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Needed: A New Direction for US-Russian Relations | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Needed: A New Direction for US-Russian Relations

This past Sunday, on Meet the Press, would-be-Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards and one-time-Republican presidential candidate Jack Kemp, used the fiftieth anniversary of Winston Churchill's Fulton speech to promote their new Council on Foreign Relations' Task Force Report, Russia's Wrong Direction: What the US Can and Should Do.

Edwards and Kemp didn't use Churchill's rhetoric of 1946. Neither spoke of "an iron curtain" descending across Europe. Yet in 2006, there are whiffs of a new-fangled Cold War. This new chapter in US-Russian relations already has its own codewords, checkpoints and nuances. (Underlying the rhetoric is an American triumphalism, as represented by John Lewis Gaddis's new history of the Cold War.) There is a hectoring tone and a familiar double standard, for example, when it comes to condemning Moscow for seeking allies and military bases abroad just as the Bush Administration is doing. As Russia expert and New York University Professor Stephen Cohen ( as well as longtime Nation contributing editor and, full disclosure, my husband) lamented at a conference on the Cold War held at the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow last week, US-Russian relations are being remilitarized.

Talking before a group of nearly 200 Russian and Western scholars, journalists, and diplomats, Cohen observed that "most alarming, negotiations for reducing nuclear weapons have, in effect, been terminated by the Bush Administrations' unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty, and by the essentially meaningless nuclear reductions agreement it imposed on Moscow in 2002. And all this, including new buildups on both sides, while Russia's means of fully controlling its existing nuclear devices are less reliable than they were under the Soviet system."

No one can claim that these are hopeful times in Russia. Twenty one years after Gorbachev came to power, little is left of the historic opportunities his reforms opened up for his country and for the world. Instead, as The Nation pointed out in a June 2000 editorial, (at a time when the US government cautiously welcomed Vladimir Putin as a man committed to "democratic" reform), the new President was more accurately described as "instinctively authoritarian." And as The Nation also understood at that time--unlike so much of the American press--Putin's rise to power was an outgrowth of Yeltsinism, which Washington had so assiduously supported through the 1990s.

It reflected "the emergence of an iron-handed leader who, by exploiting Russians' desire for law and order, has struck a sympathetic chord among millions sick of the corruption" of the Yeltsin years. The anti-democratic consequences of Yeltsinism are still evident. Last month, a survey conducted by the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research, revealed that nearly 60 percent of Russians polled believe the country needs an authoritarian ruler. (Not all of these were older people, as the conventional wisdom has it; a substantial number were young.)

There is no question that the US needs a new policy toward Russia--one that is neither triumphalist, Cold War-like, or ignorant of the fact that the pro-Western liberal groups in Russia today--so called "democrats" who were chiefly responsible for Yeltsin's policies of the 1990s--are in fact supported by a tiny fraction of the Russian electorate. What is needed is a policy that understands why Russia has become a semi-authoritarian state--or what some call a "managed democracy." But understanding usually requires a sense of history--something missing from too much of media coverage of Russia today. It means placing Putin in historical perspective, never forgetting that he was put in the Kremlin to be Yeltsin's loyal praetorian successor. (Indeed, one of Putin's first acts was to issue a decree protecting Yeltsin from future prosecution for corruption.)

The Edwards-Kemp report also fails to make clear that after the looting and plundering of Russia's natural resources by a handful of oligarchs in the 1990s, abetted by Yeltsin and also endorsed by the US as "reform," it was virtually inevitable that Putin, or any post-Yeltsin leader, would reassert state control over the country's essential resources, particularly oil and gas.(This does not mean that the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky should be in a prison camp today, but it does mean that some financial retribution for the oligarchical looting was unavoidable.)

Yes, there is much to condemn in Putin's handling of the brutal war in Chechnya. Yes, democratization--which was launched by Gorbachev in the late 1990s--has been rolled back. (It should be pointed out, however, that while the Kremlin has reasserted state control over television, few in the US media seem to be aware that Russia's print press is still politically diverse. On a typical day in Moscow, you can read a fuller range of political views in the many newspapers published in that city than in New York.)

But what is rarely, if ever, acknowledged in the American media is that--as Cohen forcibly argues in his book Failed Crusade--de-democratization began not under Putin but under Yeltsin. (Yeltsin's use of tanks against an elected parliament in 1993 was a grievous blow against democracy.) And at a time when anti-Americanism has reached all-time highs, US government and media lectures to the Russians about democracy may well do more harm than good. (Indeed to hear the Bush Administration lecturing others on democracy--in Russia or anywhere in the world--seems surreal.)

Instead of counter-productive lecturing, we should be developing a cooperative relationship with a Russia that is reengaging pragmatically in the Middle East--by testing Hamas's willingness to moderate its anti-Israel militancy, or controlling Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. And as essential is the need to restart negotiations on reducing each countries' bloated nuclear arsenals. (Indeed, we'd all be instantly safer if Moscow and Washington took their nuclear warheads off of hair-trigger alert.)

In short, those looking for a measured and knowledgeable understanding of Russia today will not find it in the Edwards-Kemp Council on Foreign Relations report. (Though it can hardly be considered a compliment, it should be said that the Report is sane when compared to the Washington Post's hectoring, Cold War-style editorials about Russia.)

Instead, I recommend recent articles by New America Foundation Fellow Anatol Lieven, especially his Financial Times op-ed of last month. Also, Tony Judt's meticulous critique of John Lewis Gaddis's "The Cold War," in which Judt exposes the historian as a key representative of the unapolegetic triumphalism that afflicts our political class. And there is also Cohen's book, Failed Crusade, which is both a critique of US policy toward Russia and a blueprint for a new policy.

Finally, in regard to the indignant braying about whether Russia deserves to be in the G8--a major topic of the new CFR report--I suggest reading former securities' analyst Eric Kraus's amusing, insightful web article, Does America Deserve to be in the G8? After all, as Kraus writes, if democratization is a litmus test for membership in the G8, "over the past six years, the US has seen a substantial erosion of her old but still-fragile democracy, along with an increasingly aggressive foreign policy and growing tendency to ignore the will of the international community. Indeed, any international law whatsoever. This clearly poses a growing threat to regional security and to world peace."


A personal coda: When I met John Edwards last year, I suggested that if he focused on Russian-American relations, as he said he might, he should consider addressing the poverty ravaging that beleaguered country. (According to official Russian statistics, 18 percent of Russians live in poverty; but, according to many eminent Russian economists and other scholars, the figure is certainly closer to 50 percent.) After all, there seemed a natural coherence to that focus--since Edwards has made American poverty a central issue of his political campaigning.

I also suggested to Edwards that he avoid seeking the Council on Foreign Relations's seal of approval to shore up his national security credentials. Why not take a less predictable, more populist route? Why not turn to other, alternative, perhaps less established thinkers on Russian -American relations whose ideas have not already failed and who are more suited to the new realities of the post-Cold War world?

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