Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Current History
October 2001
Realistic Engagement: A New Approach to American-Russian Relations
By MICHAEL MCFAUL (mcfaul@hoover.stanford.edu)
MICHAEL MCFAUL is an associate professor of political science and Hoover Fellow at Stanford University. He is also a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. His latest book is Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001).

Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, it is striking how many remnants of that era remain. Tens of thousands of American troops remain stationed in Germany, Russia's army still deploys thousands of tanks on Russia's Western border to defend against a NATO invasion, and Pentagon war plans still aim nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert at thousands of targets inside Russia. The main topic of discussion at meetings between American and Russian heads of state is still arms control. Perhaps most eerily, ten years after the end of Soviet communism and the birth of Russian democracy, Russia and "communist" China signed a friendship treaty and North Korea's communist leader, Kim Jong Il, visited Moscow to reaffirm old ties and lay flowers at Lenin's tomb on Red Square. And a former KGB officer is now the Russian president.

In the euphoric weeks after the hard-liners' failed coup attempt in Moscow in August 1991, when the cold war seemed destined to fade quickly into the distant past, few observers imagined that the United States and Russia would have thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at each other, or that a foreign leader would be visiting Lenin's tomb a decade later. In the first years after the Soviet collapse, President Boris Yeltsin and his American partners, first George H. W. Bush, then Bill Clinton, seemed committed to dismantling the institutions and practices of the cold war for good. Back then Yeltsin looked like a truly historic figure, intent on destroying the Soviet empire, command economy, and dictatorship and in their place building an independent Russia, a market economy, and a political democracy. Yeltsin and his advisers looked to the West, and the United States in particular, as models to emulate and allies to assist in the completion of their revolution. In these early years of his tenure, Yeltsin sought to integrate Russia fully into the Western community of nations. The United States, for its part, embraced Yeltsin's mission and pledged to engage in a strategic partnership with Russia to make that transformation happen.

But Russia's much-anticipated democratic revolution is not yet complete, and it has yet to assume the seat reserved for it at the table of democratic powers. Today Russia is somewhere between its past as an enemy of the West and its potential future as a full member of the Western community of states. The creation of market and democratic institutions at home and integration with the West have not occurred as quickly as expected and have not produced the promised (or imagined) results. At this ten-year milestone, Russia has yet to decide what kind of relationship it wants to develop with the United States, or with the West in general.

Partly as a result of Russia's slow progress in becoming a "Western" country, European and American leaders are reconsidering the kind of relationship they wish to cultivate with Russia. Because of Russia's size and geopolitical location, most European leaders believe they must engage with Russia no matter what kind of regime consolidates in Moscow and regardless of the foreign policy Russia pursues. American foreign policymakers face more complex choices. Farther away, and with global interests that stretch beyond Europe, American leaders have an alternative their European counterparts do not: the option of disengaging from Russia and its domestic reforms, interacting solely where the management of nuclear arsenals is concerned. While few policymakers or analysts openly advocate this strategy, many ponder it privately.

The soundest strategy for both American and Russian policymakers is to carve a middle position between obsessive engagement and active disengagement. Russian and American leaders have to define a United States-Russian relationship that neither rekindles cold war rivalry nor refuels illusions about alliances and special relationships. More distance than a decade ago might be healthy for the bilateral relationship. Too much distance will be dangerous.


For almost half a century after World War II, the basic dynamic in United States-Soviet relations was straightforward. The Soviet Union was the principal enemy of the United States, and the United States was the principal enemy of the Soviet Union. The potent combination of military power and communist ideology made the Soviet Union a real threat to the United States and its allies. Likewise, American capitalism, democracy, and military might threatened Soviet interests abroad and the very existence of the Soviet Union. Containing the power and norms of the other (or expanding one's own power and norms) was the basic drama of the cold war. To be sure, under different leaders and during different years, the policies of containment and expansion varied considerably, and at times such as the détente period during the tenure of President Richard Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, the two countries even became somewhat cooperative. Yet the basic definition of the relationship as a rivalry was never in question.

Immediately after the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991, the basic dynamic of bilateral United States-Russian relations changed fundamentally. Suddenly, the Kremlin leader was no longer the appointed head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union but the elected president of independent Russia. This new leader, Boris Yeltsin, and his allies wanted to create an economy and polity that emulated the United States. To demonstrate its fealty to America and the West, this new Russia unequivocally renounced communism and unilaterally ceased its efforts to counterbalance United States interests abroad. During the early 1990s, Russia behaved in the international arena as if it were an ally of the United States, and American leaders welcomed the reinvented Russia as a friend. In place of containment, Presidents Bush (the elder) and Clinton embraced the new policy of engagement with Russia.

This sudden dramatic shift in United States-Russian relations was the result not of United States actions or policies but of Soviet, then Russian, domestic politics. During the cold war, the Soviet regime and its expansionist mission constituted the main threat to the security of the United States and its allies. When that regime collapsed in 1991, the Russian threat to American interests greatly diminished. Russia's security outlook underwent a similar redefinition during its postcommunist transition. When Russia's new leaders succeeded in toppling the Soviet ancien régime, they no longer viewed the United States as an enemy but as an ally in completing their anticommunist revolution; joining the West replaced promoting communism abroad as the central objective of Russian foreign policy.

These lofty and noble aims of United States-Russian relations that replaced the cold war rivalry have not been met yet. Disappointed expectations-expectations that look unrealistic in retrospect-have fueled disillusion and even suspicion in both countries about the intentions of the former adversary. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's simultaneous expansion of membership to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic and extension of the alliance's mission to include the war against Serbia over Kosovo have created uneasiness among Russian foreign policymakers, who increasingly consider American objectives in Europe to be aggressive. Even pro-Western liberals within Russia have begun to question whether the United States is more concerned with the development of democracy and capitalism in Russia, or with the expansion of American influence in the region. Yeltsin and his first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, pursued a strongly procapitalist, prodemocracy, pro-Western foreign policy. Today such ideological collaborationist thinking is gone and most of Russia's foreign policy elite views international politics through the lens of zero-sum realpolitik: United States gains are perceived as Russian losses. Many Russian foreign policymakers question the intentions of American economic and political assistance to Russia, believing that the real aim of this aid was to weaken their country. The Russian population also holds a more skeptical view of American intentions today than it held a decade ago. In polls conducted by Harvard political scientist Timothy Colton and this author in December 1999, 55 percent of Russian respondents believed that the United States represented a threat to Russian security. Such sentiments were not widespread a decade ago.

Russian foreign policymakers certainly recognize that American power now grossly overshadows Russian power. The world is no longer anchored by two superpowers but instead is dominated by one, the United States. At the same time, in areas of Russia's historical influence near its borders, in Central Asia or the Caucasus for instance, Russian leaders believe they can balance American hegemony.

American questions about Russian foreign policy intentions have grown as well. Russia's wars in Chechnya, along with its trade of nuclear technologies with Iran, its embrace of autocratic Serbian leaders, and its rhetoric of a Russian-Chinese strategic partnership against "American hegemony," have compelled United States policymakers and analysts to question Russia's real foreign policy intentions. The inauguration of President Vladimir Putin-the first change in leadership in the Kremlin since independence in 1991-increased suspicions among many about Russia's pro-Western bent in foreign policy and commitment to reform at home.

Admirably, from the American perspective, Putin and his government have demonstrated a real commitment to strengthening market reforms and passing legislative initiatives that are more radical than anything attempted during the Yeltsin era. At the same time, Putin and his allies have weakened Russia's already-fragile democratic institutions. The indiscriminate use of force against civilians in Chechnya; the seizure and closure of opposition media outlets; the harassment of human rights activists, environmentalists, and researchers; and the weakening of political institutions designed to check executive power suggest that at least the short-term future of Russian democracy is uncertain. One regime change in 1991 propelled Russia in a democratic direction, ended the cold war, and fostered more cooperative relations between the United States and Russia; another change at the top has the potential to relaunch Russia's momentum in an autocratic direction, once again fueling competitive relations with the United States.

It is still too early to identify causal relationships between authoritarian drift within Russia and a more anti-American Russian foreign policy. Putin has sent mixed signals. Sometimes he acts very pro-Western and even pro-American. In his first weeks in office, Putin pushed through the Duma ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II) (the latter had languished in the Duma for years). Rhetorically, Putin has expressed a clear desire for Russia to become a fully integrated member of the Group of Eight (G-8) most-industrialized nations, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and, more generally, Europe. His new foreign policy doctrine stresses that "Russia shall actively work to attract foreign investments" and will endeavor "to ensure favorable external conditions for forming a market-oriented economy in our country." He has gone out of his way to emphasize that he sees Russia as a European country, one that shares common interests with other European nations. Although still early in this relationship, Putin has seemed eager to develop a friendly and engaged relationship with President George W. Bush.

At the same time, Putin has made it clear that he will not allow the United States to dictate to Russia the terms of this engagement. His counterproposals to American national missile defense have won praise in Europe and China and put the United States on the defensive. His massive accumulation of frequent-flyer miles with trips to such different countries as North Korea, Great Britain, Cuba, Spain, China, Germany, Japan, and India signal that President Putin wants to reassert Russia's role as a major actor on the international stage. Cooperation with the United States was Yeltsin's central foreign policy focus. For Putin, cooperation with the United States is one, but only one, of many foreign policy objectives. Indeed, Putin has devoted more attention to Europe than to the United States.

Just as the intentions motivating the United States-Russian relationship have changed over the last decade, the balance of power between the two nations has also altered significantly. Russia is no longer a superpower and might never be again. The size of the Russian economy today is more comparable to the economies of Switzerland or Portugal than to the United States or China. Even if its economy grew at the fast clip of 7 percent for each of the next 20 years, Russia might be on par with India or Brazil but will still fall far behind the world's major economic powers.

In military terms, Russia ranks more favorably, though not much more so. Russia's military-industrial complex is a shadow of its former Soviet self. Even under Putin, who has placed great emphasis on expanding defense expenditures, Moscow plans to spend roughly $7 billion to $8 billion on national defense in 2001, or about 2.6 percent of next year's projected GDP (using purchasing power purity calculations, Western analysts estimate this number to be much higher). This figure is several orders of magnitude less than what military expenditures were in Soviet times. In real terms, the United States will spend 40 times more (over $300 billion) than Russia on defense expenditures next year-in fact, the United States may spend as much on missile defense research and development as Russia will spend on its entire military in the coming years. Although Russia has proved in Chechnya that its armed forces can still project power, it does not have the capability to undertake a serious military operation against any ally of the United States. Russia's only real military asset is its nuclear arsenal, and even this is eroding and becoming too expensive for Russia to maintain.

Yet, despite its spectacular decline over the last decade, Russia still has unique military assets and geostrategic positions that will continue to accord Russia a special status in the international system. Because of its nuclear arsenal, Russia is still the only country in the world that could launch a massive military attack against the United States on American soil. Even if Putin decides to reduce Russia's strategic nuclear weapons to 1,000-a proposal currently under discussion primarily for financial reasons-Russia could still inflict enormous damage to American military and civilian targets. Even those most optimistic about the capabilities of missile defense systems concede that the United States will not be able to defend against a Russian nuclear attack for decades, if ever.

Russia will also remain a regional hegemon. Russia may be a weak power, but the states surrounding it are even weaker, ensuring that Russia will be the major military and economic power in the region for years to come. Compared to the American military, Russia's armed forces look ill equipped and ill prepared. Compared to Georgian or Ukrainian military capabilities, however, the Russian military appears fearsome. These same regional asymmetries are present regarding economic matters. Compared to any Western corporation, Russian companies look small, poorly managed, and unable to compete. Compared to Moldovan, Uzbek, or even Ukrainian firms, Russian enterprises appear powerful if not imperial. If the Russian economy continues to grow over the next several years, Russian economic influence in the region will expand exponentially.


The new set of intentions and distribution of power that shape United States-Russian relations make the formulation of American policy toward Russia more difficult and complex than previously. To develop policies to deter enemies or embrace allies is easy; to craft policies toward strategically important states like Russia that are neither friend nor foe is much more difficult. The stakes are high-the wrong set of policies could push the United States and Russia into a more antagonistic relationship. A return to the policy of containment as pursued earlier in the twentieth century, or even the reemergence of balance-of-power politics as practiced in Europe in the nineteenth century, will not serve American national security interests. Nor will pretending that Russia is a strategic partner. Even under the best conditions, Russia is unlikely to become an ally of the United States, fully incorporated into NATO or other alliance structures in the foreseeable future. Raising expectations about cooperation using unrealistic timelines, therefore, will be unproductive.

Instead of anachronistic doctrines of containment or strategic partnership, the new Bush administration should pursue a policy of realistic engagement toward Russia. Similar to German and Japanese integration 50 years ago, Russian domestic reform and integration into the international community of democratic and market-oriented states are a vital American national security interest that must be pursued as a foreign policy priority. The United States must continue to engage the Russian state and Russian society (the two being distinct) as a strategy for achieving this long-term objective of integration. As prospects for state-to-state cooperation become more uncertain in the post-Yeltsin era, special emphasis should be placed on directly engaging and integrating Russian citizens, companies, and nongovernmental organizations into the democratic fold. But this strategy must be pursued with an honest assessment of the limitations on what engagement can accomplish in the next four years. There is no geographic, strategic, cultural, or historic reason to presume that Russia cannot join Europe and the international community of democratic states and market economies at some point in the future, but the domestic changes needed in Russia to achieve full integration are likely to take decades. Moreover, in contrast to German or Japanese integration into the community of market-oriented and democratic states a half-century ago, the United States has only marginal influence over the course of Russia's domestic transformation. Patient and sustained engagement of Russia is necessary.

Realistic engagement should not be confused with limited engagement. Realistic engagement requires the lowering of short-term expectations, the extension of time horizons for achieving objectives, and the altering of policies to achieve these ends. Adoption of a strategy of realistic engagement in no way implies that the ultimate objectives of engagement should be diminished. Advocates of limited engagement, or more radically, of disengagement, doubt that Russia will be able to develop a liberal democracy or an effective market economy. Consequently, these skeptics question whether Russia has a right to full membership in the community of democratic and market-oriented states. Proponents of realistic engagement disagree with such a skeptical forecast for Russia's future, believing instead that there is hope for Russia, that Russia has not been "lost," and that the United States should reaffirm its commitment to integrating Russia into all Western political, economic, and security institutions.

In reaffirming the desirability of Russian integration into Western institutions, the Bush administration must make explicit the difficult and long path of this strategic objective. A policy of realistic engagement must maintain firm standards for integration and feasible timelines for achieving these standards. Throughout the last decade, Russian leaders sometimes appeared to believe that they played by special rules that exempted them from fulfilling difficult obligations and that they enjoyed unique privileges in dealing with Western organizations. Indeed, at times they did. The International Monetary Fund relaxed its conditions for extending loans to the Russian state, American leaders broadened their definitions of democracy to allow for Russian transgressions, and Western leaders collaborated to accord Russia a great-power status that the "facts on the ground" did not support. For Russia to join Western institutions as a full and real member, special terms (which imply qualified, second-class status) must be eliminated. A policy of realistic engagement mandates that Russia meet the same standards as all other states and that the processes for Russia's joining Western institutions such as the WTO or G-8 not be rushed for symbolic purposes. Continued failure to hold Russia to strict universal standards will undermine American credibility and weaken the norms that allow Western institutions to function effectively. For troubled Russia, the discipline of the qualification process to become a member of these Western institutions may be as important as membership itself.

If the long-term goal of engagement must remain the same-Russian integration in the West as a full-fledged democracy and market economy-the strategies to reach this objective must be reconsidered. First, many policies that were effective yesterday in promoting Russian domestic reform and international integration into the Western community of states are no longer appropriate. The political and economic landscape in Russia has changed dramatically since 1991, and United States policy must adapt accordingly. Western financial assistance to alleviate Russian budget deficits and thereby secure macroeconomic stabilization is no longer necessary. Likewise, technical assistance to facilitate the understanding of electoral laws or the relationship between monetary expansion and inflation was crucial a decade ago but is now obsolete. Food aid, perhaps never needed, should certainly be eliminated.

Not only has bilateral assistance evolved since the collapse of the Soviet Union, so has the security realm, changing the list of security issues United States officials now face. During the cold war, the Soviet-American relationship was the central concern of the United States. This core relationship shaped United States policies toward all other countries and international issues. Today, relations with Russia must compete with other core concerns for United States policymakers: security in Europe and Asia, national missile defense, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the integrity of state borders in the Middle East, and the stability of the international financial system. Each of these foreign policy priorities involves a Russian component, but American officials can no longer assume that United States-Russian relations supersede these other concerns.

Second, American foreign policymakers, along with their Russian counterparts, must adopt more realistic time horizons for Russian reform and Russian integration into the West. For better or for worse, institutional design decisions regarding Russia's political and economic system have been made and will not be revisited. The window of opportunity for comprehensive political and economic reforms in Russia has now passed; most changes in the next decade will be both incremental and more difficult to observe. In foreign affairs, United States leaders must continue to expect short-term economic necessity to trump long-term strategic concerns for Russian policymakers. For example, a country in need of income like Russia will not be dissuaded from selling nuclear technologies to Iran by abstract warnings from the United States of the long-term security implications of doing so. Expecting Russia to act on principle rather than pragmatism is simply unrealistic unless the West provides real economic incentives to prevent such trade.

Third, some fundamental assumptions underpinning United States policy toward Russia over the previous decade require reconsideration. Ten years ago many believed that democratic transitions and rapid market reforms could not be undertaken simultaneously. This assumption meant that the lion's share of Western assistance to Russia was earmarked for economic reform, not political reform, in the belief that one would trigger the other. This assumption was also invoked to downplay the importance of "temporary" antidemocratic digressions, such as the dissolution of the Congress of People's Deputies in September 1993 or the first war against Chechnya between 1994 and 1996, as long as Yeltsin still made progress on economic reform. In retrospect, the assumption that economic and political reforms were incompatible was incorrect. Evidence from the postcommunist world demonstrates a positive correlation between democracy and economic reform over the past decade: the fastest democratizers are also the fastest-growing economies.

Not only did United States foreign policymakers assume that a Western-style capitalist economy would promote a Western-style enlightened democracy, they also assumed that challenges from outside the Yeltsin regime by communists and nationalists posed the greatest threat to democratic consolidation and market development. Today, the real threat to Russian democracy comes from inside the Kremlin. Western assessments of threats to Russian democracy need recalibration.

Another assumption that deserves scrutiny concerns the power of the Russian state. For ten years, American analysts and policymakers tended to identify the weakness of the Russian state as a major source of United States foreign policy anxiety, worrying not only about surreptitious weapons proliferation to rogue nations but also about the potential dissolution of the Russian state and the resulting great-power competition over the spoils of an extinguished regime. Today, however, a greater concern may be that the Russian state is too strong and too large. Within the early months of his tenure, Putin considerably expanded the power of the Russian central state, making the threat of federal collapse now seem remote. The central state is still too weak to consistently provide basic public goods such as education or social security. In other areas, however, the Russian state may in fact be too powerful to allow for the emergence of a genuinely independent economy and civil society. As a percentage of GDP, Russian state expenditures are still much higher than the more successful transition economies. In the political sphere, the Russian government continues to occupy too much space, crowding out independent political formations, be they nongovernmental organizations or political parties.

Fourth, United States leaders must learn to recognize that American and Russian interests will collide over hot issues like trade with Iran or pipelines in the Caspian region. Sometimes, the United States-Russian contest is a zero-sum game. The general thrust of United States policy should be to pursue outcomes of mutual gain through cooperation with Russia, but United States leaders must nonetheless be realistic about the prospect of disagreement, even confrontation, with Russia on some issues. Containing the tensions that might arise from these issue areas will be a central challenge for United States foreign policymakers in the coming years.


Both the Kremlin and the White House have new tenants. This juncture presents an opportunity to rethink old assumptions, to reaffirm successful practices and discard unsuccessful ones, and to put United States-Russian relations on a new footing. A strategy of realistic engagement would carve a delicate third course between dangerous disengagement (or containment!) and ebullient engagement. Following are several recommendations that could constitute such a new policy.

The Offense-Defense Equation of Strategic Stability

Throughout the cold war, arms control dominated the agenda of United States-Soviet relations. During periods when the United States and the Soviet Union clashed both literally and figuratively, arms control regimes kept open a channel of communication between the two superpowers. The very process of negotiating these agreements helped ease tensions in the bilateral relationship.

Today, arms control is more often a source of enmity than amity. At a time when the United States and Russia have found ways to cooperate on a wide range of issues that would have been unthinkable during the cold war, arms control negotiations have stalled. In particular, the Russian parliament refused to ratify START II for several years, even though it would be in Russia's strategic and economic interests to commit to the reductions in the treaty.

President Bush rightly has sought to break this impasse by announcing plans to reduce the United States arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons unilaterally to the lowest level possible without losing deterrence capability. This was a bold move, signaling the president's intent to end lingering practices of the cold war. Russian leaders also have stated their intent to reduce their stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons to numbers well below those outlined in START II. Some believe that Russia might go down to as low as 1,000 weapons in the next decade; others predict even lower numbers.

These radical cuts-whether embodied in a treaty or undertaken unilaterally-will occur only if Russia and the United States can come to an agreement of principles concerning the building of missile defense. President Bush and his senior foreign policy advisers believe that the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, signed in 1972 to constrain the building of missile defenses, is a relic of the cold war. They are right. If the United States and Russia are no longer enemies, then neither side should feel threatened by the building of defense systems. But Russia is not a trustworthy neighbor or ally of the United States. From the Russian perspective, as discussed earlier, the United States is not a predictable, friendly neighbor. If Bush were serious about burying all lingering legacies of the cold war, Russian leaders argue, then he also would dismantle NATO, withdraw American troops from Germany, and eliminate trade barriers to Russian imports erected during the cold war.

Although Bush is America's first truly post-cold war president, he is unlikely to pursue such radical measures. To demonstrate that the United States does not seek a strategic advantage against Russia, however, Bush could carry out his campaign pledge to reduce drastically the American nuclear arsenal. To be bold, this reduced number should be below the 2,250-warhead limit Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton discussed in 1997 as the basis for a new START III level. If the American nuclear arsenal of strategic weapons fell below 2,000, then the Russians would be more assured that the American plans to build missile defenses were intended to deter or protect the United States from rogue states and were not designed as a weapon against Russia. If Russia becomes a more cooperative partner and a member of Western institutions, then American leaders could even begin to build joint missile defense systems with Russia. The first step toward such cooperation could begin now by jointly modernizing and sharing information from the two countries' early-warning systems.

Ideally, Bush and Putin would initial a new framework for strategic stability that would spell out shared principles about the proper balance between offensive and defense weapons. An important component of such a document must be comprehensive verification measures. Until Russia has fully integrated into the West, the motto must always remain Ronald Reagan's famous quip, "trust but verify." It is silly to continue to think of Russia as a strategic competitor. It is imprudent and misleading to pretend that Russia is an ally with whom treaties are no longer necessary. After all, even with its closest partners in Europe, the United States still maintains a credible commitment of mutual defense through a treaty-the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Integration into Western Institutions

If Russia were fully integrated into European institutions, verification clauses in treaty agreements would be less important while opportunities for more complex forms of military cooperation-including joint missile-defense systems-would be more likely. Integration also resolves many other security dilemmas. Policies that foster integration, therefore, should be pursued.

Most immediately, the economic and political issue of Russian membership in the World Trade Organization should be made a prominent agenda item. The relative weakness of both the ruble and Russian domestic manufacturers combines to make the next few years a ripe time for Russia to join. Putin has made clear that he and his government are prepared to undertake the difficult but necessary structural reforms to bring Russian laws in line with WTO requirements. Russian membership in the WTO would infuse transparency into the Russian economy, attract foreign direct investment, and give Russian economic actors greater incentives to trade with and invest in the West. The Bush administration should work with the Russian government and other WTO members to encourage Russian membership in the next two to three years. Accession to the WTO will be the next big step toward the much longer process of Russian membership into the European Union.

In 1999 the Russian economy grew 5.4 percent; in 2000 the economy grew 8.3 percent; and in 2001 the economy is expected to grow by as much as 5 percent. At the same time, the Russian government has a large current account (that is, trade in goods and services) surplus and international reserves topping $30 billion. This Russia does not need financial assistance from the United States or the International Monetary Fund. On the contrary, Russia continues to make its debt payments to the IMF and other creditors and is not in need of debt structuring, even in 2003 when this debt burden will balloon. Instead of money, the Bush administration should offer Russian businesses access to American markets. Russian CEOs, especially in the steel industry, complain bitterly about American antidumping laws. Similarly, executives from Silicon Valley to Zelenograd lament the still highly restrictive controls on technology transfers. At a fundamental level, the draconian visa procedures that restrict Russian travel to the United States need liberalization. (Even Russians with scholarships to study at American universities are sometimes denied visas.) A more open American market will encourage integration of Russian enterprises and people into the global economy.

Discussion of Russian integration should even be extended to security institutions like NATO. The dialogue must be a realistic one-with similarly realistic expectations about the speed and requirements of the process. If President Putin can talk openly about the possibility of Russian membership in NATO, as he did during his visit to Great Britain shortly after his election in the spring of 2000, then President Bush certainly should be able to entertain the idea as well.

Now that NATO has expanded once, it must continue to expand until it includes all democratic and market-oriented countries in Europe that wish to join. But the process of expansion must become less of a subjective political issue and more of an objective, routine process. If a candidate country qualifies, admission must be automatic. Similarly, if a country does not qualify, then no rules should be bent for admittance. The current discussion in Europe and the United States about which countries should or should not be granted entry undermines the integrity of the criteria for membership. Accommodating the interests of Russia, a nonmember that seeks to derail the candidacy of former Eastern-bloc nations, would violate the already-established criteria of membership and cannot be tolerated. Likewise, bending the norms in the opposite direction for the political aim of accelerating expansion to certain states cannot occur.

Once the criteria for joining NATO are well defined, Russian leaders will be able to decide whether they are willing to fulfill the membership requirements for joining the alliance. Enormous change within Russia is still needed before Russia can qualify for NATO membership. Moreover, Russia may not want to join NATO. In polls conducted last year by Professor Timothy Colton and this author, only 12 percent of Russian citizens reacted positively to the thought of joining the alliance, versus 50 percent who responded negatively to the idea. Nonetheless, NATO members-with United States leadership-must emphasize clearly and often the principle of open-door membership to assuage Russian fears of being summarily excluded. A formal overture to Russia to join would also undermine Russian criticisms of NATO expansion to other countries.

Promoting Domestic Reform in Russia

Russia can only continue to integrate into Western institutions if economic and political reform within Russia deepens. On the economic front, Putin has demonstrated his strong desire to make Russia a liberal market economy. The structural reforms drafted by his government and passed by parliament this past spring were truly radical. On the political side, Putin has shown little proclivity for deepening democracy. On the contrary, Putin and his government have weakened Russia's already-fragile democratic institutions. Such polices are incompatible with Western integration and may even prove incompatible with market reforms.

This mixed record of reform under Putin suggests the priorities for American programs that assist reform in Russia. In some critical economic areas-for example, banking reform-Russia would still benefit from technical assistance programs. Generally, however, the marginal return on economic technical assistance programs in Russia is diminishing rapidly. The greatest need is in the political sphere. Russia's democratic institutions and Russia's democrats are now under siege. As a means for pursuing Russian integration into the West, which in turn is a means for pursuing American national security interests, the Bush administration must give greater attention to promoting democracy within Russia.

At the highest levels of contacts, American policymakers must continue to engage their Russian counterparts in a dialogue about the importance of ending the war in Chechnya, allowing the independent press to grow, and deepening democratic practice more generally. Such dialogues cannot be condescending diatribes about Russia's inadequacies. Rather, Bush and his team must emphasize that Russian democracy is a precondition for Russian integration into the West, a goal that both Russians and Americans share. In parallel to these state-to-state contacts, the Bush administration should promote greater contact between American and Russian societies as an indirect way to promote democracy within Russia. Polls conducted by myself and Timothy Colton show that Russian society is prodemocratic. Two-thirds of Russian voters still support the idea of democracy (only 18 percent do not support democracy); more than 80 percent think that it is important to elect the country's leaders.1 Consequently, the strengthening of Russian society will have a democratizing influence on Russian state institutions. Most of the mechanisms for engaging Russian society and increasing its interaction with the West-educational exchanges, entrepreneurial internships, Internet access programs-already are in place. They just need more resources (for example, the number of Russian students studying in the United States is only a fraction of that of Chinese students registered in American universities).

Direct assistance to Russian democrats also must be increased. Targeted grants, high-level contacts between American officials and Russian democracy activists, and continued public discussion of Russian democracy will help their cause. Given the new atmosphere of central state control in Russia under Putin, United States assistance programs must be prepared to interact increasingly with more overtly political organizations within Russia. Civil society aid programs are not high-profile avenues of foreign policy, but they can foster tangible improvements in the lives of ordinary Russians far more directly than presidential summits or strategic stability negotiations.


Just as American foreign policymakers must learn to engage a Russia that is neither ally nor enemy, Russian decisionmakers must learn to live with a United States that will continue to dominate the international system for the foreseeable future. A Russian foreign policy that aims to thwart "American hegemony" may bring some emotional satisfaction to Russian foreign policy elites who miss the glory days of their former superpower status. And if Russian leaders choose to anchor an anti-American coalition, they might win much sympathy around the world. Hegemons are always unpopular.

Translating this sympathy into Russian national interests would, however, prove difficult. In the long run, Russia will be better off joining the West than balancing against the West. Ironically, even after a decade of disappointment with reform and Western support for reform, polls show that most Russian citizens still believe that their country is best served by cooperative relations with the West, including the United States. Whether their leaders will heed their desires is quite possibly the most fundamental question that will face Russia and United States-Russia relations in the coming decade.

In the short run, the governments of the United States and Russia have a large agenda of security issues that can only be tackled through state-to-state negotiations. In the long run the future of Russian democracy and Russian integration into the West will be much more consequential to United States security interests than any agreement on missile defenses or nuclear arms reductions. If, 50 years from now, Russia has rejoined Europe, then it will have become a stable democracy. Threats to European security will be fewer, and Europe as a political and economic space will have emerged as one of the major powers in the international system. If Russia has not succeeded in reintegrating-and the West has not been successful in bringing Russia in-then it likely will have become a dictatorship and a threat to Europe. Tragically, a decade after the collapse the Soviet Union, both of these scenarios remain.

1 Timothy Colton and Michael McFaul, Are Russians Undemocratic?, Working Paper no. 21 (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2001).

Back to the Top    Next Issue