Don’t Needlessly Antagonize Russia

July 14, 2006 • Commentary
This article appeared in Orange County Register on July 14, 2006.

When President Bush heads to the G8 summit in St. Petersburg this weekend, Vladimir Putin will give him a warm welcome, but beneath the pleasantries, his welcome will be cooler than in years past. The meeting comes in the wake of Bush’s decision last Wednesday to endorse NATO membership for Georgia, a former Soviet republic still partially occupied by Russian troops, and against a backdrop of Russophobic rancor in Congress. Senator John McCain has demanded that the U.S. boycott the summit altogether.

For months, Congressmen and columnists have complained about the Putin administration, and agitated for a harder U.S. line toward it. A recent Council on Foreign Relations report chaired by Jack Kemp and John Edwards was titled “Russia’s Wrong Direction.” Writing in the Washington Post after Russia made known its opposition to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Anne Applebaum warned darkly of a “new Iron Curtain” descending across Europe. The list goes on.

Until very recently, the Bush administration deflected the demands to harden its stance toward Russia. In early May, though, Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he issued a rebuke of Russia before an audience of the leaders of several former Soviet republics. The administration has now stepped dangerously close to the abyss of an overall confrontational relationship with Russia. Instead of cranking up the rhetoric, administration officials need to tamp down the Russophobia.

Those Americans who believe that the United States can take “symbolic” punitive actions against Russia embrace a curious premise. They seem to believe that the United States can humiliate Russia when convenient, but that Moscow will still cooperate on matters important to Washington. That is an extraordinarily naïve assumption. Putin’s government would more likely go out of its way to thwart key U.S. policy objectives, and that would be an unfortunate development, since we need Russia’s assistance on several of them.

At the top of the list is Moscow’s cooperation in the ongoing effort to cajole Iran into abandoning its quest for nuclear weapons. Even under current conditions, Russia is ambivalent about that objective. In the end, Russia would prefer not to see a nuclear Iran perched on its southern border, but it also has an array of important economic stakes in Iran. Moscow has pursued a balanced approach, exerting diplomatic pressure on Tehran while resisting Washington’s increasingly insistent campaign for economic sanctions. Indeed, Moscow has been the architect of the most promising compromise proposal to date‐​enlisting Russia to enrich Iran’s uranium stocks for power generation with safeguards to prevent the diversion of fissile material for weapons production.

One can safely assume that if the United States punishes Russia, as the hard‐​liners propose, Moscow will become noticeably less cooperative in the drive to keep Iran from crashing the nuclear weapons club. The situation is similar with regard to North Korea’s nuclear program. As bad as things may be with both Iran and North Korea, if we needlessly antagonize Russia, they could easily get much worse.

The United States also needs a cooperative relationship with Russia in Central Asia. As part of its campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Washington has developed security ties with various Central Asian regimes, and even established a modest military presence in the region. Such a strategy would have been impossible without Moscow’s cooperation–or at least acquiescence. Russian leaders acceded in spite of suspicions about America’s real intentions in their back yard. Their receptivity to an ongoing American political and military presence has been waning over the past year, and continues to wane. If relations between Moscow and Washington deteriorate further, the Russian government could make life very difficult for the United States in that part of the world.

But even if American foreign policy priorities don’t dissuade America’s Russophobes, it is worth asking: What would likely result from a more confrontational Russia policy? The day after Cheney’s speech, the Kommersant newspaper, which has been critical of the Kremlin in the past, worried that the speech “marked the beginning of a second Cold War.” Former Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recently praised President Putin, arguing that there is “no doubt that [the Americans] are preparing to completely encircle Russia and deprive it of its sovereignty.” Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, not exactly a hard‐​liner, argued that Cheney’s speech was “nothing else but provocation and intrusion in the internal affairs of Russia.”

Washington should be much more concerned about mainstream public opinion in Russia. Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. Putin is widely popular, and an American policy of “standing up” to him would garner little sympathy. Indeed, it could well increase his popularity.

The United States has quite enough enemies these days, and more than enough foreign policy crises to go around. Those who advocate putting the screws to Russia must reconcile themselves to the fact that American power is limited, and that we must reserve its use for genuine needs. The direction of Russia’s internal politics is troubling, and Putin clearly has a fondness for authoritarian measures, but the United States needs to maintain a cooperative relationship with Moscow. It’s unwise to bait a bear.

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