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Restoring U.S.-Russia Harmony

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
May 31, 2003
The Washington Post


When President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in St. Petersburg tomorrow, there can be no heady claims, like last year's, that the two countries are "quasi-allies." Their clash over Iraq has re-created the very relationship that both presidents took office wanting to end. Bush and Putin may, of all things, be turning back into Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin.

In the 1990s, Russian and U.S. leaders found different ways to sustain a partnership that too often fell short of expectations. President Clinton always wanted to "turn the page" -- look beyond the disagreement of the moment to a time when Russia's interests and ours would converge. For his part, Yeltsin wanted to avoid looking subservient by denouncing the United States whenever it used force -- knowing that when the next summit rolled around it would be good old "Bill and Boris" again.

Bush and his advisers called the Clinton approach "happy talk." Now, after Iraq, they have an equally cheerful idea: "Forgive" Russia and rebuild relations. Putin also disdained his own predecessor's policy, viewing the intemperate Yeltsin style as a sign of weakness. But critics insist that Putin's handling of Iraq amounts to the same thing -- futile opposition to the United States and nothing to show for it.

What both presidents aspire to re-create, of course, is the U.S.-Russian harmony that followed Sept. 11, 2001. White House officials remember the elation they felt on discovering there was someone in the Kremlin ready and, more important, able to "join the West." As for Russia, the war on terrorism offered a new formula for relations with Washington: For the first time since the end of the Cold War, it could join a U.S.-led coalition as an equal partner.

Recovering this moment will be difficult; neither side's expectations have held up well. After Sept. 11, the core American premise was that Putin could and would deliver meaningful cooperation. Since then he has done so only in cases where the United States could be satisfied with minimal Russian agreement. From launching the war in Afghanistan to establishing a military presence in Central Asia and Georgia, from terminating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to inviting the Baltic states into NATO, the Bush administration has needed little more than Putin's grudging assent.

On issues where the United States wanted more active Russian help, it has not gotten it. Iran and North Korea are conspicuous examples. Russia's see-no-evil stance has been that its nuclear relations with Tehran were purely commercial and that it had no hard evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. A recent visit to Iran by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors has shaken this claim, and Russian officials are backing away from it. But they still reportedly resist the idea that their own relations with Iran should be scaled back. As with North Korea, the Russian answer to a growing proliferation crisis is to label it an American problem: Call us when it's fixed, and we'll give our grudging assent.

"Forgiving" Russia, in short, means returning to issues like these, on which Moscow and Washington are far apart. American demands for more supportive Russian policies are growing. Confidence that Putin will offer such support is not.

As for Putin, his own post-Sept. 11 goals have been shaken, too. A year ago, cooperating with the United States against common threats seemed a way of enlarging Russia's international role. It made Putin look strong and important. Tangling with the United States over Iraq has had the opposite effect. By making the containment of American power his test of success, Putin has, like Yeltsin, made cooperating with the United States look like proof of failure. In this way, he has squandered the opening that Sept. 11 gave him.

Both Bush and Putin face reelection campaigns next year, and they may spend the time between now and then pretending to rebuild their old amity. But they should heed the lessons of the 1990s. People won't believe presidential rhetoric about improving cooperation unless there's something to it. If there isn't, the air gradually goes out of the balloon.

Neither Bush nor Putin should see electoral pressures as an obstacle to achieving better results. For both of them, good policy can be good politics. Putin can begin to restore his reputation for strong leadership by repositioning Russia on any of several stalemated issues. If he fears the appearance of helping the United States against Iran, then why not reshape the debate by starting to talk about how Iran has deceived Russia? Why not leapfrog the issue of Iraqi debt and propose a radical cut in what Russia wants to be repaid? (This is where he'll end up anyway.) Why not give Russia's listless Middle East diplomacy a jolt (and maybe even invigorate the "road map") by announcing that Russia too will cease to deal with Yasser Arafat? Putin has played a weak hand badly -- why not start playing it well?

What Bush needs to do is quite different. Russians admit that they have underestimated the impact of Sept. 11 on American thinking, but it's not their fault alone. The Bush administration has not helped potential allies to understand its outlook and direction, and without such understanding, friendly governments fear they will look as though they are being led around by the nose. Bush and Putin have reportedly agreed to create a forum for strategic discussion, chaired by their own senior advisers rather than by their foreign ministers. Both sides desperately need high-level contact; even more, they need high-level content. Such a forum will increase confidence only if the United States has something to say.

What Bush and Putin have to do will be hard. There is this, and perhaps only this, reason to hope for success: Serving both sides' real interests just by pretending will be harder still.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. He was U.S. ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.

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