Fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia is still struggling to find its rightful place on the world stage. The country continues to confound Western policymakers even as it seeks greater engagement in organizations they dominate. On the one hand, Russia relishes its role as international peace broker as well as its membership in Western groups like the G-8 (BBC), whose chairmanship it holds this year. Moscow is also eager to join the World Trade Organization. Yet on the other hand, critics say authoritarianism is on the rise in Russia. Dealing a blow to civil society, the Kremlin passed a law earlier this year curbing the rights of foreign NGOs and charity groups (ChiTrib). Later, Russia raised alarms in January after briefly cutting off gas deliveries to Ukraine and the rest of Europe. Most recently, the Kremlin was criticized for hosting leaders from Hamas (Reuters).
At the center of Russia’s two-pronged foreign policy is President Vladimir Putin, a tough, confident leader to some, a tyrannical neo-Stalinist to others. The former KGB officer has called the breakup of the Soviet Union a "tragedy" (AP), yet he has brought Russia out of its economic doldrums by embracing some free-market reforms. His takedown of Russia’s oligarchs, including former Yukos chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, startled investors. Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group asks in the World Policy Journal: "Is Vladimir Putin too powerful for his own good?" Outside Russia, Putin has sought to reassert Moscow’s influence, especially within its “near abroad.” A wave of revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan rattled the Russian leader (Economist), who bristles at Western involvement in what he sees as Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.
So what does all this mean for U.S.-Russian relations? While Presidents Bush and Putin enjoy close relations—boosted by Putin’s multiple visits to Bush’s Texas ranch—a new CFR Task Force states that "U.S.-Russian relations are headed in the wrong direction." The report suggests a number of policy recommendations to repair the fractured relationship, including freer bilateral trade, and revisions to the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, which is set to expire this summer. One area of fruitful cooperation between Russia and United States, the report finds, is Iran. Moscow won praise for its efforts to defuse the Iranian nuclear crisis by offering a proposal to enrich uranium for Iran. Council Senior Fellow Stephen Sestanovich, who directed the Task Force, tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman the outcome of the Iran negotiations will provide a crucial test of Russia's relations with the United States and Europe.
But Russia and the United States remain at odds in a number of areas. Russia, via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, has sought to push U.S. forces out of Central Asia. Its meddling in Middle East politics has also drawn criticism. Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation says "Russia is pursuing a course detrimental to the solidarity and coordination of the G-8 and the stability of the Middle East." Meanwhile, Putin increasingly draws comparison to Stalin, who, as Sarah Mendelson of CSIS writes in Foreign Affairs, still remains popular among many Russians, young and old alike.