During campaign 2000, candidate George W. Bush called for sanctions to punish Russia for its military campaign in Chechnya, expressed concerns about Russia’s contribution to the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and was openly skeptical of President Vladimir Putin’s commitment to market democracy.
Two years later, nearly every issue of concern remains. Mr. Putin has not stopped Russia’s sales of nuclear technologies to Iran. He has shown little inclination to resolve the Chechen conflict without force. And his commitment to democracy has not grown commensurate to his campaign to introduce radical market reforms. Every democratic institution in Russia is weaker today than it was two years ago.
It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that the summit in May was one of the warmest meetings between U.S. and Russian leaders in recent memory. Before coming to power, Bush advisers ridiculed Bill Clinton for being too close to Boris Yeltsin. But as president, Mr. Bush relies heavily on his personal relationships for making foreign policy. He has deliberately tried to forge a personal bond with his Russian counterpart since their first meeting in June 2001. The personal bonds grew even stronger after September 11, when both men came to believe they were engaged in a common struggle against terrorism.
The May summit produced tangible results. The two leaders signed an arms-control agreement that will decommission thousands of nuclear weapons over the next decade. This accord, combined with the formal retiring of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty in June, punctuates the end to arms control as the focus of the relationship. Bush and Putin toasted a new relationship between NATO and Russia in advance of the formal May 28 launch of the new NATO-Russia Council. Finally, Bush and Putin made joint statements about their shared understanding of the war on terrorism, as well as a commitment to cooperate on missile defense.
So why the big reversal in Bush’s thinking?
Most have attributed this amazing transformation to September 11. This is partly correct. In Bush’s view, the battle against terrorism is a black-and-white issue, and Bush appreciated Putin’s unequivocal decision to join the right side. Others point to Bush’s personal fondness for Putin to explain the change in policy. This is partly correct as well.
September 11 and Putin’s personality, however, are only parts of the story.
The bigger force for cooperation originates in Moscow. For nearly two decades, Kremlin leaders have pursued the same basic strategy toward the West: integration. Gorbachev started this new trajectory by emphasizing the “common European home”; Yeltsin deepened it; Putin has continued it.
From Russia’s perspective, there have been hiccups along the way, such as NATO enlargement, the 1998 financial crisis, and Kosovo, but these challenges to integration have been temporary. The Soviet and Russian leaders initiated fundamental transformations of Russian political and economic institutions, and these internal changes have triggered a new Russian foreign policy.
Leaders in Washington have played an important role in encouraging the process. Beginning with George H.W. Bush and continuing with Bill Clinton, U.S. policymakers in the 1990s embraced the effort to integrate Russia into the West. George W. Bush’s latest initiatives do not signal a qualitatively new approach to Russia. Rather, they represent the continuation of Clinton’s basic strategy.
Bush should not be chastised for reversing his positions on Russia. Rather, he should be praised for learning on the job and doing the right thing, including agreeing to a new treaty, something his team had tried to avoid. Moving beyond the summit, however, President Bush should remember the list of concerns about Russia that animated candidate Bush. He cannot let his friendship with Putin or his focus on terrorism negate those concerns.
Putin is more autocratic today than he was two years ago, and the war in Chechnya continues. But today, Bush utters no critical words. In his State of the Union speech this year, Bush boldly pledged that “America will always stand firm for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance.” Although Bush and his administration are rightly pushing these demands in Afghanistan, they have shown little interest in furthering these principles in Russia.
Bush has rightly reembraced integration as the basic strategy toward Russia. He may soon discover, just as Clinton did, that the doctrine of integration does not resolve all issues in Russian-American relations.