Time For a New Russia Strategy

March 3, 2008 • Commentary
By Nikolas Gvosdev
This article appeared in the International Herald Tribune on March 3, 2008.

The election of Dmitry Medvedev as Vladimir Putin’s handpicked successor to be president of Russia provides an opportune moment to initiate a long‐​overdue review of America’s strategy toward Russia.

It should now be clear that there is broad‐​based support in Russia for the direction in which Putin has taken his country; popular discontent with issues such as corruption has not translated into a desire to overturn the system he has created. Despite the excessive degree to which the Kremlin controlled the election process, there is nothing to suggest that Sunday’s results invalidate the popular acquiescence with what Putin has wrought in Russia.

At the same time, Russia has undergone a genuine — if limited — recovery from the collapse of the 1990s. The economy experienced over 8 percent growth in 2007, and the country’s gross domestic product — less than $200 billion in 1999 — has surged to reach $1. 3 trillion today. High energy prices have helped, but now oil and gas presently contribute only about 20 percent of Russian’s GDP.

What this means is that the United States — itself seeing its own global economic influence wane in recent years — now lacks sufficient leverage to compel Russian acquiescence to its policy preferences, as was most recently witnessed in major differences on the future status of Kosovo. At the same time, a newly self‐​confident Russia is no longer seeking to join the Euro‐​Atlantic community at any cost, and thus is no longer willing to adjust its foreign policy priorities accordingly.

Any approach to Russia must be based on realistic expectations and must not be an exercise in drawing up a laundry list of different priorities, preferences and wishes. If the fundamental assumption in Washington remains that the test of good relations between the United States and Russia is Russian compliance with every U.S. interest, then there can be no effective diplomacy.

There is no reason for relations between Moscow and Washington to worsen, however. Medvedev himself has said, “It is necessary that the United States and Russian Federation cooperate. It is inevitable.”

Meanwhile, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said during a visit to Washington last month that Russia “cannot afford any confrontation” with the West if it hopes to continue to focus resources and attention on domestic issues. But it will require a greater degree of flexibility on America’s part to take into account Russian interests and concerns.

This may be difficult for a U.S. foreign‐​policy establishment that still clings to the hope that Russia’s resurgence is temporary and that, at some point in the near future, Russia again would be in no position to thwart U.S. preference and will be compelled to accept any relationship on American terms.

Senator John McCain’s oft‐​quoted comment, “If oil were still $10 a barrel, Mr. Putin would not pose any kind of a threat,” is not a reliable basis for effective policymaking when prices are now 10 times that amount.

It also fails to take into account that the United States is experiencing clear signs of “superpower fatigue” affecting its ability to project and sustain its power and influence on a variety of issues around the world.

This makes it more difficult for the United States to act — say, in containing and pressuring Iran — without Russian assistance or in the face of Russian opposition.

This means that Washington will have to subject its policy choices to a serious cost‐​benefit analysis.

We can continue, for instance, to push for renewed NATO expansion eastward or to focus on improving relations with Moscow; increasingly, we cannot do both. Choices will have to be made.

The United States has two options. It can forego the possibility of Russian assistance in achieving its key foreign policy priorities so as 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 choice, however, cannot be indefinitely postponed.

About the Author
Nikolas Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest. This essay is adapted from the Cato Institute report, “Parting with Illusions: Developing a Realistic Approach to Relations with Russia.”