US - Russia
The events of Sept. 11 put the U.S.-Russia relationship in a whole new perspective. Many are asking whether the leading items on the bilateral agenda of yesterday will take a back seat to the pressing issues of today. Until the terrorist attacks, discussions of missile defense and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which had assumed a position of major importance in defining the bilateral relationship, seemed dead in the water. The decision to expand NATO to include the Baltic nations in 2002 seemed a foregone conclusion. Chechnya threatened to become a sore point again in relations, as did the issue of freedom of the press. But since Sept. 11, things may have changed. Many analysts are speculating that Russia can use cooperation in the fight against terrorism as a bargaining chip. The new U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, however, has insisted that the agenda with Russia remains unchanged. Vershbow declared soon after the attacks that the U.S. will push ahead with national missile defense (NMD), NATO expansion, and will continue opposing Russian actions in Chechnya. Whatever may be the case, President Vladimir Putin has been unequivocal in his support for the United States, and Washington has much to be thankful for this. Putin undoubtedly realizes, however, that Russia is walking a tightrope.
As was the case at the end of the preceding quarter, the global war against terrorism and the war against the Taliban government in Afghanistan continued to galvanize the U.S.-Russia relationship and to give it a newfound purpose. The summit meetings between Presidents Bush and Putin in Shanghai in October and in the United States in November went off very well. Differences over issues like the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and missile cuts were smoothed over as a united front in the war against terrorism was presented.
Nevertheless, the United States vowed to push forward with the development of a missile defense (MD) system, contrary to what many assumed would be a shift in U.S. strategy after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. U.S. forces were able to utilize bases and assets in two Central Asian countries with Russian approval, also contrary to what many assumed would be the case in mid-September. Within the U.S., the nation focused almost exclusively on the war in Afghanistan.
But in Russia, the war brought up a wider debate that has simmered in Russia for centuries: whether to join with the West or to define Russia’s own unique path. President Vladimir Putin seems to prefer the former, but voices of opposition are beginning to question the wisdom of such a choice. Can Putin continue to dominate the Russian political world or will his decision to go with the West divide the Russian leadership? These questions are much more important to the people of Russia than the war against terrorism and the debates over arms control. Ultimately, they are important questions for the United States, as well.
Half a year into the U.S.-Russian antiterror partnership, it is once again apparent that allies in wartime are not immune to down cycles in their relations. This is especially true when the partnership is built on shaky foundations and for reasons of expediency rather than strategic necessity. The United States and the Soviet Union found this out in 1941-45 and it is again the case for Moscow and Washington in 2002. This is not to suggest that a new Cold War will ensue once antiterror operations in Central and Southwest Asia cease. In fact, the international situation shows promise of significant U.S.-Russian cooperation in the future. Nevertheless, as this year’s first quarter indicated, it will take concerted efforts from both sides to make this partnership a long-lasting affair.
The spring of 2002 showed great promise for the newfound U.S.-Russia partnership. Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin carried out successful summit meetings in Moscow and St. Petersburg in May and managed to sign a groundbreaking strategic arms reduction agreement. In addition, Russia was welcomed into NATO and given a seat on a council with a voice in alliance matters that will be most pertinent in the 21st century. The United States also was behind the pledge by the G-7 nations to contribute $20 billion over 10 years to nonproliferation programs in Russia and the former Soviet republics and to give Russia a permanent seat at future G-8 meetings. Most important, the United States and Russia have continued their cooperation in the war on terrorism and Russia continues to give the U.S. a free hand in Central Asia. In return the U.S. leadership remains mum on Chechnya. Nevertheless, more is expected in Russia in return for unquestioned support of the U.S. Putin is beginning to feel some domestic opposition to his policy of “appeasing” the U.S., and it is a question how long he can continue this policy if Russia appears to accrue no advantage.
In the spring of 2002, the U.S.-Russian antiterror coalition seemed in fine shape. A bilateral summit between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in May in St. Petersburg resulted in the signing of a dramatic arms reduction agreement. The trend continued through June and part of July. In public appearances Russian leaders continued to insist that their country stood firmly behind the United States and was committed to closer integration with the West.
But as the summer wore on it became apparent that the partnership had its limits. Two issues, in particular, became major irritants. One issue was an old one that came back onto the radar screen – Chechnya, or in this case Chechen fighters operating in the Pankisi Gorge over the Georgian border. Another issue was an even older one – Iraq. As U.S. leaders tried to convince their Russian counterparts that action was needed in Iraq as part of the global campaign against terrorism, Russian leaders tried to convince their U.S. counterparts that action against Chechen separatists operating out of Georgia was also related to the larger campaign. Meanwhile Russia’s flirtations with Iran and North Korea seemed directly in contravention of the U.S. policy of isolating the “axis of evil.” In both Russia and the United States voices clamored for a realistic reassessment of the relationship between the erstwhile antiterror partners. The successful energy summit in Houston in early October gives hope to many that cooperation between Russia and the United States will continue. But as autumn began it was unclear to most observers where the relationship was headed and the partnership weathered a stormy first anniversary.
After a difficult summer, Moscow and Washington returned to focus on certain large-picture issues that have served to bring the two nations together over the past 18 months. The two issues giving positive momentum to the relationship are the war on terrorism and, increasingly, energy cooperation. Irritants in the relationship remain, and these include the war in Chechnya and Russia’s relations with Iran and Iraq. Even these two issues, however, have become less divisive. The hostage crisis in Moscow in late October caused many in the West to look with slightly more sympathy on Russia’s dilemma with Chechnya. In the Middle East, Russia has moved closer to U.S. positions, and now backs a U.S.-authored UN resolution threatening the use of force in the event of Iraqi noncompliance.
Other issues of contention that have been major irritants in the past have receded even further into the background, including NATO expansion and arms control. In November, the latest round of NATO expansion included the three former Soviet Baltic republics. And in December, the United States announced that it would begin construction on the first phase of a national missile defense system, with the abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty having become final. The November summit meeting between Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on the heels of the NATO Prague summit highlighted the goodwill pervading the relationship. In East Asia, Russia continues to back the United States in insisting on the cessation of the North Korean nuclear program. China continues to worry many in Russia, and this concern continues to be reflected in the popular press. With an eye to China and the uncertainty in Korea, Russia supports the U.S. in East Asia and continues to flirt with Japan, although no substantive progress could actually be discerned in relations between Moscow and Tokyo.
Once again the U.S.-Russia strategic partnership is enduring a rocky patch. The war in Iraq has created serious discord in the bilateral relationship. The vicissitudes in U.S.-Russian relations have become a recurring pattern for these erstwhile Cold War enemies, who are now seeking to cooperate in the post-Sept. 11 strategic landscape. The launching of the war against Iraq is seen in the U.S. as part of the global war against terrorism. Russian leaders have thus far been eager to cooperate with the U.S. in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Many in Russia, however, see the attack on Iraq as part of an effort by the U.S. to monopolize the world petroleum markets and further its political and economic domination of the globe.
Despite speculation at the beginning of the year by many that Moscow would give tacit consent to U.S. actions in Iraq, the Russian leadership threatened a veto in the UN Security Council and warned against an attack. Now that the dye has been cast, the Russian leadership is unlikely to do much more than simply state its disagreement with the war. Nevertheless, many are left wondering whether this will do irreparable damage to a budding strategic partnership that is quite fragile. In spite of a small, but vocal opposition among conservative groups in Russia, President Vladimir Putin had made an extra effort to back the U.S. since the Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks. This column questioned in April-June 2002 (see “Growing Expectations: How Far Can Rapprochement be Carried Forward?” Comparative Connections, Vol. 4, No. 2, July 2002) how far Putin could go with his rapprochement with Washington before his domestic political standing was endangered. Given the upcoming Duma elections at the end of this year and the presidential election early next year, it appears that Putin has finally drawn the line at how far he will cooperate with the U.S.
In the second quarter of 2003, the war in Iraq brought to light fundamental differences between the United States and Russia that some seasoned observers had been claiming existed between the two erstwhile allies, even as Moscow and Washington forged a partnership in the war against terrorism. It has become clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin, with an eye to upcoming Duma and presidential elections, has heeded advisors that have been warning him about being too accommodating with the United States. In addition, the Russian public has clearly voiced its opposition to the actions of the United States government across the globe. This was reflected in the coolness toward Washington prevailing in ruling circles in Moscow during the Iraq war, and the official refusal to back U.S. actions in the Middle East. Washington, however, has steadfastly maintained its strategy of accommodation with Moscow, and has been eager to enlist Russian support in the Middle East and maintain the partnership in the war on terrorism.
With the end of hostilities in Iraq, the Russian government has again changed tack somewhat and has publicly reaffirmed its desire to maintain a constructive relationship with the United States. The June summit meeting between Presidents Bush and Putin in St. Petersburg smoothed over the tense spots in the relationship somewhat. Energy issues continue to unite the two nations economically. Meanwhile, Moscow and Washington remain actively engaged on the Korean Peninsula, and have both called on Pyongyang to not develop nuclear weapons.
If you must pick one event in the least several months that is truly indicative of the tenor of the U.S.-Russia relationship, you need not look to the wooded hills of Camp David, or the gilded halls of the palaces around St. Petersburg, which were the sites of the last two presidential summits. Instead, you should look to the gasoline station on the corner of 10th Avenue and 24th Street in Chelsea on Manhattan. It was there on the morning of Sept. 26 that Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped in for a cup of coffee – with skim milk of course – and a Krispy Kreme doughnut. The station in question was the first Lukoil station to be opened in the United States, and Putin was there for the ribbon cutting ceremony. The U.S.-Russian effort to push energy ties is taking precedence over most other aspects of the relationship. The two sides continue to agree to disagree about Chechnya, Iran, and Iraq. NATO and Central Asia are still sore points. Trade issues and human rights to this day raise tensions in certain areas. But the energy relationship is global and strategic and it continues to grease the squeaky spots of this post-Cold War “partnership.” To truly understand why business and political leaders in Moscow and Washington still drown out the noises of discontent, look no further than the gas station on 10th Avenue and 24th Street.
While leaders in the United States and Russia profess a continuing partnership in the war on terrorism and foster a growing energy relationship, strains have become apparent during the past three months. The first evidence of a rift came with the long-expected arrest in October of Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, seen in both Moscow and Washington as a proponent of improved relations with the U.S. Another strain appeared after the December parliamentary elections in Russia, in which the pro-Putin United Russia Party gained a major victory. Two nationalist parties also scored big gains, while the two most Western-leaning, reformist parties suffered a crushing blow and failed to even gain the minimum 5 percent level of votes to assure proportional representation in the Duma. The U.S. government even went so far as to question the fairness of the elections. Other, more usual, complicating factors have caused some friction: Chechnya, Central Asia, and Iraq. But in three areas Russia and the U.S. continue to cooperate: nonproliferation, energy, and the war on terrorism. It remains to be seen how long the two nations can continue to smooth over frictions in the quest to cooperate on large-scale strategic issues.
On the surface, U.S.-Russian relations continued the downward spiral that marked the chilly fall months. Bush administration and U.S. government criticism of Russia’s March 14 presidential elections was thinly veiled, and the international press had a field day decrying both the electoral process and the outcome. In spite of this heightened friction, structural factors continue to keep the two countries’ relations from plummeting to extreme depths. Although energy cooperation has eased to some extent, the all-important war on terrorism, and the drive against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are issues of great importance to both nations, and a successful prosecution of both struggles is a goal shared by both Moscow and Washington. Ironically, democratic elections can prove divisive in diplomatic relations as the most recent one in Russia demonstrated. With an upcoming presidential election in the United States, Russia could again become a whipping post for the U.S.
As noted in last quarter’s edition of Comparative Connections, “Elections Bring Tensions,” U.S.-Russian relations experienced a trying winter in 2003-2004. This spring seemed to offer some hope that relations could be brought back onto a more conciliatory track. At the G8 Summit on Sea Island, Georgia, both Presidents Bush and Putin expressed a determination to continue the partnership in the war on terror and in non-proliferation efforts. Prior to the Sea Island summit, Russia endorsed the U.S.-U.K.- sponsored UN Security Council resolution on Iraqi sovereignty. Additionally, Putin seemed to give Bush a shot in the arm with his revelation that Russian intelligence had passed information on Iraqi plans to attack U.S. targets before the March 2003 invasion. Nevertheless, there are still serious obstacles for the bilateral relationship in the months ahead, particularly as neither nation seems to be able to get a grip on its respective “occupation” duties in Chechnya and Iraq.
The events of the past few months in both the United States and Russia highlight just how deeply embroiled each nation is in their respective national struggles against terrorism and against “insurgents” in Iraq and in Chechnya. Whereas the terror attacks perpetrated in triplicate in Russia garnered tremendous international attention, the quiet passing of a milestone in the U.S. campaign in Iraq drew much less notice. Just this past month, the 1,000th U.S. soldier died in Iraq. Whether the tragedies of the summer months will steel the strategic partnership or sow discord will be played out in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election and afterward.
As autumn came many pundits began speculating about how the presidential elections would negatively influence U.S.-Russia relations. A presidential election did indeed negatively influence U.S.-Russia relations – except that it was not the election here in the United States. It was the election that occurred about 3,000 miles away from Washington in the Ukraine. Many press reports in the United States and Russia billed the Ukrainian presidential election as a struggle between Moscow and Washington for the soul of that country. Although this is far from the truth, it nevertheless put a crimp in the already strained relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
U.S.-Russia relations continued down a rocky path this quarter. The summit meeting between George Bush and Vladimir Putin in Bratislava in February seemed inconclusive at best. While pundits in the West called on President Bush to be tougher on Putin, critics in Russia urged Putin to not “bow down” to the United States. Both presidents seem unsure as to which way they are leaning. Both recognize the strategic necessities that dictate a sound and cordial relationship. But they must also keep a wary eye on their domestic critics. Meanwhile, it is clear that the two nations’ agendas in Central Asia and the Middle East are starting to diverge. In East Asia, the two remain committed to the Six-Party Talks, but both Moscow and Washington have a number of unresolved issues in the region that need to be addressed; these issues could affect bilateral relations.
Since the outbreak of the global war on terror in late 2001, leaders in Moscow and Washington have crafted a policy designed to minimize political differences in order to maximize the effectiveness of the “strategic partnership” in its struggle against terrorism. But by late 2004 and early 2005, the limits of this partnership were becoming apparent. The series of mini-revolutions or coups in the former Soviet republics along Russia’s border over the past quarter may have marked the beginning of the end of this so-called strategic partnership. Moscow now has serious concerns about the penchant for Washington to “export” revolution to Eurasia. Washington, meanwhile, continues to view political developments in Russia with great displeasure, calling each successive move by President Vladimir Putin to consolidate his power a step backward for Russian democracy. As in Eurasia, U.S.-Russian cooperation in East Asia seems to have reached its limit, as Moscow looks more and more to Beijing as a partner, potentially along with New Delhi.
The strategic partnership between the United States and Russia still exists in the war on terror, and to a lesser extent in the battle to prevent the proliferation of nuclear material and weapons. But in Central Asia, the relationship between Moscow and Washington has clearly turned a corner, and turned into a competition. And although this author hates to utilize clichés (see the reference to the “Great Game” in the title), the situation in Central Asia is clearly turning acrimonious. The transition from strategic partner to strategic competitor was made clear at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in July. At the summit meeting, SCO members China, Russia, and the four nations of Central Asia called on the U.S. to announce a date for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from bases and facilities in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Moscow and Washington also continue to agree to disagree about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In Northeast Asia, relations appear to be in the status quo mode, although Moscow appears to be continuing its slow creep toward China. Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin met twice during the quarter, and appear to have maintained their friendship, despite the political differences dividing their two countries.
The last quarter of 2005 was a relatively quite time in U.S.-Russia relations. The malevolent rhetoric that marked the bilateral dialogue over the past two years subsided somewhat. Instead, the leaders of the two nations focused some of their energy on shoring up relations with nations across East Asia. Both George Bush and Vladimir Putin visited the region; Putin on two occasions. The two leaders met in South Korea on the sidelines of the APEC summit. Central Asia and the Middle East, however, remain the primary focus of strategic maneuvering for both nations, and top officials from Moscow and Washington continued to visit these regions with regularity. Meanwhile, Russian-Japanese relations have advanced in the economic sphere, but the territorial dispute remains at an impasse, and no progress was made during Putin’s visit to Tokyo in November.
After nearly a half-decade of strategic cooperation, U.S.-Russia relations appear to have reached a turning point in the first months of 2006. The momentum behind this turn has been building for at least two years, but events of the past three months have put the future of the strategic partnership in doubt. Apart from the usual catalogue of disagreements – U.S. designs in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Russia’s stalled democratic development, and the fate of Ukraine and Belarus – there have emerged a number of other troubling issues that are potentially more damaging to the future of the U.S.-Russian partnership. These include the Iranian nuclear issue, Moscow’s rapprochement with Beijing, and a disturbing report that Russian diplomats may have shared sensitive information with the regime of Saddam Hussein about U.S. war plans in Iraq in 2003.
U.S.-Russian relations continued on a tempestuous course during the spring. As noted last quarter, U.S.-Russian relations have been in a downward spiral since 2003. During the past quarter, elements of the leadership of both sides continued to spar verbally. Vice President Dick Cheney launched a broadside on the Russian government, during a public appearance in Lithuania. Vladimir Putin was happy to take up the challenge and obliquely referred to Cheney and/or the U.S. government as “comrade wolf” and a “bull in a china shop” shortly thereafter. The two nations appear to be circling one another in anticipation of the upcoming G-8 summit in July in Russia’s northern capital – and Putin’s hometown – St. Petersburg. Although it is unlikely President George W. Bush will take a confrontational stand as many in Washington are arguing he should, the summit could prove to be frosty because Washington’s partners in Europe have seemingly also become disillusioned with Moscow. In Asia, Moscow and China continue to strengthen and formalize the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which many see as a bulwark against the United States, especially in Central Asia.
Casual observers of U.S.-Russia relations over the past three years understand that the two nations have navigated rocky paths in their search for common understanding and shared strategic goals. This quarter started off well enough for the two nations as Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin met amiably at the G-8 Summit, for which Russia was the host this year. But as the quarter wound down, familiar themes of distrust and misunderstanding pervaded the relationship once again. It is not that Moscow and Washington have strategic interests that are directly opposed to one another. In fact, leaders in both capitals see eye-to-eye on the pressing issues of nuclear proliferation and terrorism, and on more long-term goals, such as managing a peaceful rise of China. The problems seem to lie more in the tactics of achieving these strategic aims. Russian leaders have a hard time conceding global leadership to Washington; likewise many in the United States still harbor ingrained prejudices against the longtime adversary in Moscow.
Additionally, energy issues have become more and more the cause for disagreement between Russia and its neighbors and partners. The Russian government does seem determined – for right or for wrong – to control the access to and management of the resources lying beneath its soil and waters. This has become an acute problem in the Russian Far East for Washington and its two closest allies, Britain and Japan. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, relations between Japan and Russia have become downright contentious, due to a series of events, including the untimely death of a Japan national at the hands of Russian border authorities.
In a relatively quiet quarter for U.S.-Russia relations, the issues topping the bilateral agenda were trade, nuclear proliferation, and energy security. That nuclear proliferation and energy security were at the top of the list should come as no surprise. The big news was the announcement that the U.S. government had agreed in principle to Russia’s long-awaited accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin met twice during the quarter, a few days apart in Moscow and Hanoi. At their meetings the discussions centered on WTO, Iran, and North Korea. A surprise announcement by the Japanese foreign minister concerning the dispute over the Northern Territories caused a few ruffles in both Moscow and Tokyo, but the Japanese-Russian relationship returned again to its stagnant state by the end of the quarter.
The opening of 2007 witnessed perhaps the nadir in bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington since the establishment of the “strategic partnership” in the war on terror in late 2001. In a highly publicized speech in Munich in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a broadside against U.S. foreign policy, suggesting that the United States seemed to view force as the only policy option at its disposal. If relations did not return to the dark days of bipolar confrontation during the Cold War, then the series of events that transpired this quarter did resemble a return to the tumultuous days of the late 1990s, when U.S. and NATO forces were bombing a long-time Russian ally in the Balkans, when NATO expanded into the former Soviet sphere, and when China and Russia were locked in an embrace hoping to contain U.S. “unilateralism.” But, in an interesting twist, by the latter stages of March it appeared that Moscow and Washington had agreed on the need to foil Iran’s bid to march down the road to uranium enrichment. Thus, the quarter concluded on a favorable note, hinting that – at least temporarily – the bilateral relationship had regained sounder footing.
The summit meeting at Kennebunkport, Maine between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin was meant to smooth over the harsh rhetoric bandied about between Moscow and Washington over the past several months. The primary points of contention are similar to past controversies, namely defense issues in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, as well as political developments in Russia. But in fact, the Kennebunkport summit may have signified something much more profound: the death of the bilateral relationship of the 1990s. In this case the death was both literal (with the passing of Boris Yeltsin) and figurative, given Russia’s economic and political resurgence and the United States’ reeling international image.
The 1990s marked the nadir of Russia’s international standing. Few in Russia look wistfully back on the days of economic and political chaos in that country. GDP declined by 50 percent between 1991 and 1995, unbridled NATO expansion took place along Russia’s western borders, and the bilateral relationship was viewed by most in Russia as one in which the U.S. was clearly the dominant partner. The perception was that every time Washington told Moscow to jump, the response was: “How high?” Now, Vladimir Putin, flush with cash, possessing undisputed political power at home, and author of an ambitious agenda overseas and domestically, has come at the invitation of George Bush to be recognized as a political equal. A headline in the influential Russian daily Izvestia on July 2 summed up the expectations in Russia: “Normal Relations Between Big Boys.” People can argue about whether the Cold War has reemerged or whether it ever went away. But one thing is clear: the 1990s have died. Russia has boldly declared that it will no longer stand by and watch the U.S. dictate the political agenda in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. A literal sign marking this change can be seen with the passing on April 23 of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Cold War president who oversaw the 1990s chaos.
Any casual observer of the U.S. and Russia recognizes the deterioration of relations since the beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003. Until recently, this entailed diplomatic lectures, energy nationalism, spying, Great Game politics in Central Asia, and a worsening opinion of one another among the general publics of both nations. This past quarter saw the re-emergence of something not seen since the days of the Cold War: military posturing. This has taken the form of military exercises, increased military expenditures, a re-emphasis on arms exports, a race to claim territory, and actual “meetings” of armed personnel in the skies and in the sea lanes around the Eurasian periphery. The primary points of contention that have existed since 2003 continue to harm relations (Iraq, Iran, the former Yugoslavia, and missile defense, among others), but now Moscow has taken the next step in reasserting itself as a global power: bolstering its long-beleaguered defense establishment.
Now that the world is finally coming around to understanding the man Vladimir Putin and what it is he represents, he appears to be stepping down – sort of. In December, Putin named his preferred successor, longtime aide and fellow Petersburger Dmitri Medvedev. While George Bush proclaims to have understood Putin after their first meeting in 2001, most Russia observers in the U.S. have been arguing over Putin and what his government represents for the better part of eight years. Does he represent a true change for Russia (a democratic change for the better) or is he steering that nation back to more historically familiar, repressive patterns? Now that the Kremlin has come forward with its own explanation, and has been bandying about the term “sovereign democracy,” the question of what Putin and the Kremlin represent is no longer hard to decipher. Russia has chosen a path that is by no means unique: a mercantilist, authoritarian form of democratic government that is very familiar to Asia watchers. What is becoming apparent is that, if anything, the U.S. form of democracy is the unique model, difficult to copy and long in development. Russia and other infant democracies may arrive one day, but “sovereign democracy” is here for the time being in Russia.
Meanwhile, the designation of Medvedev as the preferred successor to the presidency could be seen as a plus for the U.S. Many leading Western analysts view him as an economic liberal; most importantly, he has no known background in the intelligence or the security services. But the fact that he is a relative political lightweight leaves the door open for the return of Putin, or his retention of power as the kingmaker behind closed doors, or even as prime minister.
As even the most casual of observers knows, the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship has deteriorated steadily over the past five years. Signs seemed to point to this past quarter as the culmination of the confrontation between Moscow and Washington, with a number of key events scheduled to occur: a Kosovar declaration of independence, further NATO expansion, the Russian presidential election, and a 2+2 meeting focused on the controversial missile defense system in Eastern Europe. But as the quarter ended with an unexpected, yet cordial summit meeting between Presidents Bush and Putin in Sochi, the relationship seemed to have weathered the cold winter and spring seems to have brought a harbinger of better relations – at least until the U.S. presidential election in November.
At the conclusion of the final summit meeting between Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin at the Russian resort of Sochi in early April, relations between Moscow and Washington appeared to have righted themselves. The cordial meeting between the outgoing presidents left a sense of optimism in both Moscow and in the West that U.S.-Russia relations would improve until at least the fall presidential elections in the United States. Things have quieted down between the two nations over the last quarter, as the leadership of both countries has gone about business at home and has lessened (though not ceased) the often-negative rhetoric. But when the summer concludes, Russia will again loom large in U.S. political debates, and the big questions of U.S. foreign policy – whether they revolve around Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Northeast Asia, or even Venezuela – will necessarily include Russia policy. And as President Dmitry Medvedev unveils his own version of “sovereign democracy,” U.S. foreign policymakers will be forced to address the fundamental question of whether U.S. policy toward Moscow is centered on its strategic interests, or on democratic values.
Throughout the spring and early summer it seemed that U.S.-Russia relations could sink no further. Ill will beset the relationship. Heated discussions were carried out almost weekly on issues such as missile defense, Iran’s nuclear program, Iraq, energy nationalism, and perhaps most significantly, NATO expansion. At one point, Vladimir Putin compared the U.S. to a “frightening monster,” while Senator (and Republican presidential nominee) John McCain called for Russia’s eviction from the G8. In August, the worsening situation came to a head when Russian troops invaded and occupied South Ossetia (a Georgian Province), and launched attacks on other Georgian cities. The U.S. reaction was swift: condemnation, followed by the transport home of Georgian combat troops deployed in Iraq, the ferrying of supplies to Georgian ports by U.S. warships, the extension of $1 billion in aid, and the deployment of a small contingent of U.S. troops for “humanitarian” missions in Georgia. But some feel the response was not enough. The reaction did nothing to cow Moscow. By the end of August, Russia had asserted de facto control of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia and had recognized both as independent nations. Meanwhile the U.S. turned inward to deal with its financial crisis, leaving relations with Moscow on the backburner – at least temporarily.
As documented in this chapter during the last quarter (and over the last several years), U.S.-Russian relations have deteriorated to post-Cold War lows. Given the number of distractions over the last few months, relations stabilized somewhat in that the usual number of caustic barbs hurled across the oceans was limited. The leaders of the two nations are increasingly preoccupied with finding solutions to the economic ills affecting their respective nations and the entire world. As the Obama administration comes to office there seems to be a determination to reestablish a working relationship with the Kremlin, something that was obviously lacking during the August crisis when Russian troops invaded Georgia. President-elect Obama and future Cabinet members – as well as members of Congress – have publicly stated the need to recalibrate relations with Russia, starting with arms control.
The bilateral dialogue in the first quarter of the year was cordial, if somewhat distant. The administration of President Barack Obama sent clear and positive signals to the Kremlin. At times President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reciprocated with positive language; at times Moscow’s negative rhetoric reappeared. Clearly the Russian leadership has been making a cautious assessment of the new U.S. leader. Optimism was again evident at the London meeting between Obama and Medvedev on the eve of the G20 summit on global economic issues. In London, the two leaders pledged cooperation on a variety of issues, centering on arms control. There has been nothing positive in the bilateral relationship to report since last April when then-President George W. Bush visited then-President Putin at Sochi. Since that time, the relationship has plunged to depths unseen since the Cold War. Although many observers wish to see progress (and have come to forecast it), there is clearly much work to be done to repair the rift that has developed over the past six years.
President Barack Obama traveled to Moscow in early July to meet the Russian leadership, the political diarchy of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The meetings were conducted in a cordial atmosphere, but this particular summit stood out from summits of the past two decades between U.S. and Russian leaders: there was no backslapping camaraderie or use of first names. Obama conducted the visit with a minimum of pomp and a maximum of professionalism. His job was to assess the state of U.S.-Russian relations, assess the leadership situation in Russia, and to decide on the best path to improve bilateral relations. Although most of the headlines stated that the results of the summit were “mixed,” Obama seems to have achieved what he wanted and laid the groundwork for achieving normalcy in relations for the next six months or so. The most pressing issues, however, remain unresolved, and it is not clear if progress can be sustained beyond the end of the year.
U.S.-Russia relations began the quarter with an informal, yet cordial summit in Moscow in early July. The two presidents met again in New York and Pittsburgh in late September and agreed to push forward a number of agreements, most notably covering arms control and cooperation in Afghanistan. The two also appeared to agree that the incipient Iranian nuclear program needs urgent attention. In what some viewed as a huge concession from Washington, the Obama administration announced prior to the Pittsburgh G20 meeting that it was scrapping a controversial missile defense system that was due to break ground soon in Poland and the Czech Republic. This move, combined with vague Russian promises of support for sanctions against the newly emboldened Iranian regime, gave observers hope that relations could find a common strategic footing. Nevertheless, optimism surrounding U.S.-Russia relations is strictly cautious, as major areas of disagreement still remain, including most notably Moscow’s hostile relationship with the governments of Georgia and Ukraine.