Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#9 - JRL 7210
June 4, 2003
Russian-American Strategic Bankruptcy
By Nikolai Zlobin
Nikolai Zlobin is the Director of Russian and Asian Programs at the Center for Defense Information, and editor-in-chief of the international news agency Washington Profile. His column on foreign policy appears regularly in the leading Russian daily Izvestia.

The Russian-American summit in St. Petersburg went fairly smoothly. Presidents Bush and Putin smiled for the cameras and asserted with firm conviction that the recent sparring over Iraq did not damage the foundation of their partnership. They exchanged documents ratifying the reduction of their nuclear arsenals, and jointly condemned North Korea 's nuclear brinkmanship. But they also barely touched upon the numerous issues where they have had persistent disagreements - Iran , the rebuilding of Iraq , Afghanistan and so on.  

Putin was in no mood to spoil the festivities - an anniversary celebration that became something like the unofficial kick-off for his re-election campaign - by turning his countrymens attention to quarrels with the Americans. The whole purpose of the event, after all, was to demonstrate his own international importance and authority to the Russian people.  The facades of houses in downtown St. Petersburg were renovated and painted, the central streets were repaved, and every nook and cranny that risked being observed by a foreign dignitary was washed and swept clean. As usual, the high-profile soire produced a Potemkin village, a place very different from the real St. Petersburg .  

Similarly, this meeting was a worrisome symptom of the continuing Potemkin-like nature of Russian-American relations. On the surface there are beautiful facades, periodically refurbished for the latest summit; but underneath is a policy of ignoring deep-seated problems and serious mutual disagreements, which have brought todays strategic partnership to the verge of bankruptcy.

The bitter reality is that relations between the two countries are at their lowest point in the last ten years. Differences over Iraq have forced us to see what we had previously ignored.  There are sharp, fundamental, perhaps even intractable, differences between Russia and the United States--in their approach to building a new world order and a system of global security, in their understanding of contemporary threats as well as how the threats must be met and in their attitude toward international law.  

All these, as well as the unprecedented storm of anti-American hysteria that squalled over Russia , have moved the country toward the bottom on the American establishments list of countries with which cultivating relations is considered important. The Russian foreign policy establishment, for its part, had to jettison the long-cherished myth that America is in vital need of an alliance with Russia and would be unable to take decisive action anywhere in the world without it. A moment of mutual honesty is upon us. The conflict over Iraq has concluded an entire era of our relations. From a period of searching for a strategic partnership, which has yet to materialize, we have passed into a period of potential cooperation on a whole series of issues where our interests coincide. Its no secret that practically all these issues are in the sphere of security, but this does not yet guarantee a successful relationship.  

At the end of the Cold War, we stopped seeing each other as enemies. Today, Washington has completely stopped looking at Russia as an ally and a partner. As a result, the American elite's interest in Russia has dropped to zero. If you ask a member of the Bush Administration a question about Russia , you are likely to get a perplexed pause, followed by hollow words about how yes, it would be nice to be friends, but you know . From the Russian side, a strategy toward the world's remaining superpower is nowhere in sight, let alone a foreign policy framework in general.  

Russian-American relations remind one of a train that long stopped in its tracks, and which has used its engine, for the past few years, to sound the horn while the wheels remain frozen in its tracks. The train has become immobile. Russia 's loss of prestige and importance in the eyes of Washington is a result of many factors, but Iraq has catalyzed the process, making it particularly obvious. Many are now re-examining Russia as a country that is relatively well armed, but useless as a partner (recall Thatcher's " Upper Volta with nuclear weapons") and a country that is, moreover, in the midst of a prolonged economic and demographic crisis.  

Despite all the harsh criticism lobbied at the Bush Administration for the way it conducts foreign policy (and in the case of Russia, we can point to its failure to deliver a repeal of Jackson-Vanik, protectionism for the steel industry, etc.), we have to face facts: Russia took a deeply mistaken stance on Iraq and lost more than it could afford. Moscow 's position was detached from simple pragmatism; it did not correspond to the country's economic or national interests. It was, therefore, in direct contradiction with Russia 's main foreign policy principles, as defined repeatedly by Vladimir Putin. Russia 's position on Iraq caught Washington off guard.  

It seems that the famous "strategic choice," supposedly made by Putin on Sep.11, was not so strategic after all. For the past twenty months, the Kremlin has not bothered to explain what Russia's "strategic choice" for the West means in reality, to justify the choice to the Russian society and political elites, or even to take any steps toward realizing that choice. Both sides of the ocean saw the publication of many articles, and even books, about the "revolution in Russian foreign policy". Everyone, it seems, wanted to believe that the choice had really been made, but if such a revolution did take place, it did not extend beyond the presidential cabinet. Everyone, it seems, wanted to believe that Vladimir Putin has abandoned petty pursuits in foreign policy in favor of grand ambitions. That's why the disappointment is even more painful.  

The situation with Iraq demonstrated that Russia not only lacks an understanding of today's global processes, but also doesn't even have a strategically focused foreign policy.  One of the major lessons of Iraq is that Russia has neither the infrastructure nor the intellectual potential to produce adequate analyses of global events, provide realistic forecasts, or develop a behavior model for the country on the international arena. The individuals and institutions assigned to these tasks were unable to handle them. Moreover, there is no evidence that Putin is powerful enough to get what he wants. Moscow displayed a simply unacceptable level of improvisation, and as everyone knows, an unpredictable friend is worse than a predictable foe. Taking into account Russia 's nuclear status, an improvisational foreign policy is more than a domestic failure, but also one that could detrimentally affect other global developments.  

By attempting to prevent the march to war, Russia only marshaled it. Moscow 's stance facilitated the split in Europe and weakened the European Union, which is in direct contradiction to Russia 's interests. Moreover, it amplified the contradictions within NATO and brought about an increased participation of Central and Eastern Europe within that alliance, which will create difficulties for the European line of Russian foreign policy. By attempting to maintain the UN's status quo, Moscow facilitated both the organization's downfall and a deep, perhaps irreversible, crisis in the Security Council, Russia 's last bastion for exerting influence upon the world.  

President Putin has repeatedly emphasized that Russia 's geopolitical opportunities are tied to her economic might. But from that point of view, was it not careless to quarrel with the largest economy in the world? Since Russia was unable to become friendly with Japan , the world's second-largest economy, its economic future is bleaker now than it was a few months ago. Russia has already lost the battle for American and Japanese investments, first to China and Southeastern Asia , then to Latin America . If it's not careful, it may lose to Africa next.  

A serious, non-ideological discussion on foreign policy questions is desperately lacking in Russia today. Putin criticizes the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq , but doesn't provide evidence that a (say) Euro-Russian occupation would be more successful. Moscow is against a unipolar world because it functions without Russia . But there is no evidence that a multipolar world would provide Russia with more security than a unipolar one. Multipolarity is less stable and predictable, and it will not necessarily lead to a greater global role for Russia , which can no longer be an independent power center. Unipolarity is no picnic either, especially if you are carrying a small basket. But if Russia and the United States can agree on a new relationship paradigm, then Russia has a much greater chance of gaining from a unipolar world without having to concede some undesirable compromises.  

I'll repeat: Washington cannot be held blameless for the crisis in Russian-American relations. But that is a different issue. Ever since the end of the Cold War, I protested against the thesis of "the necessity for improving Russian-American relations", trying to show that one cannot improve something that was created by political and international realities. We should not try to improve relations that are not, by definition, improvable, but form new bilateral relations on a fundamentally different conceptual basis.  

The conflict over Iraq became the coda to a period in Russian-American relations that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union . The era of searching for a strategic partnership is over. There has been a conceptual bankruptcy of the model of Russian-American relations that we have used as a template for the past ten years. And when there is no overarching conception for relations and when there are no fundamentals, then any disagreements, whether they are over Iraq or poultry, expand to an enormous size, since we have no fulcrum with which to position ourselves in search for a solution. We can already see that the nearing conflict over Iran has a chance to become much more troublesome, and the Potemkin faade over another summit may not be enough to cover up the scale of the disagreement.  

As important as the Bush-Putin friendship is, it is not what Russia needs. It needs not only a well-thought-out, solid foreign policy, and a fresh elite that can develop one, but also a properly institutionalized structure for its effective implementation. Presidential calls and hugs are not sufficient. Otherwise, when Moscow makes a strategic decision, sometime in the future, its implementation will not extend beyond a friendly embrace. As the saying goes: you have to see the forest behind the trees. But there is one important pre-condition for that to hold - the forest must actually be there.  

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