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The United States and Russia

Monday, October 1, 2001

In august 1991, watching Russian President Boris Yeltsin standing on the tank in defiance of the last-ditch effort of the old Soviet elite to hang onto power and empire, we were euphoric. The old guard was finished, and within months, the Soviet Union, our main adversary of 45 years, was finally placed on the ash heap of history. After the cooperation between U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during German unification and then in the Gulf War, it seemed at the beginning of 1992 that a future partnership between Russia and the United States in a post-Soviet era would be relatively easy to achieve.

Ten years later, it is not partnership that seems to have defined the past decade, but rather growing suspicions and finger-pointing. In the U.S. 2000 presidential campaign, the talk was not about what had been achieved with Russia. It was about “Who Lost Russia?” With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government clamping down at home and U.S. President George W. Bush’s top advisers initially calling Russia a threat to U.S. interests, the start of the second decade of America’s relations with post-Soviet Russia is a far cry from the heady days of 1992, regardless of what Mr. Bush saw when he peered into Putin’s soul at their first face-to-face meeting in June.

There are several reasons that we have arrived at this point. One problem was simply the overblown expectations after the collapse of Soviet communism about what Russia might achieve politically and economically. By all accounts, the past 10 years should be seen as a major victory for freedom when one compares political and economic life to the odious nature of the Soviet period, and yet instead progress seems to be woefully inadequate. Second was an underestimation in Moscow of how quickly Russian power would decline, leaving the Russian government on the outside of the agenda- setting process, especially in Europe, which is not what Gorbachev and Yeltsin had envisioned. After all, they had assumed that Russia would be part of any major decision-making on the continent, as they had been, for example, during the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe.

But these are not the fundamental obstacles to greater U.S.-Russian cooperation. To understand the crux of the problem in U.S.-Russian relations, one needs to remember what factors led to cooperation in previous eras — because none of these underlying dynamics is as powerful today as it was in the past. Russia still has an interest in integrating into the West, and the United States still has an interest in fostering this integration, but the domestic politics on both sides make this effort more difficult for the next few years than they were in the 1990s.

Past cooperation

Three basic reasons brought the United States and Russia closer together at different points during the twentieth century: the fear of growing German and Japanese power in the decades after 1905, which culminated in the creation of the Grand Alliance of World War II; U.S.-Soviet parity in strategic nuclear forces and a mutual fear that a Cold War crisis might escalate to nuclear war, which led to the cooperative competition known as détente in the early 1970s; and the domestic political needs of leaders on both sides, which produced the Clinton-Yeltsin partnership in the 1990s. Today, without an easily identifiable common enemy, fear of nuclear holocaust, or domestic political imperatives on either side, there is no major impetus to greater cooperation.

Prior to the twentieth century, neither country had had much to do with one another as there was no real need, except for isolated incidents such as the United States purchase of Alaska. But early in the twentieth century, changes in the European and Asian balance of power and the growing U.S. presence on the world stage led to a greater coincidence of strategic interests despite the political and ideological gulf that existed. Revolution in 1917 brought to power a regime in Russia that sought to undermine the capitalist order, and the United States did not even recognize the Soviet government until after Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933. By that time, both countries were concerned about rising German power in Europe and Japan’s invasion of the Asian mainland. Even so, the Soviets shocked the world with their secret pact with the Nazi government in 1939, forestalling any cooperation with the West for two more years. But once the Soviet Union and then the United States had been attacked in 1941, a Grand Alliance was virtually inevitable regardless of the ideological opposition.

fdr had gone out of his way to try to placate Soviet leader Josef Stalin during the war, culminating in the agreement at Yalta in early 1945 that became a symbol of perceived Western acquiescence to Red Army dominance in Eastern Europe. Much has been written about missed opportunities from 1945 to 1947 to forge some type of cooperation before the blocs truly hardened in Europe. And yet, as classic balance-of-power theorists of international affairs would expect, once a common threat had been defeated in 1945, it was difficult to avoid major power rivalry between the two greatest world powers, even if misperceptions and miscalculations perhaps hastened, deepened, and lengthened the Cold War hostilities between them.

The Cold War’s most dramatic moment occurred over Cuba in October 1962. Following Moscow’s humiliation — which the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba each attributed to U.S. military superiority — the Soviet Union embarked on a dramatic military buildup, closing the missile gap and achieving parity in strategic nuclear forces by the onset of Richard Nixon’s administration in 1969. With the United States looking for help withdrawing from its costly war in Vietnam, and with both sides looking to regulate their Cold War competition by trying to prevent crises from escalating into nuclear war, Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev pursued détente. Détente did not mean that the sides would stop competing; it was an effort to place some boundaries on that competition. And the two leaders pursued détente not simply as a desirable foreign policy in and of itself; rather, each used détente and the rhetoric of cooperation for domestic political purposes.

Détente had a brief heyday in 1972-73, marked by the agreement to limit strategic offensive nuclear launchers (salt i), the Anti-Ballistic Missile (abm) Treaty, and rules of the road embodied in the Basic Principles Agreement and the Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War. But the perceptions on both sides of what détente meant were fundamentally at odds. The United States viewed détente as a means of preserving American superiority for as long as possible; the Soviet Union saw détente as a means to keep a competition they thought they were winning from escalating to nuclear war. With the United States embroiled in Vietnam and facing economic challenges from a rebuilt Europe and Japan on the one hand, and the Soviets outpacing the United States in building nuclear weapons on the other, there was a general perception that the U.S. position was weakening and the Soviet position was strengthening.

War between Arabs and Israelis in October 1973, civil war in Angola in 1975-76, and finally the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 killed détente. The Cold War resumed at the end of the Carter presidency and particularly after the onset of the Reagan presidency in 1981. By then, Soviet hopes that the United States was in retreat had been dashed, as the United States had begun a new military buildup and the Soviet economy was clearly stagnating. Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power in March 1985 swung the pendulum dramatically back again toward cooperation. Gorbachev quickly realized that to have any hope of achieving his goal of restructuring the Soviet economy, he needed a more benign international environment. A less hostile world would mean that he could shift money out of the defense sector to raise the standard of living in an economy that had slipped from second to third, behind that of Japan.

To forge this new world, Gorbachev agreed to reductions in intermediate-range nuclear weapons as well as conventional weapons in Europe, pulled the plug on financial assistance to Eastern European communist rulers and other anti-Western regimes, and withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan. His unwillingness to use 300,000 Soviet troops in Germany as a tool to prevent German unification, and then his support for the coalition against Iraq in 1990-91, signaled that there were apparently no limits to Soviet acquiescence to the American global agenda.

Remarkably, in 1991-93, Boris Yeltsin sought even deeper partnership with the United States. Yeltsin wanted Western assistance not only for his domestic reform programs, but because he was trying first to outflank Gorbachev and then to defeat the remnants of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which dominated the Russian parliament. To outflank Gorbachev, he had to show that he was the real democrat, the real reformer, which meant going even farther in satisfying the demands of the United States and its allies. As he worked to consolidate his power in Russia in 1992-93, Yeltsin wanted to destroy the Communist Party. In that process, he and his foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, were eager to develop the most pro-Western foreign policy platform imaginable for a Russian government.

After Bill Clinton assumed the presidency in January 1993, Yeltsin had a partner whose domestic political needs for good relations were equal to his own. Clinton’s agenda (like Gorbachev’s after March 1985) was focused like a laser beam on the domestic economy. And given his spending priorities in education and health care, he could not afford any renewed threat from Moscow that might lead to higher defense budgets. Even more, it seemed to many in the West that with Boris Yeltsin in power, a new world order could be forged — with a democratic, market-oriented Russia integrated with the rest of Europe (finally). Assisting Russian political and economic reform became Bill Clinton’s top foreign security policy priority at the start of his presidency, as he and his top advisors proclaimed often in the first half of 1993. Signaling this, his first trip outside the country was to meet Yeltsin in Vancouver in April 1993, where he unveiled a huge assistance package for his new friend.

The current situation

In each of the earlier periods — the 1940s, the 1970s, and the 1990s — international or domestic pressures forced cooperation. Even so, rivalry between the United States and Russia continued to exist. During World War II, the two raced to control territory in Europe and Asia as the war wound down; during détente, they continued their efforts to dislodge one another from various Third World outposts; and in the 1990s, they were at odds over American-led efforts such as nato enlargement and the war in Kosovo and over Russian exports of sensitive technologies to Iran and North Korea.

In addition, in both the 1970s and the 1990s, while leaders had domestic support for cooperation, there were also powerful domestic forces in both countries that opposed engagement and cooperation. American opponents of détente believed that the United States was not forceful enough regarding Soviet human rights abuses, and, indeed, about Soviet strategic ambitions; led by Sen. Henry M. Jackson, they undermined Henry Kissinger’s efforts to craft a subtle, nineteenth-century-style foreign policy in which the superpowers would accept each other’s sphere of influence. Meanwhile, Soviet military and ideological hard-liners pressed Moscow to continue the global competition even while the technocrats were trying to gain access to Western economic credits and know-how. In the 1990s, Clinton’s foes in the U.S. Congress and Yeltsin’s in the Russian Duma worked hard to deny the two presidents the opportunities to engage as fully as they wished. Republicans in Congress believed that a country selling nuclear technology to Iran should not be rewarded with more aid (aid that did not seem that well spent when it went straight to the government anyway). Communists in the Russian Duma were not going to ratify start ii as long as Yeltsin was president, even if they realized that Russia’s arsenal was going to decline for financial reasons while the United States could afford to maintain as high a level as it wished.

Today, rivalry on various issues remains, as does strong political opposition to greater cooperation. Prior to September 11, 2001 there did not appear to be any pressing international or domestic forces that would push the other way and induce either country to make a major effort to cooperate. The United States and Russia have for some time theoretically shared an interest in keeping Iran or Iraq from developing nuclear weapons or in keeping the territory of Afghanistan from being used as a staging ground for international terrorism. Even after the horrific attacks on New York and Washington, the threats posed today are much vaguer and harder to pinpoint than were the threats of the 1940s, and thus by themselves they are unlikely to produce sustained cooperation.

In addition, while there are plenty of security specialists on both sides who still press the leaders to worry about nuclear holocaust and the vast number of missiles that remain on a high state of alert, it is difficult to generate much enthusiasm for the problem among the broader population because there is little worry that either country might deliberately start a war or even that a crisis situation might develop that would have the potential for escalation. There is some concern about accidents or unauthorized use, but these do not induce the same sense of urgency that existed during the Cold War. And these pale in comparison to the sense of danger people have felt coming from other sources since the September terror attacks on New York and Washington.

Finally, neither leader benefits much politically from good relations. Bush will not strengthen his domestic political base with lower defense budgets as Clinton did, and in any case security concerns about Russia can no longer be said to be a primary consideration in assessing threats or planning spending levels to meet them. Meanwhile, Putin did not gain power the way Yeltsin had; he won by portraying himself as a nationalist who could bring back some standing to the country, not as a Westernizer who was looking for ways to accommodate Washington.

Bill Clinton did not travel to Europe for a summit with nato leaders until January 1994, nine months after he had met Yeltsin in Vancouver. George W. Bush made it clear during his campaign that before meeting with Russian (and Chinese) counterparts, he would meet first with his friends in Latin America, Europe, and Asia. And he did. As for Russia, Putin has no incentive simply to go along with the U.S. agenda without getting something tangible in return. After all, Yeltsin in the end never did get much for his accommodation.

A new basis for cooperation?

And yet. Bush cannot afford a fight with Russia if he wants to redirect resources to deal with a terrorist threat and a rising China. And Putin does need the United States to pay attention to him in order to look like a major world leader — after all, creating bipolar moments is a lot harder than it used to be. And so, despite the early predictions, the two leaders appeared quite chummy in their first encounters during the summer of 2001.

In fact, the Bush Russia policy in substance turns out to be not that different from where the Clinton administration left off — that is, after the Yeltsin years were over. Over the course of the Clinton administration, the United States developed an agenda in the Balkans, Iraq, and other places, and Russia’s weakness meant that it could do little to stop the United States from pursuing what it deemed in its interests. And Clinton never developed a relationship with Putin as he had with Yeltsin. The difference between where one administration left off and the other began is not so much in substance as in style. (A President Gore might well have pushed for some kind of missile defense, given political realities in the United States today that favor pursuit of at least a minimal shield against ballistic missiles, but he would not have made it a top foreign policy priority. He would also have continued to press Moscow on its sales to Iran. But his rhetoric and desire for engagement would have been noticeably different. Al Gore, after all, would have made the continuation of the abm treaty regime a top priority.)

Russia’s ability to adjust to its change in status from a major global actor in the late 1980s to a large territory beset with enormous political and economic weakness in the early 2000s has been difficult. The former superpower has not adjusted as easily as Britain did in the years after World War II, for example. But the fact that Russia is weak does not mean it cannot hurt the United States. And the fact that Russia is weak does not mean that Russia cannot help the United States. Many of the threats that face both the United States and Russia are best dealt with together, and Russia can certainly make the threats that exist worse for American interests. These include terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the flow of illegal drugs. Each country has a lot to offer the other to deal with problems that affect both countries, though it would take farsighted and strategic leadership to recognize the value in real cooperation at a time when there is no great pressure for it within either nation.

But if we really want something from Russia, we have to offer something to them — and vice versa. One possible source of cooperation would be the rise again of a threat that would loom so large to both countries that it does not even take farsighted leadership to recognize the value in cooperation. Perhaps China will play that role down the road. A massive Chinese military buildup would threaten both the United States and Russia. Chinese threats to Russian territory as well as to Taiwan and other U.S. allies in Asia might lead to the kind of pressures for cooperation that existed in the first half of the twentieth century. But one should neither wish for this future nor develop policies to bring it about. Rather, we should consider ways that the two countries can benefit from significant cooperation with one another, not as an end in itself, but rather to further strategic interests in both Washington and Moscow. And the most fruitful place for cooperation remains in Europe — where the most important question remains Russia’s place as a Western power.

Cooperation in Europe

The first meetings between Bush and Putin suggest that on each side, the president and his advisers may realize that Europe is one area where each country truly needs the other to fulfill its wider agenda. Yes, the United States can enlarge nato or fight a war over Kosovo even if Russia stands in opposition. But to advance the American objective since 1989 to extend the Western zone of peace and prosperity and foster a Europe “whole and free,” Russia has to be integrated. Without an integrated Russia, there is too much potential for instability in the Baltics, Ukraine, and the Caucasus. Instability in those regions then puts pressure on U.S. allies like Poland and Turkey. And in general, the Europeans will worry if Russia is either unstable or menacing or both, and they will object to American policies that seem designed to bring this about.

Putin also needs Russia to be part of Europe to fulfill his foreign and domestic agendas. Russia’s European border is its most stable, and remains the most promising source of foreign investment. Unrest to the south, and particularly activities fostered by Iran and Afghanistan, are only likely to become greater concerns for Russia as it worries about instability in the Caucasus and Central Asia. To the east, while a fruitful Russia-China relationship has developed, it will always be uneasy, especially as China gains so much economic and military power relative to Russia. Compared to these other areas, Europe is the natural place for Russian foreign policy makers to seek good relations. There is no threat of military incursion or fomenting of religious strife as there is elsewhere.

Thus, despite it all, Russia would appear to have no choice but to try to be part of the West. And while American critics of the West’s Russia policy focus on bad economic advice from the imf or on young Western know-it-alls telling Russia how to run elections, keep in mind that there was someone on the other end in the 1990s who wanted the advice in order to be part of the club.

The rhetoric of Russia in Europe, however, is not the same as Russia being a significant force in major European institutions. It is not easy for the West to find a place for Russia as both the European Union and nato enlarge, nor is it easy for Russia to find its place. The Europeans can help as they enlarge their Union by minimizing problems for Russia in Kaliningrad or on the border with the three Baltic countries. This will require consideration of special economic zones in areas bordering the eu in order to minimize the effects of enlargement on the eastern part of Europe. Those worried about a new dividing line in Europe should focus on the eu, not nato, given the Union’s strict border regime.

But even if eu enlargement is potentially much more devastating to Russia’s interests than nato’s forays, only nato is a four-letter word in Moscow. Over time, the alliance must find a way for a democratic Russia to have a place in European security decision-making. It is understandable that nato does not want to privilege Russia over those countries aspiring for membership. Nor does it want Russia to have a veto over nato operations. But especially on issues such as terrorism and proliferation, real Russian participation in decision-making should be welcomed if Russia lives up to its end of the bargain by working to combat these common threats rather than simply trying to find ways to weaken the alliance’s ability to function. The Permanent Joint Council established by the 1997 nato-Russia Founding Act was a start but never really developed because of the suspicions that remain on both sides about the other. It meets regularly — although it was interrupted for a year by the war in Kosovo and its aftermath. But does it do anything? Because the nato countries reach a consensus before meeting to discuss anything important with Russia, this means that to the West, it often appears that Russia is merely there to undermine nato — whereas to Russia, it appears that the West is merely looking for Russia to give it a green light to act.

Ever since Thucydides, we have known that states view growing power elsewhere as a matter of grave concern. And thus it is natural for Russia to look at the enlargement of the eu and nato as threats. It is not, however, productive; Russia would seem to be better off looking at these institutions as providing opportunities for it to be part of the new Europe. But because of the mutual suspicions that have grown stronger, the effort to bring Russia into Europe is not as easy as it might have appeared in the early 1990s. Russians see the West as having taken advantage of the end of the Cold War in ways that highlighted Russia’s diminished status. nato’s inclusion of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic as new members started this process, and the war in Kosovo provided an even bigger shock. But for the West, the war was a shock as well, because Russia was siding not with a military campaign on behalf of a victimized population, but rather with Slobodan Milosevic, whom the West considered the greatest (if not only) threat to post-Cold War European security and stability.

Mutual suspicion

As the second decade of the post-Soviet era begins, the domestic political mood in both the United States and Russia regarding the other is highly suspicious. U.S. critics of the Clinton administration’s Russia policy believe either that the United States does not really need to work with Russia, that Russia’s behavior in Chechnya should provoke U.S. disengagement, that Russia really cannot be trusted especially regarding sales of sensitive technologies to states of concern, or all of the above. Russian critics of the Yeltsin administration’s policy believe that Russia was taken for a ride in the 1990s by Western governments and financial institutions that were determined to ruin Russia in order to eliminate it as a threat once and for all.

These kinds of perceptions on both sides existed in the 1930s, and they were put aside (temporarily) only when Germany and Japan became the larger threat. There is no comparable threat today to bring the United States and Russia closer together. And yet, there is no objective basis for either to be seen by the other as an enemy. Neither wants to attack the other. Each has bigger worries: For the United States, it is terrorism as well as China’s rising power; for Russia it remains domestic stresses and strains.

In the end, real leadership on both sides may lead both presidents to decide that they can and must go beyond muddling through to take advantage of opportunities to engage one another seriously. Both Clinton and Yeltsin stared down domestic critics who believed that disengagement was preferable. Russia’s integration into Europe remains of fundamental interest for both sides. It may be that the European Union takes on more of the burden for this effort, which should be fine with the United States, given its many global responsibilities. And yet, as Bush and Putin look to their European agenda or to their concerns regarding terrorism and proliferation, they should realize that they need to make some effort to cooperate. It is unlikely to be 1990s-style U.S.-Russian relations, but given how overblown the expectations were about what such cooperation is capable of producing, finding some middle ground between that era and the malaise that existed early in 2001 may be what each side should be looking to promote.