Policy Analysis No. 611

Parting with Illusions: Developing a Realistic Approach to Relations with Russia

By Nikolas Gvosdev
February 29, 2008

A review of America’s post-Soviet strategy toward Russia is long overdue. The illusions that once guided policy are now at an end. What is needed is a dispassionate approach to Russia, wherein Americans would neither magnify nor excuse the virtues and vices of the Russian Federation but would accept the following realities:

  • Russia is unlikely to become integrated into the Euro-Atlantic community and is unwilling to adjust its foreign policy priorities accordingly;
  • There is broad-based support within Russia for the direction in which Vladimir Putin has taken the country;
  • Russia has undergone a genuine—if limited— recovery from the collapse of the 1990s;
  • Washington lacks sufficient leverage to compel Russian acquiescence to its policy preferences; and
  • On a number of critical foreign policy issues, there is no clear community of interests that allows for concepts of “selective partnership” to be effective.

Any approach to Russia must be based on realistic expectations about the choices confronting Washington. The United States has two options. It can forgo the possibility of Russian assistance in achieving its key foreign policy priorities in an effort to retain complete freedom of action vis-à-vis Moscow. Or it can prioritize its objectives and negotiate a series of quid pro quos with Russia. The latter choice, however, cannot be indefinitely postponed.

Seeking an accommodation with Russia is more likely to guarantee American success in promoting its core national interests while minimizing costs—but will require U.S. policymakers to accept limits on what can be demanded of Russia.

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Nikolas Gvosdev is editor in chief of The National Interest and a senior fellow in strategic studies at The Nixon Center. The views expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of The National Interest or The Nixon Center.