False Choices on Relations With Russia

By Lev Gudkov, Igor Klyamkin, Georgy Satarov and Lilia Shevtsova
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

MOSCOW -- As intellectuals and liberal Russians, we have read with great interest many recommendations American experts have compiled for President Obama regarding the U.S.-Russian relationship. While there are several constructive ideas, many of these reports reflect a serious misunderstanding of the situation in Russia and the course it is following.

We object, for example, to the basic proposition of calling for a return to realpolitik because some believe that the worsening of Russian-American relations was mainly caused by Washington's insistence on "tying policies to values." The result, some American "realists" argue, is that the United States needs to build a new relationship with Russia based on "common interests and common threats." Yet in blaming the Bush administration for trying to "teach" Russia about democracy, these realists appear to accept the official Russian position. In our view, America has ignored the problems of democracy and civil society in Russia, but even turning a blind eye did not prevent the breakdown in the U.S.-Russian relationship -- and now Obama is essentially being asked to treat Russia as though it is incapable of democratic transformation.

While there is anti-democratic sentiment here, such feelings are not ubiquitous. In fact, nearly two-thirds of Russians would like to see the establishment of democracy and the rule of law, according to a 2008 Levada Center poll. The ruling elite oppose the development of democratic institutions, but the key is that members of the elite are more than ready to integrate into the Western world on an individually beneficial basis; they will do everything in their power to "protect" the rest of Russian society from the perils of such integration.

To be clear, we are not calling on our American democratic colleagues to "promote" democracy in Russia. Such efforts are counterproductive and ultimately serve only to discredit Russian democrats by helping the propaganda machine color them as agents of the West. But we do not understand how one can hope for cooperation while ignoring Russia's internal development and the principles on which the state functions.

In the Century Foundation report "Resurgent Russia and U.S. Purposes," Thomas Graham writes that Russia's national interests include being "a great power . . . maintaining itself as the dominant influence in the former-Soviet space . . . and constraining the United States." That is true about the Kremlin's interests. But Graham goes on to argue that "nothing in Russia's understanding of its interests precludes close cooperation with the United States on a wide range of issues critical to American security and prosperity." How can we build a relationship based on "common interests" if Russia's leaders see NATO expansion as a primary threat or if, as Graham wrote, their national interest is in "constraining" U.S. influence in the region?

Russian society views its national interests differently than does Russia's leadership. Polling has found that Russians are interested in making their country more open to the world and that they want to limit governmental abuse and corruption and create an independent judiciary. So we think that Americans ought to be clear, when referring to "Russian national interests," whether they mean those of the country at large or the current political regime.

Consider that in language strikingly similar to Kremlin rhetoric, the Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Russia, chaired by former senators Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel, recommends that Obama respect "Russian sovereignty, history and traditions and [recognize] that Russian society will evolve at its own pace." We hope that Americans understand Russian "traditions" differently than does the Kremlin propaganda machine. Implicit in many recent reports are the suggestions that the administration avoid discussing human rights and the obligations that Russia undertook when it joined the Group of Eight. The Hart-Hagel report also says that America should "establish a government-to-government dialogue on Russia's neighborhood, with a view to developing confidence-building measures." So Russia and the United States should decide the fate of Russia's neighbors? That sounds eerily like a return to the days of Yalta. When we read Thomas Graham's statement that Ukraine "occupies a special place in Russian thought: It is the cradle of Russian civilization and an essential element of Russia's own national identity," or that we should "Finlandize" Ukraine, we see the realists parroting Russian nationalist rhetoric.

We believe that cooperation on issues such as nonproliferation, Iran or trade will be successful only if our relationship is based on trust. If the Obama administration follows the suggestions of these "realists," rather than improving relations with Moscow its efforts will lead to more mutual disappointment at best. And sour relations with the United States always limit the space for liberalism in Russia. We believe Russia dearly needs to expand all sorts of ties with the United States and the West, but such cooperation must not come at the price of U.S. refusal to understand what is happening in Russia, or allowing Washington to ignore the fundamental nature of the Russian political system and to "repackage" old concepts of tactical maneuvering as a new foreign policy strategy.

Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott helpfully proposed in February that the West "should create conditions that will, over time, convince the Russians that their post-Marxist, post-Soviet, Hobbesian experiment is, in fact, unrealistic. It simply won't work." We don't know why many American realists would make it easier for the Russian elite to remain ensconced in their Hobbesian microcosm. We recognize that transforming Russia is a job for Russians and that this is a task at which Russia's liberal forces are failing. But the task will be that much more difficult if American experts serve as the "conservators" of Russian authoritarian traditionalism.

Relations with Russia cannot be reduced to the false dichotomy of isolation or cooperation with an authoritarian regime. Such a choice is doomed either way. We hope that in his dealings with Russia, President Obama will show us the fresh thinking for which he is admired as well as his understanding of Russia's people, not just its leaders.

Lev Gudkov is director of Levada Center, an independent polling and research organization. Igor Klyamkin is vice president of the Liberal Mission Foundation. Georgy Satarov is president of the Russian nongovernmental organization Indem Foundation. Lilia Shevtsova is a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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