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Russian-American Relations: Problems and Prospects

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
May 17, 2007

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Prepared Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee

Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the invitation to discuss Russia and Russian-American relations with you and your colleagues at today’s very timely hearing. 

Less than a year remains before the end of Vladimir Putin’s second term as president of Russia.  Many of his countrymen, not to speak of his Kremlin colleagues, are reluctant to see him go, but he seems likely to observe the constitutional limit on two consecutive terms in office.  With a change of administration approaching in our own country as well, this is an excellent moment to evaluate the recent record of Russian-American relations and to ask what our future policy toward Russia should be.  And it is not just because elections are coming up that we should take stock.  It is because relations between Moscow and Washington are changing—and largely for the worse.  We need to understand how and why, and what to do about it.

Let me note that two years ago, to address these same questions, the Council on Foreign Relations assembled an independent and bipartisan task force on U.S. policy toward Russia, co-chaired by a former member of this body, Jack Kemp, and a former member of the other chamber, John Edwards.  The Task Force’s report was issued a year ago, under the title, Russia’s Wrong Direction: What the United StatesCan and Should Do.  I commend it to this committee, and have copies available for you today.

Mr. Chairman, had this hearing been held five years ago, your committee would also have heard that Russian-American relations were changing—at that time, for the better.  When they met in Moscow in mid-2002, President Bush and President Putin could justly claim that they had created a bilateral relationship marked by greater mutual confidence, greater symmetry of goals and expectations, and greater practical cooperation than Russia and the United States had ever enjoyed.  And they could count on far greater domestic support for such cooperation than we had seen before. 

Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin created a relationship that some of their advisers thought might become a near-alliance.  But it didn’t last.  What has taken its place is much harder to describe.  Calling it a “new Cold War” is clearly wrong, and (if you will forgive me for criticizing the title of today’s hearing) speaking of a re-built “Iron Curtain” is also very far from the mark.  Whatever terms we use, however, we have to recognize the real deterioration that has taken place.  Compared to five years ago, Russian-American relations are based on less mutual confidence, fewer shared goals and expectations, less cooperation, and—this is particularly important—less support in both countries for such cooperation.  

One distinguished Moscow commentator goes so far as to say that Russia has become a “revisionist” power.  This term does not refer—at least, not yet—lto territorial grievances, but to a broad sense of dissatisfaction with the agreements reached, and the arrangements put in place over the past twenty years, while Russia was allegedly too weak to defend its interests effectively.  In this view, a period of tension lies ahead, in which Russia re-examines these arrangements, and tries to decide which ones it wants to challenge. 

In weighing our relations with Russia, the pessimists have had the upper hand for some time now.  There are good reasons for this, but they should not lead us to think that all the positive elements of Russian-American relations have been lost.  Our outstanding ambassador in Moscow, Bill Burns, made this point last March when he said that although Russia and the U.S. may no longer have a “strategic partnership,” they can be partners on “key strategic issues.”  This is a nice distinction—and a sound policy.

Perhaps the policy’s most notable recent success has been Russian-American agreement on (admittedly, very limited) sanctions against Iran in response to its stand-off with the International Atomic Energy Agency.  There have been other achievements as well.  In the past year, the United States and Russia renewed the umbrella document governing the bilateral Cooperative Threat Reduction (known as the Nunn-Lugar) program.  They opened negotiations on a so-called “123 agreement”—which will create a legal framework for civil nuclear cooperation.  In November, Presidents Bush and Putin were able to announce the successful conclusion of long and often contentious bilateral talks on Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization.  Most recently, the two sides agreed to renew an official dialogue on “strategic security,” in which they will focus on the expiration (in 2009 and 2012) of two treaties on long-range nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, economic ties between Russia and the U.S. continue to deepen.  Last year, American investment in the Russian economy increased by 50%; it is now twice what it was three years ago.  Exports to Russia, just under $5 billion, have gone up roughly 20% in each of the last three years.  (Let me put this increase in comparative perspective: the United States now exports more to Russia than to Costa Rica, and before long may export even more than we do to the Dominican Republic.)

No assessment of Russian-American relations can ignore these positive trends; they help us respond to important global problems and to advance important national interests.  At the same time, it is essential to recognize that Russian-American frictions—both specific disagreements and a more general tension—are also growing.  It was only last week, after all, that President Putin, implicitly but unmistakably, compared the United States to the Third Reich.  (Please pay no attention to the pro forma denials: Mr. Putin clearly wanted to make the comparison and to be able to deny that he had done so.)  And it was only a week earlier that an angry and sometimes violent mob in Moscow was allowed to mount a multi-day siege of the embassy of Estonia, a treaty ally of the United States, while the police stood idly by.

Unfortunately, the negative developments of this month do not stand alone.  In April, President Putin announced that Russia would suspend its observance of the treaty on conventional forces in Europe, negotiated in 1990, and revised in 1999, under American leadership.  He also continued a campaign of—to my mind, spurious—charges that, in planning the thinnest imaginable shield to protect Europe against a future Iranian missile capability, the U.S. is threatening Russian security.  Other Russian officials have suggested that they may want to pull out of the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear missiles signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Such hints have been increasingly frequent since President Putin’s famous address to a conference of defense officials and experts in Munich in February.  That speech was a long and comprehensive attack on the United States, not only on its security policies, but on what he labeled “the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations.”  What Mr. Putin said in Munich was, in turn, an elaboration of complaints that he made last summer, in which he referred to the U.S. as “Comrade Wolf.”  And those remarks seemed to be a response to tough comments by Vice President Cheney a few months earlier, in which the latter accused Russia of internal repression and of using energy as a tool of political coercion.

The deterioration of Russian-American relations can sometimes look like a bad case of dueling speeches.  Unfortunately, it has far more serious real-world consequences than that.  When Russian diplomats warn that they may veto a plan—supported by the United States and most European governments—to resolve Kosovo’s status (as envisioned eight years ago in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244), they are increasing the chances of renewed ethnic conflict in the very short term.  When other Russian officials discourage dialogue between the government of Georgia and the authorities of the separatist province of Abkhazia—or, worse, when they give the go-ahead for helicopter attacks on Georgian territory—they make it hard for Russia’s neighbors to find a path to stability and internal reconciliation.    

Mr. Chairman, I have focused on Russian-American disagreements and tensions in 2007 alone.  But a look at 2006 would reveal very similar themes.  That was the year when, after making energy security a leitmotif of the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, the Russian government began restricting the operations of Western energy companies in Russia; when Russia cut off natural gas deliveries to Ukraine—and other European customers further down the pipeline route; when the Russian foreign minister publicly suggested that a bizarre confrontation with Georgia had actually been set in motion by instructions from Washington; and when other officials publicly charged that Western NGO’s operating in Russia were tools of foreign intelligence services. 

Whether one looks at 2007 or 2006, or for that matter 2005, the record of Russian-American relations has been, even with its real achievements, a discouraging one.  And it obliges us to worry that five years from now we will have seen not a resurgence of cooperation but a further worsening.  It is not hard to imagine how a deeper deterioration might come about.  If Russia’s “revisionist” frustrations are applied to an ever broader set of issues, if Moscow and Washington find it harder to agree even on the nuclear agenda that now constitutes the solid cooperative core of the relationship, if the re-assertion of state control of the economy keeps Western energy companies out of new projects in Russia, if political contention takes the place of economic cooperation as the heart of Russia’s relationship with Europe, if domestic electoral incentives continue to reward politicians who stoke confrontation with Russia’s neighbors, if domestic economic opposition continues to slow Russian accession to the WTO, if Russia does not begin to move back into the modern political mainstream—if enough of these negative outcomes materialize, Russian-American relations are likely to be even less productive five years out than they are now.

It does not have to happen this way.  New leaders will take office before long in both countries, and they will have a chance to re-assess present policies.  In Russia, President Putin’s treatment of neighbors will eventually get a more critical look from public commentators and government strategists—and will probably be given the failing grade it deserves.  In the U.S., a new administration will have every reason to look critically at our own nuclear and energy policies.  By moving them off dead-center, it can generate a more serious dialogue with Moscow than we have had in years.       

These are opportunities to be explored in 2009 and 2010.  There are, to be realistic, fewer of them that can be explored in 2007 and 2008.  Even so, how the Bush administration handles this year’s problems can lay the groundwork for a more promising relationship further down the road. 

In addressing those issues where Russia claims to find U.S. policy threatening, we need the kind of transparency that Secretary Rice and Secretary Gates have proposed: a full, technical, stupefyingly-detailed airing of our plans by experts and policymakers alike.  On those issues, by contrast, where we and our allies find Russian policy threatening, the Administration’s firmness—both substantive and symbolic—is also exactly right.  In the U.N Security Council’s deliberations on Kosovo, Russia should feel alone—because it is alone.  And in the Oval Office, when President Ilves arrives from Tallinn to meet President Bush at the end of next month, Estonia should not feel alone—because it is not.    

To set our relationship with Russia on a more productive course over the next five years, the U.S. needs to send a two-part message.  We do not shy away either from consultation and cooperation where they are possible or from disagreement and even opposition where they are necessary.  Unless both parts of this message are delivered, the presidents who succeed Mr. Putin and Mr. Bush will have little chance of salvaging the hopeful relationship their predecessors once tried to build.

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