership has been inconsistent too, since the consensus in external affairs contradicts the dissent present in internal affairs. Voters in the Netherlands and France rejected the project of the European Constitution, still the work on it continues.

There was nothing preventing Brussels from playing the "unity card" in Samara. Absence of a new partnership agreement will not impede gas flow to Europe and visa-free entrance to Europe for the Russian elite, and while highly desirable it isn't vital. So the stalemate will continue for some time until the situation changes ­ or until one side blinks. There is not much chance for either, at least not until after the 2008 Russian presidential elections.

U.S. policy towards Russia is quite another ballgame. The United States will have presidential elections next year, too, and while Russia is not a major U.S. partner, Russian support on some international issues is important, if not vital, to the United States ­ the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs and the future of Kosovo and Iraq among them. U.S. policy towards Russia is far from placatory ­ see President George W. Bush's remarks in his latest interview with Reuters ­ but the secretary of state doesn't think it is necessary to antagonize the Kremlin. Leaving no room for illusions on either side, such Realpolitik seems more helpful. Whether this pragmatic approach will lead back to idealistic "democracy assistance," remains to be seen ­ especially after the elections.

Ethan Burger, Scholar-in-Residence, School of International Service, American University Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, D.C.:

Linkage or bifurcation ­ that is really the question.

The Western/Central European states have tended to be pragmatic about their foreign relations, both with Russia and one another. The EU countries (principally Germany and France) recognize that their foreign policies need to operate on two planes: First, what is genuinely vital to national interest: Military and economic (energy) security for each county. Disagreements in these areas usually occur when there has been a systematic failure ­ that is, the non-violent resolution of disputes and observance of contractual relations are expected to be the norm.

Personally, I feel that the Russian government is over-reacting to possible deployment of a limited number of interceptors in some of the new NATO member states. The Russian nuclear forces can overwhelm such defenses. Nonetheless, this has become a highly emotional, symbolic issue. Perhaps if Russia were less supportive of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, it would be easier to sympathize.

The second plane is important, but of greater concern to the citizenry on a day-to-day basis ­human rights and foreign policy outside Europe when the stakes are not deemed high, or the subject is deemed one where the United States or the UK can get by with a supportive public statement or two. Criticism between countries is largely tolerated and ignored, since there are seldom major consequences arising from differing positions.

Europeans are traditionally more sophisticated about the conduct of diplomacy. What they say in public at home is not usually what they say in an international forum. The situation with respect to the "cyber attack" on Estonia was an unusual case, and the whole story has yet to be told in public. While the Estonian government's action was for domestic political reasons, it hit a raw nerve for ethnic Russians living in both Estonia and Russia. I would think that both the Estonian and Russian governments wish they had the power to make the whole situation disappear, since in the long-term, it is counter productive for both parties.

Many Americans (including both Bush and Rice) often have unrealistic expectations as to the U.S.'s ability to remould Russia in its own image. Consequently, they are bound to be disappointed. Most Russians view Americans as basically good people, but hopelessly naive and at times hypocritical.

The United States and Russia for the near future have different foreign policy objectives in many, but not all areas. In most cases, the two countries should learn to agree to disagree in a civil manner. I would hope that the electorates in both countries recognize that rhetoric can be counterproductive, particularly on issues where there may be grounds for cooperation, or at least acquiesce on an issue where the other side has vital interests or reputation at stake.

I hope that someday the Russian elite comes to have real faith in the electoral systems. In most cases in the West, incumbents get re-elected barring extreme personal corruption, an unpopular war or an economic collapse. Andrew Wilson's book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World would be a great book to discuss at a book club within the Kremlin.

Andrei Zagorski, Professor, MGIMO-University, Moscow:

I think the reading of the developments suggested in the introduction does not help to comprehend them. This spring, Russian­EU relations have reached the lowest point in their 15- year history. The disputes between Russia and a growing number of European Union members, as well as broader divergences on a series of international issues, have motivated several EU members to question the wisdom of the concept of strategic partnership with Russia and even the need to hold the regular summit in Samara.

It would be wrong to think that this debate would not affect the meeting. The European Union operates on the basis of consensus which is shifting towards an increasingly critical stance on Russia. Under these circumstances, to have an open discussion and to show solidarity of the EU with its individual member states was probably the only way to save Samara. Such a move signaled to Moscow that it can't have a partnership with the EU without significantly improving relations with Poland, Lithuania and Estonia.

In general terms, late last year, relations between Russia, the European Union and the United States had reached a point where they could still go either up or down. After Putin's speech in Munich this February, they are obviously on the decline with little prospect of being repaired any time soon.

Many new issues proposed by Moscow confuse the Europeans and Americans, who can't rationalize Russia's fear of the U.S. anti-ballistic systems to be deployed in Central Eastern Europe or the decision to suspend the CFE Treaty, thus lifting any restrictions on U.S. (and NATO) deployments in Europe, including Eastern Europe. What is obvious, however, is that Russia and the West are rapidly losing the ability to talk with and understand each other.

Neither the United States nor the European Union want relations with Russia to further deteriorate while the Russia­fatigue continues to spread ­ this seems to be Rice's message. Whatever divergences we might have, we will not exacerbate the situation by unnecessary rhetoric. The European Union is sending the same message by focusing not on the lost opportunities at the Samara meeting but on a few issues that were fixed there ­ particularly establishing the early warning system for eventual disruptions of energy supply.

However, the effect of the recent developments is obviously the increasing caution of the risks entailed in accepting Russia as a partner. While no one seems to seek to isolate Moscow unnecessarily, there is an increasing reluctance to allow often irrational Russian politics to interfere with the decision making in Euro-Atlantic institutions. This does not bring Moscow closer to its objective of manifesting its equal status as a partner with the European Union in a new agreement.

Stephen Blank, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA: (Dr. Blank's views as contributed to Russia Profile do not represent the position of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government)

Secretary Rice downplayed differences with Russia because the U.S. government has consistently believed that it needs Russia's help to deal with threats from Iran and North Korea, but it is highly unlikely that this will do anything but reduce the temperature of exchanges for a short time. Such calls reflect U.S. weakness, not strength of purpose, and will duly be exploited by Moscow. What is lost in this analysis is the fact that Russia some time ago decided to stop cooperating with the West and to pursue a policy based on achieving in foreign affairs what it seeks at home ­ a totally unconstrained autocracy, or independence. Russian foreign policy spokesmen regularly extol this independence as the greatest achievement of the regime, and view both calls for democracy and Western policy in general as a threat to it. This posture is in accord with the historic Russian belief that a unified Europe is a threat to it. Consequently, Russia has sought to split the EU and deal bilaterally with key members at the expense of Poland and the Baltic states.

However the recent summit showed that this tactic has failed for now. In any case, the cyberwar against Estonia, no mater how ill-advised Tallinn's actions were, is a sign of Moscow's inability to renounce its imperial tendencies and believe that it can do as it pleases and needs to be rebuffed strongly. The belief that letting Russia get away with its false accusations about U.S. and Western policy and its domestic repressions will produce concessions is utterly misguided. Russia's refusal to cooperate with the West and pursue a unilateral policy needs to be confronted with a firm Western policy that rebuffs Russian pretensions to a special role and freedom of action while remaining open to opportunities for genuine partnership. But it is not Washington or Brussels that is obstructing partnership, rather it is Moscow that is doing so. Russian foreign policy reflects the continuing nexus between domestic autocracy and external truculence and imperial pretensions . Therefore, disregarding provocative Russian behavior does not advance the cause either of international security, or of Russian or Eurasian security.

Ira Straus, U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Russia in NATO, Washington DC:

Only the United States and the West as a whole is big enough for Russia. That is the key, the clue to the situation.

The difference in tone is more than a temporary difference in tactic. It reflects different objective conditions. The United States is big enough to make allowances for Russia and to try to appease it when it seems on the verge of going off the deep end; European countries are too near and small for that, and the EU is too weak and vulnerable.

Of course I say "appease" in the traditional diplomatic sense of the word, without any negative connotation. Reasonable diplomacy always includes an element of appeasement of concerns and suspicions. Any effort at appeasement might fail; any regime might prove so bent on suspicion, or on an unquenchable set of resentments and demands, as to be unappeasable. The Russian regime is responsible for its own phobias, the more so as it has taken over the mass media and aborted the normal societal means of maintaining a mental balance. It can decide to react to anything said by Europe with external dialogue or with internally stoked suspicion; it has the same choice for anything said by the United States, no matter what the tone. The United States has enough of a margin of security to afford to try appeasement for some time, but eventually, repeated failures always lead the United States as well to put it aside and turn to a harsher policy.

The United States and Europe have once again reminded Russia of something that many Russians have repeatedly seen, yet still mostly fail to understand: That in the West, only the United States is big enough to deal calmly with Russia, and by extension, only the West as a whole is big enough to include Russia ­ not Europe or the EU.

Coincidentally, the French news source AFP reported May 15 that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is planning on formally announcing the opening of membership talks with Russia. The OECD is the economic NATO. The G8, where Russia is already a member, is a kind of political executive committee of the OECD.

NATO itself has a special Council with Russia, with a multi-layered dialogue and a significant institutional and operational substructure. The EU has refused to create anything similar with Russia, for the good reason that it cannot afford it, due to problems of size and balance.

The lesson has been given to Russia many times. The interesting question is why it refuses to learn it.