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#16 - JRL 7228
The Evolution of the Russian-American Relationship
An Interview with Nikolas Gvosdev

Washington Profile News Agency
June 18, 2003
Nikolas Gvosdev is the executive editor of "The National Interest" and a Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center in Washington DC.

Q: What kind of constraints does Putin face in his policy-making choices and how would you compare them with those faced by President Bush. How do you think the differences in constraints affect US-Russian relations?

A: The difference is obviously that Putin is operating from positions of weakness. Russia has a weakened economy and a weakened military that cannot project power effectively. The fact that the Russian state still has not consolidated all of its post-Soviet apparatus in terms of stable political parties is also a constraint. It's more difficult to build consensus around policies when you don't have a government that has, for example, a basis in the parliamentary majority.

Putin was successful in not letting these weaknesses constrain Russian behavior. There are people in this country that wonder why, if Russia's economy is smaller than that of the Netherlands, is Russia in the G8? Why is Russia in the Security Council? Moreover, Putin was successful in playing some of those cards more effectively. Russia still remains the primary economic and military power and the primary guarantor of security in Central Asia and the Caucasus. In fact, the Central Asian countries were disappointed in how quickly the US lost its interest in their region after the Afghanistan campaign, and they redirected their views back towards Russia.

From the American side, it's the temptation of too much power, the ability to overstretch. In the past year the Administration became divided within itself over the necessity of having allies. One wing, with Secretary Powell at the head, was saying that the United States needed other countries in order to achieve its objectives. The other wing, on the contrary, stressed that the United States had sufficient power to act on its own, which it did in any given case. But the problem is that as more problems develop, it becomes more and more taxing on American resources to do all this.

Thus, the Russian side is trying to cover up for weaknesses, compared to the US side, where the constraint is how to prevent overstretch. That's the big worry that the United States will undertake too many commitments, which will then begin to sink the economy. The fact that the euro has appreciated against the dollar in the last six months and that more and more international investors are switching out of the dollar into the euro is a sign of considerable unease about the direction that the US is heading to.

Q: You talked about two extremes - the weakness on the part of Russia and the strength on the part of the US. How do you think these extremes balance each other and what effect they will have on international environment?

A: First it depends on how Russia decides to continue to operate. What Russia did with regard to the Iraq war earlier this year- balanced with France and Germany against the US and stressed the importance of international institutions in any use of force - was an attempt to try to use US membership in these international institutions as a break against US behavior. But that strategy failed in the short-term, when the US refused to go back to UN for another resolution. In the long-term it depends on the extent the US needs other countries to be involved in its efforts. The message that was sent out at the end of the Iraq war, that the US will not be able to unilaterally develop a military solution to Iran and Syria, is the outgrowth of the international opposition against Iraq war. But it's a risky strategy for Russia, because it means that its only hope is that the US continues to be in the UN and continues to want those institutions. The recent events show that Russia's sole leverage, its veto power in the Security Council, is nullified if the US refuses to go to the UN.

Russia's weakness, however, can turn into a greater partnership with the US. Russian power, although smaller compared to the US, has influence in parts of the world where the US doesn't or doesn't want to spend the money to gain that influence. This partnership became very important in months after 9/11, because the reliance on Russian influence and knowledge about the processes in Afghanistan and in Central Asia allowed the United States to save both energy and money.

Therefore, this view of letting Russia be the metropolitan power of Eurasia and that most of aid and security must be generated through Russia rather than artificially brought in from abroad is supported in the Administration. The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline is a bright example of how difficult it has been to get Westerners to invest and how governments were unwilling to make commitments and guarantees in the region. So the idea is that instead of the US directly going into Central Asia and the Caucasus where there is a little natural synergy of American interests, it will be more reasonable to let Russia do it, save the US time and capital and use that to cement the US partnership with Russia. One of the positive outcomes of the St. Petersburg Summit was pointed to this idea of the US-Russian partnership, where Russia has a regional role in Eurasia and a supporting role in few other things like the quartet in the Middle East, continuing reconstruction in Yugoslavia, and of course the North Korean Issue.

Q: What do you think about the foreign policy of the political leaders of other former Soviet Union republics and the influence of their policies on US-Russian relations?

A: I think they are responding to the signals from the European Union. What the EU made clear is that the expansion is over with the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria and that anything beyond that is not likely to be integrated directly into Europe. The signal is that the European Union sees Russia as the primary actor in Eurasia. I think Kuchma's slogan sums it up very well: "To Europe with Russia".

The other thing is that the degree to which the US has come and gone in Central Asia was somewhat of a shock. This brought debates within the region whether it is right to tie one's future with a power that is so distant and whose interest in their part of the world is much more frenetic and therefore it is less likely to be that interested or involved. On the other hand, Moscow is more reliable, as it is more straight-forward in what it wants.

Georgia, however, remains somewhat different. It is closer to Europe, it is closer to the Black Sea, it has a constituency in Washington that's interested in Georgia in the way no group is interested in Central Asia. But even there it is a matter of power projection and interests. US isn't going to invest large amounts in Georgia, it is not going to give much of the security commitment, and I think we can see that played out in Georgian politics. Elites are much pro-American, but to the average people Russia seems much closer in terms of understanding and responding to their needs. And I think that this becomes important, when even Georgia, the most pro-American among all the post-Soviet republics, with the exception of the Baltic States, is basically still uncertain in taking a full pro-US position.

Q: There are a lot of conspiracy theories among Russians about US plots to destroy Russia. How would you assess these sorts of discussions?

A: I don't think that there is some kind of master plan in the White House or Pentagon for the destruction of Russia. What exists, however, is the very substantive split in American circles about what precisely Russia's role in the world ought to be. The majority of people in both recent Democrat and Republican administrations believe that in order for Russia to become a "normal" nation-state interacting with other countries, any tendency to empire must be rigorously eliminated. But that is an extreme approach, because until now there is no unanimous view in Washington on when Russia has legitimate interests and when Russia is interfering in another country's affairs. As there is no consensus here, it is difficult for the Russians in Russia to understand what the American interests are. I think this is what feeds the conspiracy theory mentality. If Americans can't say what the Russian interests are, the Russians won't understand why Americans undertake the steps towards Russia that they do.

The current Administration, as the previous one, is not single-minded regarding Russia. You have people on the one hand who say that Russia is moving toward democratic form of government and see it as a regional leader reintegrated into European state system, and there are the ones who see Russia as a dangerous country, dictatorial, and that any attempts for Russia to exert influence must be seen as attempts to put the Soviet Union back together and therefore need to be resisted. As long as these diverging views exist, it will be difficult to assert a single attitude towards Russia.

Q: How do you think did the 9/11 shape Russian policies as a whole and how did it affect the strategies towards Chechnya in particular?

A: It certainly enabled Putin to have the idea that what happens in Chechnya is linked to other international Islamist rebellions and certainly gave a greater degree of strength and recognition of credibility. Prior to 9/11 the Administration was concerned about the Chechen extremists in Russia and their influence on the integrity of Russia, however there were also views that this is just a separatist movement. September 11 woke up the American establishment to that separatist movements in the world can become penetrated by the international Islamist movements. What we have seen since 9/11 is the back and forth movements on how tight this connection might be. And this attitude changes to the extent to which the United States thinks it is to its interest. The referendum that was conducted in Chechnya in March changed the European perception of the Chechen issue. Now they see two elements in action in Chechnya - one, which is committed to the referendum as being a basis to a peaceful settlement, and the other that consists of extremists, international Islamist elements who are trying to disrupt the settlement by targeting the civilian population. US Administration is more reluctant at this point to take a similar stance. It is more ambivalent and I think is partially affected by what happened in Iraq. Moreover, some people still look at the war in Chechnya as a romantic struggle for freedom, rather than as a very bloody conflict in the Caucasus.

Q: Imagine that you are President Putin's Advisor. What one single advice would you give to Mr. Putin in terms of a working policy for the future of Russia?

A: Russia needs to continue consolidating its institution-building processes. Both the internal and foreign policy institutions have to become so strong that the personalities will no longer matter. Everything that happens in Russia is still grounded on personalities and that this doesn't create a basis for effective partnership. People come and go, but the institutions have to remain connected, understandings have to remain connected. Working institutions must be created. I still don't know how the 2008 presidential candidates will be nominated, assuming that Putin will be re-elected in 2004. I think that it will still be based on a process of personalities, so probably in 2006 or 2007 Putin will start looking around for a successor. I think this lack of institutions is the last big hurdle that Russia needs to face. It needs to build institutions, like stable political parties, that will outlast people, in terms of the Communist Party outlasting Zyuganov. This has been a problem in US-Russian relations as well, because when Yeltsin and Clinton left offices, they did not leave any mechanisms behind that they could pass on to their successors. These mechanisms were essentially reinvented when Putin and Bush came to power and it created much confusion.

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