Stephen F. Cohen is Professor of Russian Studies at New York University and Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University. His book Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, recently out in an expanded paperback edition, includes a fuller treatment of U.S. policy toward Russia from the 1990s to the present.
The United States and Russia are at a potentially fateful crossroads in their relations. Twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, the relationship features more elements of cold-war conflict than of stable cooperation. Still more, recent developments, including presidential campaigns and other political changes under way in both countries, may soon make relations even worse.
And yet, in the United States, there is virtually no critical discussion, certainly no debate, about American policy toward Russia. This failure of our own democratic process — particularly of our political and media establishments — is in sharp contrast to fierce debates over Russia policy that took place in Congress, the national media, academia, think tanks and even at grassroots levels in the 1970s and 1980s.
As a result, serious criticism of Washington’s policies toward Moscow that should be stated publicly — by Americans, not Russians — is not being expressed in our mainstream politics or media. I will state that kind of criticism here today — very briefly and bluntly. I do so as a scholar who has studied Russia’s history and politics for fifty years — and as an American patriot. Most of what I have to say is not a matter of personal opinion but of historical and political fact. It can be summarized in five major points.
First: Today, as before, the road to America’s national security runs through Moscow. No other U.S. bilateral relationship is more vital. The reasons should be known to every policymaker, though they seem not to be:
– Russia’s enormous stockpiles of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction make it the only country capable of destroying the United States as well as the only other government, along with our own, essential for preventing the proliferation of such weapons.
– There is also Russia’s disproportionate share of the world’s essential resources, not only oil and natural gas but metals, fertile land, timber, fresh water and more, which give Moscow critical importance in the global economy.
– In addition, Russia remains the world’s largest territorial country. In particular, the geopolitical significance of its location on the Eurasian frontier of today’s mounting conflicts between Western and Eastern civilizations, as well as its own millions of Islamic people, can hardly be overstated.
– Not to be forgotten are Russia’s talented and nationalistic people, even in bad times, and their state’s traditions in international affairs. This too means that Russia will play a major role in the world.
– And, largely as a result of these circumstances, there is Moscow’s special capacity to abet or to thwart U.S. interests in many regions of the world, from Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and China to Europe, the entire Middle East and Latin America.
In short, these inescapable realities mean that partnership with Russia is an American national security imperative.
Second: There is no real American-Russian partnership today. Nor has there been one since the Soviet Union ended in 1991, despite periodic (largely decorative) declarations to that effect in Washington. Indeed, there is less essential cooperation between Washington and Moscow today than there was during the late years of the Cold War under Presidents Ronald Reagan, the first George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. Still worse, important elements of cooperation that do exist — on Afghanistan, Iran and nuclear weapons — are fragile and may soon end.
In short, the United States is farther from a partnership with Russia today than it was more than twenty years ago.
Third: Who, it must be asked, is to blame for this historic failure to establish a partnership between America and post-Soviet Russia? In the United States, Moscow alone is almost universally blamed. The facts are different. There have been three compelling opportunities to establish such a partnership. All three were lost, or are being lost, in Washington, not in Moscow.
– The first opportunity was following the end of the Soviet Union, in the 1990s. Instead, the Clinton administration adopted an aggressive triumphalist approach to Moscow. That administration tried to dictate Russia’s post-Communist development and to turn it into a U.S. client state. It moved the U.S.-led military alliance, NATO, into Russia’s former security zone. It bombed Moscow’s remaining European ally, Serbia. And along the way, the Clinton administration broke strategic promises made to Moscow.
– The second opportunity for partnership was after 9/11, when the Bush administration repaid Russian President Vladimir Putin’s extraordinary assistance in the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan by further expanding NATO to Russia’s borders and by unilaterally withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Moscow regarded as the linchpin of its nuclear security.
– Now, since 2008, the Obama administration is squandering the third opportunity, its own “re-set,” by refusing to respond to Moscow’s concessions on Afghanistan and Iran with reciprocal agreements on Russia’s top priorities, NATO expansion and missile defense.
In short, every opportunity for a U.S.-Russian partnership during the past twenty years was lost, or is being lost, in Washington, not in Moscow.
Fourth: How to explain, we must also ask, such unwise U.S. policies over such a long period? The primary explanation is a policy-making outlook, or ideology, that has combined the worst legacy of the Cold War with the worst American reaction to the end of the Soviet Union.
– Washington’s two most consequential (and detrimental) decisions regarding post-Soviet Russia have continued the militarized approach of the Cold War: to move NATO eastward; and to build missile defense installations near Russia’s borders.
– At the same time, Washington’s triumphalist reaction to the end of the Soviet state produced a winner-take-all diplomatic approach that has been almost as aggressive. Consider the three primary components of this so-called diplomacy:
1. Presumably on the assumption that Russia’s interests abroad are less legitimate than America’s, Washington has acted on a double-standard in relations with Moscow. The unmistakable example is that while creating a vast U.S.-NATO sphere of military and political influence around Russia, Washington adamantly denounces Moscow’s quest for any zone of security, even on its own borders.
2. Similarly, U.S. negotiations on vital issues have been based on the premise (called “selective cooperation”) that Moscow should make all major concessions while Washington makes none. And on rare occasions when Washington did promise major concessions, it reneged on them, NATO’s eastward expansion being only the first instance. (Can anyone who doubts this generalization cite a single meaningful concession — any substantive reciprocity — that Moscow has actually gotten from the United States since 1992?)
3. Meanwhile, presumably on the assumption that Russia’s political sovereignty at home is less than our own, Washington has pursued intrusive “democracy-promotion” measures that flagrantly trespass on Moscow’s internal affairs. This practice began in the 1990s with actual directives from Washington to Moscow ministries and with legions of onsite U.S. “advisers” and it continues today — recently, for example, with the American vice president lobbying in Moscow against Putin’s return to the Russian presidency and with the new U.S. ambassador’s profoundly ill-timed meeting with leaders of Moscow’s street protests.
In short, blaming Putin for anti-Americanism in Russia, as the U.S. State Department and media do, ignores the real cause: Twenty years of American military and diplomatic policies have convinced a large part of Russia’s political class (and intelligentsia) that Washington’s intentions are aggressive, aggrandizing and deceitful — anything but those of a partner. (In that context, part of the Russian elite has criticized Putin for being “pro-American.”)
Fifth: None of these unwise, counter-productive U.S. policies toward Russia since the 1990s have been specifically Democratic or Republican. They have been bipartisan, enacted and supported by Democratic and Republican presidents and congresses alike. They have been, that is, a fully bipartisan failure of American leadership and policymaking.
To which must be added the complicit role of the American media:
– Since the 1990s, mainstream press coverage of Russia has been woefully less professional than it was when the Soviet Union existed. It has been more ideological; less diverse in its sources and perspectives; less receptive to non-standard opinions; less observant of the necessary distinction between reporting and news analysis; and, worse yet, less factual and accurate.
– Press coverage has also been less independent of U.S. policy than it was in Soviet times. In the 1990s, the mainstream media narrative hardly differed from that of the Clinton White House, cheerleading for Russian President Boris Yeltsin. In recent years, the media narrative, like Washington’s, has been overwhelmingly anti-Putin.
– Indeed, press analysis of Russian politics has been all but replaced by reflexive Putin-bashing equating him with Saddam, Qaddafi and even Stalin, and based on a welter of non- factual or unsubstantiated allegations.
– For example, the dismantling of Russian democracy, the creation of a corrupt financial oligarchy (which is the main obstacle to democracy) and the killing of journalists did not begin under Putin, who assumed the presidency in 2000, but under Yeltsin in the 1990s. And there are no facts or logic to support standard U.S. press assertions that Putin was personally responsible for the murders of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the supposed KGB defector in London, Aleksandr Litvinenko or any of his other Russian political opponents.
Nor is this journalistic malpractice unrelated to U.S. policy-making. It has polluted American public discussion of Russia in ways that encourage the worst impulses of our politicians and that all but prohibit any reconsideration of U.S. policy.
Toward a New Russia Policy
Clearly, the United States needs a fundamentally different policy toward Russia. Given the right approach, partnership with Moscow is still possible, no matter who is in the White House or Kremlin after this year’s presidential elections. But the window of opportunity is closing, not only because of the factors I mentioned earlier but because Moscow is increasingly mistrustful of Washington and because Moscow no longer needs anything from the United States except military security. Everything else, including modernizing funds, technology and markets, Russia can get from its flourishing partnerships with China and Europe.
The Russia policy America urgently needs requires at least four fundamental changes, each based on new thinking. Again, briefly stated:
1. The policy must be de-militarized in favor of political diplomacy. And the guiding diplomatic tenet must be recognition of Russia’s parity with the United States as a sovereign nation and legitimate great power. This means, in particular, that the same rules of international behavior apply equally to Washington and Moscow and that negotiations require reciprocal concessions, as befit partners. Such a U.S. approach would almost certainly lead to new and expanded areas of cooperation.
2. Vital cooperation will not be possible (or stable), however, as long as Washington continues to promote NATO expansion along Russia’s borders. This must stop, which means no longer encouraging membership for Georgia or Ukraine. Membership for either would cross Moscow’s declared “red lines.” The proxy American-Russian war in Georgia, in August 2008, which risked a nuclear confrontation like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, was an unmistakable warning. (Russia has a right, as the United States asserted for itself in that crisis, to be free of menacing foreign military bases near its territory.)
3. But the thirteen-year expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders has already institutionalized the worst geo-political, and potentially military, U.S.-Russian conflict. The new NATO members cannot be expelled, but Washington should now honor its promise, also broken, that those countries would not host any NATO or U.S. military installations. Honoring that pledge would, in effect, de-militarize NATO expansion and considerably lessen Moscow’s anxieties, resentments and resistance to new forms of security cooperation, including on missile defense and deeper nuclear reductions on both sides.
4. Finally, “democracy-promotion” measures inside Russia also must stop. Many proponents of this two-decade U.S. policy sincerely believe in it, but it is wrong on all counts:
– We, the United States, do not have the right, wisdom or power to intervene so directly or deeply in the internal workings of another great nation, especially one whose history is older, different and no less proud than our own. (Russians have shown they know how to democratize their country. To suggest that they do not is contemptuous and an ethnic slur.)
– Here too the proof is in the factual record. Since the 1990s, U.S.-sponsored “democracy-promotion” inside Russia has done more to undermine democratic prospects there than to promote them.
– Even worse, “democracy-promoters” and leaders of opposition groups they sponsor are moving in a profoundly reckless direction. Increasingly, they speak of “delegitimizing” and “de-stabilizing” Russia’s political system, even of a “revolution,” but without asking what that might mean for a vast state with uncertain control over its enormous, sprawling quantities of devices of mass destruction. When the Russian state suddenly disintegrated in 1991, this kind of catastrophe was averted. But miracles rarely, if ever, happen twice.
The policy changes I propose are, of course, unlikely to be adopted. After twenty years, many powerful American interests are invested in the existing policy, however badly it has failed. But it is not enough to blame the U.S. political and media establishments. American critics of Washington’s longstanding approach to Moscow also bear some responsibility: They have not fought for the nation’s best interests.
This too was different forty years ago, when there was such an organization, The American Committee on East-West Accord. Based in Washington, with a Board composed of CEOs of major corporations, academics, policy intellectuals, nuclear scientists, journalists and representatives of grass-roots movements, the Committee fought our cold warriors of that time on many fronts, from Congress to the media. In the end, the struggle helped to make possible the historic breakthrough achieved by Reagan and Gorbachev in the 1980s. Where are such Americans and organizations today, when perhaps the last chance for a U.S.-Russian partnership is being lost?
This post is adapted from remarks by Stephen F. Cohen to the World Russia Forum in Washington, DC on February 27, 2012.