Andrei Shleifer & Daniel Treisman. Foreign Affairs. Volume 90, Issue 1. January/February 2011.
Russia’s international behavior during the last decade has puzzled many U.S. observers. As seen from Washington, the greatest challenges of the moment-terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change-are global ones that threaten all states. The United States has been trying to organize multilateral responses. Yet the Kremlin has proved singularly unhelpful. For years, Russian negotiators have stalled efforts to compel Iran and North Korea to give up their nuclear weapons programs. Meanwhile, Moscow has applied economic and diplomatic pressure to keep nearby states from joining NATO or letting U.S. troops use their bases to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. And in August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and effectively detached two mountain enclaves from its territory.
More recently, some have seen hints of a thaw in U.S.-Russian relations. Last June, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev chatted over hamburgers in Washington and announced that their countries’ relationship had been “reset.” Moscow signed a new treaty to replace the expiring Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (start) and backed a UN resolution tightening sanctions on Iran.
But in other ways, the Kremlin continues to disappoint. Russia only agreed to sanctions against Iran that allowed Russia to continue selling the country nuclear power stations and, apparently, developing its oil and gas sectors. Closer to home, Russia has conducted military exercises simulating an invasion of Poland and has deployed advanced antiaircraft missiles in Abkhazia.
The Russian Superego
To explain such behavior, U.S. officials and commentators typically appeal to psychology. The Russians, they say, are acting out of injured pride. Impulsive, emotionally unstable, and often paranoid, the Russians are lashing out at their neighbors in an attempt to cauterize the wounds of recent history and rekindle their lost sense of grandeur.
Although Washington’s psychologists all attribute Russia’s conduct to its leaders’ complexes, they differ in their exact diagnoses. Some see Russia’s resistance to U.S. policies as childish rebellion. In the 1990s, when Russian officials expressed virulent opposition to NATO’s expansion and outrage at its bombing of Serbia, some in Washington took their reactions as symptoms of hysteria. In 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin reminded U.S. President Bill Clinton that “NATO was created in Cold War times” and warned that extending it into central Europe would “sow the seeds of distrust.” One White House aide later wrote that this comment had “rattled [Clinton’s] confidence in Yeltsin’s emotional, physical, and political stability. “Over the decade, U.S. officials spent hours trying to soothe Russian nerves and persuade their counterparts that U.S. policies were actually in Russia’s interest. Among themselves, some called this “administering the spinach treatment.”
Others attribute Russia’s recalcitrance to a wounded ego. As Richard Burt, a former U.S. arms control negotiator, put it in 2006, political reform in Russia was unlikely to succeed because of the country’s “sense of humiliation and loss stemming from the end of the Cold War.” The August 2008 war in Georgia seemed to confirm this suspicion: a commentator in Time blamed Russia’s invasion on its leaders’ “brewing rage at their lost grandeur,” and Newsweek wrote of their obsession with “getting respect.”
Another common diagnosis is paranoia. In this view, Russia could not feel legitimately threatened by the advance of NATO toward its borders, the placing of antimissile batteries in eastern Europe, or the hostility of some of its neighbors. Rather, the Russian leadership, in reacting negatively to Georgia’s and Ukraine’s “color revolutions,” was giving in to a “paranoid, aggressive impulse,” as then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. Or, as the Bulgarian political analyst Ivan Krastev wrote in the spring of 2008, months before the Georgia war, “To understand why the Kremlin acts the way it does, one must first recognize how haunted it is by uncertainty and paranoia.”
Finally, the coolness among Russian leaders toward U.S. projects is sometimes seen as resulting from a “Cold War mentality,” or an inability to discard outdated modes of thinking. Before a 2009 summit in Moscow, Obama complained that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin still had “one foot in the old ways of doing business.”
Each of these diagnoses implies a particular treatment. If Russia’s problem is childishness or confusion, U.S. officials should repeat their positions calmly but firmly as often as necessary, explaining how these also benefit Russia. For emotional instability, the prescription is psychotherapy: Clinton urged aides to help Yeltsin “absorb” or “internalize” NATO enlargement as an unavoidable reality that he would “just have to get used to and learn to live with.” For a damaged ego, some propose a regimen of ostentatious displays of respect, whereas others suggest threatening to withhold the status symbols Kremlin officials supposedly cherish. If Russia’s leaders are paranoid and irrationally aggressive, Washington should arm their potential victims. Last, if the Kremlin’s statesmen are wedded to antagonistic, Cold War ways of thinking, U.S. officials should place their bets on the younger generation-hence the talk of Washington supporting the more congenial Medvedev instead of Putin.
Over the last 20 years, the United States has repeatedly tried the psychological approach to Russia policy in different variations. There is no evidence that this has helped Washington achieve its objectives. Rather, it has irritated and antagonized Russian leaders without making their behavior any more amenable to U.S. goals. This approach is based on a deep misunderstanding of Russian motivations. Of course, the country’s leaders would like to be treated with respect. It is also true that many Russian citizens feel diminished by the fall in their country’s status and that the Kremlin’s rhetoric often speaks to this frustration. However, the real reason the United States finds Russia so uncooperative lies not in psychology but in objective calculations of national interest.
What Matters To Moscow
Today, Russia and the United States share few interests and even fewer priorities. Where their interests do overlap, Russian leaders often doubt the efficacy of U.S. strategy. Moreover, there is an imbalance: whereas the United States, as a global superpower, needs Russia’s help in addressing many issues, Russia needs the United States for relatively little. Russia’s main demand is entirely negative: that Washington stop expanding NATO and emboldening anti-Russian governments and nongovernmental organizations on its periphery.
Russian foreign policy under Putin and Medvedev has been shaped by three objectives: boosting economic growth, fostering friendly regimes in other former Soviet states, and preventing terrorism at home. As the Russian leadership sees it, success in each area is critical to retaining power and domestic support.
Economic growth comes first. The Kremlin understands that power in today’s world rests on economic might. As Putin noted back in February 2000, “There can be no superpower where weakness and poverty reign.” At home, Russia’s rulers know that they owe their popularity to the economy’s remarkable revival. GDP per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity, increased from under $7,000 in 1999 to almost $16,000 in 2008 (around that of Ireland in 1987 or Portugal in 1989).
Oil and gas played a major role in this boom. Today, hydrocarbons fund about one-third of the Russian government’s budget. Although both Putin and Medvedev have spoken of economic modernization and diversification, they realize that at least for the next decade, the country’s prosperity will depend on securing stable markets and relatively high prices for its oil and gas. Given recent history, they must be terrified that should these conditions change, not just the country’s prosperity but also their own political survival would be at stake. Although the plunge in oil prices in the early 1980s was not the only reason the Soviet Union collapsed a few years later, it was important. Later, after oil prices sank to $9 a barrel in June 1998, Russia defaulted on its debt, finishing off the reputation of Yeltsin’s reformers.
It is no surprise, then, that Russia’s reliance on fuel exports shapes how its leaders view the world. Most of the country’s oil and gas exports go to Europe. Overall, imports from Russia accounted for only about 18 percent of energy consumption in the EU in 2007 (when comprehensive data were last available). But some individual countries are much more dependent. Whereas in 2007 France and Germany received 14 percent and 36 percent of their gas from Russia, respectively, the corresponding figures were higher for countries further to the east: 48 percent for Poland, 92 percent for Bulgaria, and 100 percent for the three Baltic states. Some believe that this trade exposes these nations to political pressure from the Kremlin. In 2008, then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned that Europe risked being caught in “an energy stranglehold” by states such as Russia.
Yet when examined closely, it is Russia’s dependence on the European market-and not the other way around-that is most striking. Europe, including the Baltic states, is the destination for about 67 percent of Russia’s gas exports (other former Soviet countries buy the other 33 percent). Similarly, as of 2007, 69 percent of Russia’s oil exports flowed to Europe. Given the extent to which Russia’s income and budget depend on this trade, losing its European clients would be a calamity.
The Kremlin has been understandably unenthusiastic about projects to build competing pipelines to supply Europe with gas from Central Asia. The Nabucco pipeline, which is supported by the EU and the United States, is designed to carry Azerbaijani (and perhaps one day Iranian) gas through Turkey and eastern Europe to Austria. Moscow sees it as a serious threat to its prosperity. Russia’s state-controlled gas company, Gazprom, has maneuvered to prevent Nabucco from being built, buying up the gas that it would transport and planning the rival South Stream pipeline, which is to run across many of the same countries.
Energy also colors Russia’s complicated relationship with China and the Central Asian countries. China’s growth promises to provide an expanded market for Russian mineral exports. Yet so far, China has played Moscow off against Central Asian petroleum producers, exploiting competition to get the best deals. Although Russia is not happy to be undercut by its southern neighbors, it nevertheless prefers that they sell to Asia rather than compete with Gazprom for the European energy market. Still, as Europe’s demand for Russian energy falls in coming years, Chinese orders will be critical to pick up the slack. Recognizing this, Medvedev met with Chinese President Hu Jintao no fewer than five times in the last year, signing a flurry of new deals in September 2010.
In Russia’s energy politics, national priorities are interwoven with the parochial interests of top officials, who serve on the boards of the country’s major corporations and would like to see their companies dominate markets and obtain assets abroad-not to mention materially benefit their friends in management. Indeed, corruption appears to be a major issue in Russia’s energy sector. According to the liberal Putin critics Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov, Gazprom’s pipeline construction costs have been so high-$3 million per kilometer, compared to a world average of $1.0-$1.5 million-that managerial incompetence alone cannot explain the overruns.
Clearly, the interests of Kremlin insiders and those of ordinary Russians do not always coincide. But that does not mean that Moscow’s energy policy is a mere outgrowth of corruption. Russia’s dependence on fuel exports to Europe would be just as great even with a team of committed democrats and scrupulous public servants running the Kremlin. Russian democrats, too, would prefer that Bulgarians bought their gas from Gazprom rather than its competitors and that Belarusians and Estonians paid the same high prices that are charged to Germans and Italians.
Recently, Russia’s gas industry has been knocked off balance by an even more alarming development. Global production of liquefied natural gas (LNG) has taken off, boosting gas supplies just as the financial crisis shrank demand. At the same time, new prospects for the extraction of gas trapped in shale deposits have raised the possibility that Europe will itself soon produce all the gas it needs. A central pillar of Russia’s political economy suddenly looks rickety.
Russia’s second major interest is the friendliness of governments in neighboring states. It has particular sensitivities associated with the 16 million ethnic Russians who remain in the post-Soviet “near abroad.” In cases of perceived discrimination-for example, when Estonia instituted a language exam in the early 1990s that made it hard for local Russians to acquire citizenship-Kremlin leaders face public pressure to speak out (although not to take military action). On a larger scale, Moscow strongly opposes further enlargement of NATO to the east. This is hardly surprising: no state would welcome the extension of a historically hostile military alliance up to its borders, no matter how often that alliance said its intentions were peaceable.
Yet some see a more sinister design in the Kremlin’s foreign policy: to reimpose Russian hegemony over the former Soviet states, and perhaps an even greater portion of eastern Europe, by means of economic and military pressure. It is impossible, without reading Putin’s mind, to completely rule out such a possibility. However, there is little evidence for such an expansionist plan.
In most regards, Russia has been in geopolitical retreat over the last 20 years. Rather than enlarging its presence abroad, it has been demilitarizing and withdrawing troops back into its borders. In the 1990s,Russian forces left eastern Europe and the Baltic states, and total forces under Moscow’s command fell from 3.4 million soldiers to around one million. Since then, Russia has abandoned bases in Cuba and Vietnam and cut its troop levels in former Soviet countries. In the years before the 2008 war in Georgia, Putin closed three military bases there and reduced the number of Russian soldiers in the country from 5,000 to about 1,000, according to estimates by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
A regime truly committed to expansion would have behaved quite differently. It would have stirred up Russian nationalists in border regions of the Baltic states, eastern Ukraine, or the Crimea and sent in Russian troops to help them. In Georgia, a revisionist Russia would have annexed Abkhazia and South Ossetia long ago, before Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili embarked on his military buildup after taking power in 2004. To many in the West, Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia seemed to prove the Kremlin’s land hunger. But Kremlin leaders bent on expansion would surely have ordered troops all the way to Tbilisi to depose Saakashvili and install a more congenial government. At the least, Russian forces would have taken control of the oil and gas pipelines that cross Georgia. In fact, they left those pipelines alone and quickly withdrew to the mountains.
Moscow’s recent efforts to influence its neighbors have not been very successful. The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a regional coordinating body that is said to be an instrument of Russian domination, is falling apart-only six of 11 presidents bothered to attend the last meeting, which lasted all of 30 minutes. Not even Aleksandr Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, who is supposedly dependent on Moscow, would agree to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In Kyrgyzstan, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev broke a promise to Moscow to close the U.S. air base there. (Few tears were shed in Moscow when protesters ousted Bakiyev some months later, but-to the Kremlin’s irritation-Lukashenko promptly invited him to Minsk.)
Has the dependence on Russian gas given Moscow political leverage over countries to the west? There is little sign of this. One might expect the most dependent countries to be the most deferential. In fact, it is precisely these states-the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Poland- that have persistently sought to tweak the bear’s nose. Within just a few years, countries reliant on Russia for much or all of their oil and gas have joined NATO, invited in U.S. antimissile batteries, and criticized Russian policies. It has been the less dependent western Europeans in Germany and Italy who have proved more sympathetic to the Kremlin, by, for example, showing little enthusiasm for the rapid admission of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO.
Some see Gazprom’s periodic attempts to raise the gas prices paid by Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, and other countries as political intimidation. Although there have been political undertones to some of these disagreements, the fact remains that for years Russia has sold gas to countries it considers hostile for a fraction of the price it has charged countries in western Europe. In 2005, Russia sold gas to the Orange Revolutionaries of Ukraine for $52 per thousand cubic meters (TCM), compared to the $197 per TCM it charged Germany. Transport costs might explain part of the difference-but Russia continued until recently to supply gas to the Baltic states for far less ($90-$95 per TCM) than it charged neighboring Finland ($148 per TCM).
Why Russia sold gas at such a discount to countries in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is not entirely clear. Gazprom’s motives may have included rational price discrimination: a smart monopolist considers different clients’ ability to pay. In the early 1990s, Gazprom sharply raised prices for the Baltic states, then lowered them again when demand fell by two-thirds. In part, Gazprom hoped to exchange low prices for equity in pipelines and distribution systems to lock in future demand. Russian leaders may have thought that cheap gas would improve relations with the favored countries or at least avoid explosive fights. Considering how little Russia got for its price concessions, the Kremlin’s rethinking of this policy should astonish no one.
In fact, the lesson of recent gas wars is nearly the opposite of that derived by most commentators. Rather than demonstrating political leverage, Moscow’s shutoffs to Ukraine showed how little clout the Kremlin actually wielded. Disrupting supplies to its high-paying western European customers could only be an act of desperation- after all, Moscow’s continued sales to Europe, a market it very much needs, depend on Europe’s confidence in Russia’s ability to deliver uninterrupted gas flows. That the Kremlin had to shoot itself in the foot to get Kiev’s attention reveals the limits of its blackmail potential.
Russia’s third central goal is preventing terrorism at home. This is not the place to review the dismal history of Russian military efforts in Chechnya; suffice it to say that today Russia faces a serious terrorist threat from Islamic fundamentalists based in the North Caucasus. The Kremlin is determined to limit external support for these groups, a concern that influences its policies in Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia.
That the Kremlin’s policies are purposeful does not mean that they are always intelligently conceived and executed. On the economic front, the government pours billions of dollars into projects that seem doomed-trying to boost stock prices with state purchases, for instance, or bailing out the decrepit car manufacturer AvtoVAZ. Moscow’s latest investments in high technology might yield something of value; more likely, they will spawn a new generation of white elephants. So far, the Kremlin has shrunk from implementing the measures most likely to actually promote rapid growth-reforms of law enforcement and the judiciary and curbs on corruption. In relations with the West, Russian officials sometimes seem determined to add fuel to the fire of Russophobia. If, as many believe, the poisoning of the Putin critic Aleksandr Litvinenko in London in 2006 was ordered by the Kremlin, it is hard to see what benefit Moscow could have derived from the killing that would have outweighed the risk of harm to Russia’s global image and relations with the United Kingdom.
In Russia, as elsewhere, policies are made by personalities. Putin strikes observers as intensely competitive, and he has at times yielded to frustration-for instance, when in 2009 he said that Russia would only join the World Trade Organization (WTO) together with Belarus and Kazakhstan (he later backtracked). But such cases are the exception. For the most part, Russia’s policies have been purposeful, cautious, and-even when misguided-reasonably consistent. The question, then, is whether the purposes behind these policies lend themselves to practical cooperation with the United States.
The United States conceives its role as one of global leadership, and the challenges, as seen from Washington, are daunting. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, Islamic insurgents threaten to take power and offer safe haven to terrorists. Preventing nuclear proliferation has never been harder, as Iran nears bomb-making potential and North Korea refuses to disarm (more broadly, Obama has called for a nuclear-free world).Other U.S. priorities include combating climate change, ensuring secure energy supplies, and sustaining global economic recovery.
Because of Russia’s geographic location, nuclear status, historical relationships with key countries, UN Security Council veto, and role as a major energy exporter and as commander of the largest military in Europe, Moscow could either assist or complicate the pursuit of U.S. objectives. Until recently, to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, NATO forces had had to ship most of their supplies north from Pakistan via the Khyber Pass. But this route had trouble handling the volume of material, and convoys traveling through it were often ambushed. Russia’s agreement in 2008 to allow NATO to transport material south on its railways or through its airspace provided a much-needed alternative.
Moscow could also play a positive role in the effort to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Over the years, Russian nuclear scientists have developed close contacts with their Iranian counterparts; these relationships could help at the margins in negotiating compromises. More important, Russia’s acquiescence in the UN Security Council is necessary for any further sanctions or to legitimize other applications of pressure. (In June, Russia agreed to a new set of sanctions, but only ones that seemingly protected its commercial interests in the country.)
Moscow’s vote in the UN Security Council is also crucial for any coordinated action on containing North Korea’s nuclear program. More broadly, further nuclear disarmament agreements are, of course, impossible without Russia’s participation. No plan to combat climate change can ignore the pollution Russian industry produces. Finally, although this is far less significant, Russia’s dollar reserves and U.S. Treasury bond holdings give Moscow at least some marginal potential to affect the dollar’s value.
But does Russia need Washington’s help to achieve its key goals? The short answer is no. As a consumer of Russian energy, the United States is inconsequential: during the last five years, the United States bought only two to four percent of Russia’s crude oil exports and almost none of its gas. Indeed, U.S. and Russian energy interests mostly conflict. The mining of shale gas in the United States freed up LNG shipments to Europe, depressing prices. Washington, eager to wean its European partners from dependence on Russia, favors construction of rival pipelines such as Nabucco. And in the long term, U.S. efforts to reduce domestic demand for fossil fuels would lower the global price of oil, on which Moscow is dependent.
More generally, Russia and the United States share few economic interests. In 1995, six percent of Russia’s exports went to the United States; by 2009, the figure was three percent-less than Russia exported to Poland. Meanwhile, the United States supplies just five percent of Russia’s imports. The U.S. share of capital flows to Russia is also insignificant. In 1995, 28 percent of all inflows of foreign investment to Russia came from the United States; by 2010, this share was just 2.5 percent. By then, the stock of Russian investment in the U.S. economy was larger than that of U.S. investment in Russia.
Russia’s economic disengagement from the United States has coincided with its growing ties to Europe and China. In 2009, Europe accounted for 52 percent of Russia’s exports and 45 percent of its imports; another 14 percent of its imports came from China, up from two percent in 1995. Although Russian exports to China currently make up less than six percent of the total, this number will rise as China’s hunger for raw materials grows. Europe’s share of foreign investment in Russia increased from 41 percent in 1995 to 71 percent in 2010, although much of this is Russian wealth repatriated from Cyprus, Luxembourg, and Switzerland.
As part of its modernization push, Moscow would certainly welcome more U.S. private investment. On a visit to the United States in 2010, Medvedev made a point of visiting MIT and Silicon Valley. But partnerships with U.S. firms are by no means essential, and for now, high-tech ventures with western Europe are likely to matter more. In 2009, 61 percent of Russia’s commercial agreements to import high-tech equipment and services were with partners in the EU (compared to 11 percent with U.S. companies). In the short run, Russian growth will depend more on copying and applying U.S. innovations than on collaborating with U.S. scientists to create new ones.
In areas in which the United States can help Russia, such as in backing its bid to enter the WTO, Russia’s interests are mixed. WTO membership would benefit certain sectors, such as nonferrous metals, while hurting others, such as automobiles. Thus, although Russia would likely enjoy overall gains, some in Moscow remain ambivalent.
On Russia’s second central objective-promoting friendly regimes in its vicinity-the Kremlin does not expect U.S. help. It would merely like the United States to stop meddling in ways it considers unconstructive. Yet Washington sees Moscow’s attempts to influence the foreign policies and domestic politics of its neighbors as violations of their sovereignty. In response, the United States helped finance color revolutions that brought anti-Moscow leaders to power in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and has pressed for Georgia’s and Ukraine’s rapid admission to NATO. Although such efforts have slowed under Obama, Washington remains committed to eventual NATO membership for Tbilisi and Kiev, and the U.S. military continues to conduct joint exercises with regimes Moscow deems inimical, such as Georgia’s. On the issue of Russia’s near abroad, then, Washington and Moscow hold diametrically opposed views, and cooperation is not in the cards.
Finally, distrust and divergent approaches limit the space for collaboration in Russia’s fight against Islamic terrorism. Although neither Washington nor Moscow wants to see jihadists strengthened in the North Caucasus, their views of the underlying problem differ so greatly that discussions produce mostly irritation. Where many in Washington see resistance fueled by rampant abuses of human rights by local officials, the Kremlin sees a “war on terror.” Putin does not understand why the United Kingdom and the United States granted political asylum to Akhmed Zakayev and Ilyas Akhmadov, two Chechen leaders whom he considers to be emissaries of a terrorist movement.
With very few exceptions, Russia does not need or want help from Washington in achieving its main objectives. What it would value is for the United States to stop interfering in its neighborhood, militarizing the border states, and attempting to undermine Russia’s position in energy markets.
Nonetheless, Russia might still hope that the United States succeeds in its global endeavors. For example, the Kremlin has no desire to see Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban. A victory for radical Islamists there could embolden insurgencies throughout Central Asia and invigorate the North Caucasus’ terrorist networks. Yet Russian officials are unsure that NATO can defeat the Taliban or at least impose a stable settlement. Looking ahead to the situation after U.S. troops leave, the Kremlin does not want to take positions now that will make it impossible to deal with Kabul’s future rulers. Moscow also knows that some level of tension keeps its southern neighbors in line. When they feel threatened by the Taliban, Central Asia’s leaders are more ready to cooperate in the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and to welcome Russia’s military presence in the region. At the same time, Moscow is concerned about the recent flood of Afghan heroin across its borders; opium production has doubled since the NATO invasion. And polls show that Russia’s public is far less happy than Putin and Medvedev about assisting NATO in Afghanistan.
Iran evokes another set of complicated calculations. Moscow would prefer that Tehran not develop nuclear weapons. Yet many Russian officials doubt that even the toughest economic sanctions- fully backed by Russia-would prevent this outcome. Meanwhile, Russia has economic interests in Iran that it would be costly to jeopardize. Its exports to the country have grown from $250 million in 1995 to $3.3 billion in 2008. Moscow hopes for contracts to build additional nuclear power stations, develop oil and gas fields, and supply Iran with modern weapons. It also is loath to give Tehran’s radicals any excuses for stirring up trouble in the North Caucasus.
A resolution of the conflict between Tehran and Washington would threaten Russia’s commercial and strategic interests. Western investment would likely pour into the Iranian oil and gas sectors, competing with Russian multinationals. The lifting of sanctions and the lowering of tensions would depress petroleum prices; new pipelines might be built to carry Iranian gas to Europe. In many ways, the current stalemate serves the Kremlin’s purposes. And on the question of North Korea’s nuclear program, Russia would like to see Pyongyang disarm but doubts that even its strong support for sanctions would have much of an effect. At the same time, it worries that any military escalation or a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang could send refugees flooding into Russia’s Far East.
The New start treaty mostly ratified cuts in the Russian nuclear arsenal that were occurring anyway as the weapons aged. Further reductions are not so clearly in Russia’s interest; as antimissile systems become more accurate and powerful, Moscow will need to maintain enough missiles and warheads to remain sure of a second-strike capability. On climate change, the Kremlin recognizes that global warming would impose huge costs, causing floods and destroying infrastructure. Still, how the expense of cutting pollution should be shared among the major industrial and industrializing countries remains contentious. Like other countries, Russia has a powerful pro-carbon lobby.
Limited but Constructive
Washington should not expect much help from Moscow, not because Kremlin officials are overwhelmed by wounded pride and paranoia but because Washington’s priorities are not their priorities- and may not be in their interest at all.
The parallel with U.S.-Chinese relations is instructive. In dealing with Beijing, U.S. policymakers perceive conflicts of interest for what they are. They do not feel compelled to patronize and psychoanalyze their Chinese counterparts. It is hard to imagine a U.S. president on the eve of a Beijing summit berating President Hu for his obsolete Marxist mentality and promising to build up Premier Wen Jiabao as a counterweight.
If divergent interests make a close relationship between Moscow and Washington unlikely in the next few years, there are grounds for greater optimism in the long run. As its interactions with the United States have shrunk, Russia has been gradually integrating into Europe, both economically and culturally. Because these changes are slow and not particularly dramatic, they have gone largely unnoticed. As it develops further, Russia will become even more European-without losing its distinct identity. In 2008, Russians made 39 times as many trips to western Europe and 19 times as many trips to China as they did to the United States. Of the 41,000 Russian students who studied abroad in 2008, 20,000 were at institutions in Europe; only 5,000 were in the United States. Meanwhile, in 2009, Russians were more likely to buy property in Bulgaria, Montenegro, Germany, Spain, and the Czech Republic than in the United States.
Although Russians do not necessarily consider themselves European yet, their attitudes are changing. Asked in April 2010 which countries Russia should cooperate with most in its foreign policy, 50 percent of those Russians surveyed said those in western Europe, even more than said Belarus, Ukraine, and the countries of the CIS (30 percent said the United States). A majority-53 percent-said in 2009 that they would favor Russia joining the EU if given the chance.
These trends are likely to continue. Even if Russia’s average growth rate slows to just over four percent, as the World Bank forecasts, in ten years Russia will have broken into the income range of western Europe’s poorer countries. As the country develops, its middle class will continue to expand and integrate into Europe. At some point-although when exactly is impossible to predict-there will be a political turnover, a liberalization of institutions, and a serious effort to control corruption. Even as Russia’s trade with China increases, its cultural identity will become more solidly rooted in the West. Eventually, although not soon, the idea of Russia joining the EU may become a serious one.
In the meantime, relations with Europe-especially eastern Europe- will involve conflict as well as cooperation. Russia’s integration with Europe will create reciprocal vulnerability and is likely to motivate a struggle over who will gain most from trade. The energy market is the most obvious example. It is possible that clashes of economic interests will ignite a political crisis that will impede Russia’s Europeanization. More likely, such conflicts will be managed successfully.
Even if Russia and the United States do not develop a close partnership in the next decade, relations can still be constructive. A narrow relationship does not need to be a bad one, and Russia’s rhetoric over the past year suggests that both Putin and Medvedev would like the tone to improve. The main prerequisite is, paradoxically, that the two sides recognize the limits of their shared interests. If those in Washington expect too much, frustrated hopes will once again lead to suspicion, new forays into psychoanalysis, and counterproductive overreactions.
Apart from the occasional outburst of patronizing rhetoric, the Obama administration has treated Russia with pragmatism over the last two years. This has paid off in limited but worthwhile progress: the new start treaty, the deal permitting NATO shipments to Afghanistan across Russian territory, and the Russian vote in the UN Security Council for sanctions against Iran.
Such pragmatism means accepting that the United States can do little to further Russia’s democratization. Continued growth and integration into Europe-although providing no guarantee-represent the best hope for political reform. The more that the Russian elite is bound to Europe-through tourism, education, business partnerships, and social contact-the greater its stake in maintaining cordial relations. For the EU’s part, relaxing visa requirements for Russians to travel to Europe would accelerate the process. Pragmatism also means that Washington will need to let Europe take the lead in defining its own relationship with Russia.
Such recognition should not be unwelcome for an overstretched superpower such as the United States. Rather than seeking to cure Russia, the United States will need to deal with Russia-much as it deals with China, India, and many other states. The good news is that on matters that are genuinely of mutual interest, Russia is ready to deal.