Reliable Security Information

Engaging Russia

The long-term prospects for Russia are bleak. Industry inherited from the Soviet era was typically outmoded and inefficient; much of it has been closed down. International trade has followed a Third World pattern based largely on raw materials, particularly oil and gas. The high energy prices of the past decade allowed the leadership to ignore basic imbalances, but recent large drops in energy prices with the global recession have severely constrained the Russian economy. The transport infrastructure remains undeveloped, environmental problems are widespread, health issues severely undermine manpower resources, and a multiethnic population underlies a disjointed domestic policy. The increasingly autocratic regime suppresses independent and media organizations and regional autonomy, centralizes control of economic enterprises, and conducts repressive operations in the North Caucasus region. All this restrains the vibrant economic development which could make Russia competitive in the globalized world market.

Untitled Document

Nonetheless, Russia has been obstructive on a wide range of international issues, including nuclear developments in Iran, separatist movements in neighboring Georgia and Moldova as well as autocratic regimes in Belarus, Central Asia and Venezuela. Yet, the government has high approval ratings and shows few signs of developing genuine cooperation with the West in general and the United States in particular.


The core problem is the attitude of the Russian people – one recent poll shows that 62% of Russians believe that U.S. and Russian national interests “diverge in almost everything.” The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in Cold War foes becoming unexpected partners. But unfortunately, the corruption of the Yeltsin era brought a rise of mafia and an economic takeover by remnants of the Communist regime. Instead of bringing growth and prosperity, advice and support from the West led to an industrial realignment, the closure of major production facilities, and then a virtual economic collapse in the late 1990s. Widespread impoverishment on the one hand contrasted sharply with the rise of oligarchs appropriating the most attractive economic assets of the former Soviet Union. Historical ambivalence toward the West, reinforced by decades of Communist anti-Western propaganda, brought widespread disillusionment, including suspicions that the West had intentionally and maliciously manipulated Russia into a clearly inferior position.


Economic frustrations were compounded by the loss of international prestige – the Soviet Union had been one of the two superpowers dominating global politics, but Russia was at best a bit player. Its once feared army was reduced to a shadow of its former self, barely able to control tiny Chechnya. The choice of NATO as a major vehicle for Western support of the newly independent East European countries was unfortunate; its origin as a military organization focused against Russia made it an unnecessary provocation which the leadership was quick to exploit.


Against this background, with a thousand-year tradition of autocratic leaders and a cultural tradition of a special mission for Russia, it was only natural that a strong leader who stood up to the West would get wide support. Vladimir Putin, only too ready to provide such leadership, received a huge boost by the fortuitous rise of energy prices in the last decade. This allowed him to once again have Russia play a prominent and independent role on the world stage, a role which provided very satisfying psychological rewards to the Russian people, but little economic or social benefit.


It is to the regime's benefit to maintain an adversarial or confrontational stance vis-a-vis the West, promoting nationalistic attitudes and intensifying internal controls. Hard line Russian leaders stress the need for military modernization, eliciting matching calls from hard line Western leaders. The popular support these measures engender allows the regime to suppress opposition and democratic elements. This situation will not change until the underlying attitudes of the Russian people change significantly, and that obviously is a long term project.


The United States needs to show faith in the appeal of its own ideals, the worth of the individual, the respect for human rights, the support of democracy and the rule of law. Widespread prosperity depends on democracy which allows new ideas to grow and innovation to flourish. Promoting the innovative capacities essential for prosperity inevitably leads to the decline of autocracy and the development of more democratic and open institutions.


Our long-term strategy has to be to promote the prosperity of the Russian people and we need to stress this in all our official statements. Such an objective will be greeted with skepticism by the Russian people, a skepticism which the regime is sure to do its best to reinforce, denouncing the United States as a materialistic, self centered superpower intent on maximizing its own global clout and minimizing Russia.


Such skepticism can be overcome by two main approaches. The first is to set a clear example ourselves of how a country operating on American ideals can prosper. The election of a black president, for example, undermines anti-US propaganda about the suppression of minorities; it is a particularly significant example in the context of Russia, where nationalistic Russian propaganda necessarily alienates the 20% or so of non-Russian citizens. On the other hand, there has been a resurgence in what Senator Fulbright years ago terms the Arrogance of Power, America's tendency to disdain international cooperation. This was clear with our move into Iraq, and subsequent scandals on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have undermined U.S. moral standing.


The second approach is to promote ever broader contacts with the Russian people. The Russian government is a natural obstacle to such a development, as any wider popular involvement will inevitably reduce the control of the central government. But the Russian government also formally accepts many of the ideals we hold; indeed, with its membership in the G-8 it is committed to promote many of them. Economic development is also a priority for President Putin. Under his leadership, elements of the security services have reasserted control over the nation, but now face a much more difficult task of developing a modern economy.


The current global economic recession also provides an opportunity as it is pressuring the Russian government to address economic challenges; recently a state-owned corporation actually defaulted on a Western loan, the first time this has happened in ten years. The present popular support for the government based on its anti-Western stance and fueled by energy resources is necessarily transitory. Continued anti-Western policies can sustain popular support for some period, but will ultimately lead into an economic dead end. The alternative is for the government to reinforce popular support with a transformatory approach which builds prosperity from the grass roots level and promotes rather than enforces legitimacy. Such a transformation needs to be the ultimate objective of Western policy. This means supporting the government insofar as it supports its own people, and convincing the Russian people that this is where their future lies.


The West has much to offer Russia, including assistance in public health development, environmental technologies, and building multicultural systems. Scientific, technical and cultural exchanges as well as joint economic ventures all offer opportunities for wider personal contacts between Russian and Western publics. There are already a wide range of efforts in these areas:


- The Cooperative Threat Reduction programs originated by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar continue to work at eliminating obsolete weapons of mass destruction and improving security on remaining systems. There is active cooperation on this between the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Science. The Department of Energy is the lead agency in assisting Russia in improving security at nuclear facilities. The Office of Nonproliferation and International Security includes a specific element focused on Russian Transition Initiatives and coordinates a variety of specific programs within the department.


- The United States is involved in active negotiations with Russia on arms control issues, as well as dealing with pressing problems with Iran and North Korea. Nuclear nonproliferation is a common interest. Both North Korea and Iran border on Russia so it has a clear incentive to restrain nuclear weapons programs in these states. It also has strong commercial interests in Iran, which gives it a different perspective from the United States, but also gives it more leverage on Iranian policies.


- Initially set up by Congress to support the Cooperative Threat Reduction programs, the Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF) promotes scientific and technical collaboration between the United States and countries of the former Soviet Union through grants, technical assistance, and training and operates an office in Moscow. Its activities include regular workshops to bring together potential collaborators and to train Russian scientists in commercial operations. Similarly, the United States Industry Coalition (USIC) is a nonprofit organization of over 150 US companies and universities that is focused on the commercialization of technologies for peaceful purposes. It works closely with the CRDF to commercialize scientific and research projects which CRDF originates.


- The United States and Russia continue to have strong cooperation in space programs. In light of NASA problems with launch vehicles, this is particularly important to the United States.


- There have been active commercial ties between the United States and Russia, with the US-Russia Chamber of Commerce promoting commercial efforts. In recent years, problems with crime, corruption, and official regulations have discouraged many U.S. businesses from operations in Russia, but this can certainly be a topic of diplomatic discussion to improve the atmosphere.


- The Sister Cities program sponsors a variety of people-to-people contacts between local Russian officials and organizations and counterpart ones in the United States.


American impatience is a major obstacle. Building a really cooperative relationship with Russia is not a short term challenge. It requires a long-term, sustained effort, beginning with a clearly stated objective of promoting a prosperous Russia and renewed confidence in the power of American ideals. Based on this, promoting broad international contacts can help Russia to evolve into a real partner interested in developing a more cooperative and peaceful world. This can build on the existing network of broad cooperative programs. A fitting symbol of a new spirit of cooperation can be the impressive Tear Drop Memorial donated by the people of Russia on the fifth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center.

Subscribe to SitRep: SitRep RSS Feed SitRep ATOM Feed