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Congressional Testimony: U.S.-Russian Relations

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
March 18, 2004

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Testimony of
Stephen Sestanovich
Council on Foreign Relations/Columbia University

Committee on International Relations
U.S. House of Representatives

March 18, 2004


Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the state of Russian-American relations with you and your colleagues today. With at least four more years of [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin ahead of us, it’s the right moment to take stock of how well this relationship has met our expectations and our interests.

Over the past dozen years Russian-American relations have had their share of ups and downs, regularly raising hopes but often disappointing them as well. We have now seen this same pattern repeat itself since September 11, 2001. At that time, President Putin’s offer of support to the United States was generally believed to signify more than just personal sympathy or common interest in a war against terrorism. Policymakers, experts, and other commentators— American and Russian alike— regarded his action as, in the words of one experienced Russian analyst, an act of “strategic self-definition.”

President Putin’s famous phone call was understood— and many Russians said, was intended— to reflect his conviction that Russia must “join the West,” and that it should make its membership real in every possible way. Soon thereafter he went to Germany— and addressed the Bundestag in German. He was even rumored to be learning English! Putin was compared to Peter the Great, to Ataturk, and to other visionary modernizers determined to bring their countries into the European mainstream.

Putin’s decision to support the U.S. was further expected to enable him to cut through the hesitant and often contradictory approaches that Russia had taken on many international issues. His political style seemed steady and low-key but absolutely determined, and there were clearly many opportunities available to him to expand cooperation with the United States and its allies. He could build a collaborative relationship with NATO (even with a NATO that was launching a second round of enlargement) and make it meaningful for the first time. He could make sure that shared interests in fighting terrorism overcame any inhibitions that Russia might feel about the establishment of a Western military presence on its periphery. He could avoid letting himself be drawn into petty and irrelevant disagreements over old nuclear arms control issues. He could get really serious— at last— about non-proliferation. He could see what was necessary to promote rapid economic growth on the basis of integration into the world economy. He could exploit convergent Russian and American interests in expanded energy development. Finally, he could reach out to Russia’s progressive politicians and businessmen, making stronger ties to them a further basis for good relations with the U.S.

This was a long list of hopes, and two and a half years later, we should not ignore what has been accomplished. Russia did join an American-led anti-terror coalition and provided on-the-ground support for the war in Afghanistan. It did upgrade relations with NATO. It did recognize that both Iran and North Korea had active nuclear weapons programs. President Putin accepted the demise of the ABM [Anti-ballistic Missile] treaty and signed a new treaty on offensive arms allowing both sides valuable flexibility in making cuts. He got his government seriously engaged in talks on WTO [World Trade Organization] accession, and by hosting periodic “energy summits” elevated energy cooperation with the U.S. to a strategic plane.

And yet not all our expectations for a new Russian-American relationship are being fulfilled. The Bush administration describes its disappointment this way: on the one hand, the overlapping strategic interests of the two countries continue to provide a strong foundation for cooperation on major international problems; on the other, what our ambassador in Moscow has called a “values gap” may limit the mutual confidence that is necessary if the relationship is to thrive.

There is no denying this Russian-American “values gap,” and the Secretary of State [Colin Powell] deserves praise for his somewhat undiplomatic decision to set out American concerns publicly in an article in Izvestiya when he visited Moscow at the end of January. Secretary Powell is right about Russia’s authoritarian direction and its implications. The relentless choking-off of media freedom, election campaigns marked by a grossly uneven playing field, politically-tainted law enforcement designed to silence opponents of the government— these and other developments make it hard to treat Russia under Putin as an emergent American ally. Nevertheless, I believe that this assessment of what’s wrong with Russian-American relations is too narrow, and that it understates the disappointment of the administration’s own hopes.

Even if there were no “values gap,” there would be other reasons for dissatisfaction with Russian policy. On some of the most important issues of international security, Russian and American positions seem only marginally closer today than they were three years ago. This seems particularly true of the effort to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran and North Korea. Admittedly, Russia has become more forthright in urging these states to renounce their nuclear ambitions; it has joined other governments in expressing concern about covert programs that would substantially enhance Iranian and North Korean capabilities; and it has supported diplomatic efforts to constrain these programs, including through expanded international inspections. But what we still don’t see from the Russians is the kind of “zero tolerance” approach that will in fact be necessary for any of these efforts to succeed.

This is not a matter of nuance, emphasis, or style. Iran, for example, has recently indicated that it is about to end its “freeze” on nuclear enrichment. Throughout the brief period of this freeze, Russian officials have not warned that their own nuclear cooperation with Iran would be put at risk if the freeze came to an end. In general, Russia has disapproved of what potential proliferators are doing, but it has not used the prospect of international pressure and isolation to get them to do the right thing. It is no wonder that Moscow is the only member of the G-8 [group of seven major industrial democracies and the European Community] that has not signed up to the U.S.-proposed “Proliferation Security Initiative.”

There are other examples where the U.S. should be dissatisfied with the state of cooperation with Russia. Like many other governments Russia expresses the hope that American policy in Iraq will succeed. Yet when I ask American officials what Russia is doing to help promote this success, they have no satisfactory answer. Russian policy on this issue fits the overall pattern that we see: a relatively acceptable declaratory position, with far too little behind it.

NATO is another example of the same pattern. Two years ago Britain and the U.S. strongly supported an upgrading of Russia’s institutional relationship with NATO. Today many of the goals that justified such an upgrade— in particular, creating the real possibility to do joint peacekeeping— are no closer to being achieved. (In fact, with its withdrawal from Balkans peacekeeping, Russia is contributing less to this goal than it did in the past.)

The administration is right that the weakening of democratic and legal norms will affect Russia’s international standing. But authoritarianism in Russia does more than that: it also affects our interests. Standard and Poor’s emphasized this connection last week when it expressed fears about the impact of “political intrigues, personal power plays, and ineffective or parasitic bureaucrats” on the ability of foreign businessmen to operate successfully in Russia. In S&P’s [Standard and Poor’s] view, the rule of law is not a matter of dewy-eyed idealism but of a businessman’s bottom line. The same is true of foreign policy: how Russia is ruled is important to us not just as a matter of democratic solidarity. It affects our strategic bottom line. The further apart our values are, the less likely we are to see our interests in the same way.

Let me give two simple examples. Russian officials continue to object to the fact that the U.S. is exploring the possible advantages of locating troops and equipment in Bulgaria and Romania, two of our new NATO allies. To us, the idea that these potential deployments are directed against Russia is almost laughable. That this idea can be taken seriously within the Russian national security establishment reflects the fact that this establishment has not been restructured in any significant way since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And because it has not been, the idea that the United States wants to weaken Russia lives on.

Similarly, Russian diplomats and military officials continue to resent the fact that the United States has a military training program in Georgia— even though the purpose of this program is to help the Georgian government keep armed Chechen bands from using Georgia as a staging area against Russia. Why do Russian officials resent this if Russia itself benefits (as it clearly does)? It is not enough to say that this is simply how they see their national interest. Apparently they do, but why? The answer, again, is that in Russia such thinking is dominated by the same national security establishment, whose instincts remain heavily influenced by Soviet ideas.

Mr. Chairman, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that most of our disappointment with Russian-American relations over the past decade is traceable to one cause above all, and that cause is the failure of Russia’s leaders to refashion the institutions responsible for foreign and defense policy. Unlike the other institutions of the Russian state and of Russian society, the national security establishment has gotten no sustained infusion of new people, new ideas, or new ways of doing business. We should see this lack of change for the large factor that it is in limiting the cooperative potential of Russian-American relations. We should see the rise of the so-called siloviki— the alumni of the intelligence services who have assumed a large role in the presidential— as making future change still less likely. And we should understand that Putin’s own worldview is powerfully influenced by his background in this establishment.

We should not, however, think that these factors permanently block a better Russian-American relationship. President Putin is a practical man, and for the most part when these institutions serve him ill— as they do— he is going to notice it. When the military brass invite him to a missile launching and then embarrass him on international television because the missiles misfire, we should assume that he goes away mad. Similarly, when the institutions that make foreign policy create situations in which Russia is isolated or made to look ineffectual or needlessly bullying, we should assume that even President Putin is unhappy with the result, and that he will eventually try to find out who is to blame.

The past six to nine months have brought a series of examples of just such counter-productive policies. In dealing with Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, for example, Russia aroused the suspicion and hostility not just of these neighboring states themselves, but of almost all European governments and the United States as well. This pattern is likely to repeat itself many times, and it may have a positive effect. We want President Putin to see that the national security bureaucracy is the weak link in the chain of his program to modernize Russia, that it burdens him with outdated approaches that do not in fact serve his country’s interests or his own.

Can the United States do anything to promote this result? I believe it can. The first step is candor. It is essential for our own officials— including at the presidential level— to make clear to their counterparts when the “old thinking” of the Russian national security establishment is making it harder to work together. This has a much bigger payoff than boosterism, than pretending our cooperation is greater or smoother than it is.

The second step is firmness. President Putin is more likely to suspect that his siloviki are getting him into trouble if the U.S. and its allies consistently, and with no apologies, support Russia’s neighbors when Moscow muscles them. Putin may not renounce the goal of dominating small neighbors as a matter of principle; but if our own stand is clear enough, he may do so as a matter of prudence.

The third step is to define a long-range agenda that highlights the backward-looking preferences of the Russian national security establishment. If we think it bizarre, for example, that the Russian navy is starting a new round of expensive investments in its strategic nuclear submarine force, we might take a harder look at plans for our own forces. The longer Russia’s cold warriors can sustain the cold war nuclear standoff, the longer they will retain their grip on Russian foreign policy.

Even if President Putin began his second term fully committed to refashioning the Russian national security establishment, he would hardly be able to complete the job by the time— God willing— he leaves office in 2008. It is not clear that he regards this task as one of his goals, or that he sees it as a matter of reform at all. But we should— not because we want to weaken Russia, but because it is only in this way that Russian-American relations can at last realize their potential. Thank you.

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