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The Un-Clinton and the Un-Yeltsin

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
June 15, 2001
The New York Times

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George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin have this in common: They got where they are by promising to be unlike their larger-than-life predecessors. Both say Russian-American relations will also be different, based on hard-boiled scrutiny of national interests, not on personal ties dressed up as grand strategy. So, when the un-Clinton meets the un-Yeltsin tomorrow, post-cold-war diplomacy officially enters its post-heroic phase. Visionary, big-guy bonhomie is out; small-bore practicality is in.

This is more than just a change of style. Ever since the first President Bush embraced Russian-American "partnership" 10 years ago, American policy has been animated by one large goal: integration of Russia into the Western political and economic mainstream. This integration is still the right goal, and still very much in our national interest, but for both sides the concept has lost much of its practical, as well as its inspirational, meaning.

Russians doubt that in their impoverished state the West will ever accord them the large international role they believe they deserve. The very idea of having to measure up to someone else's standards rankles, and the uncertain payoff from meeting these standards only makes things worse.

For Americans, there's growing doubt that any Russian government will -- or wants to -- implement the commitments that would make integration a reality. Why keep paying lip service to something that the Russians themselves may no longer believe in or be able to deliver? Why not have them call us when they're ready?

Whether Russia can be integrated into the West is a question to which both sides want an answer, but which neither side knows how to discuss meaningfully.

Mr. Bush can't escape this predicament by reaffirming, for the umpteenth time, his commitment to making Russia part of the West. What he can do -- and this fits well with the practical mode that he prefers -- is to set out how the United States expects our relations to develop if Russia pursues the goal of integration and if it does not. Both positive and negative outcomes need to be part of tomorrow's discussion. Russia should be able to see more concrete benefits from integration than it has achieved so far. But Mr. Putin should also have to worry that by adopting the wrong policies he could start to jeopardize gains Russia has already made.

A serious discussion has to begin precisely where Russians say the West has done the most damage to the goal of integration. They argue that the United States, by enlarging NATO, by waging war in the Balkans and now by planning a system of missile defense that will (so they say) neutralize Russian nuclear forces, has shown that its goal is to weaken Russia, not to devise common approaches to security.

These issues can be the grist for fruitless debate, full of cheap point-scoring, and if Mr. Bush were meeting with Boris Yeltsin tomorrow, that's what he might get. ("Bill," Yeltsin boomed out at one point in his last meeting with President Clinton before he retired, "You are guilty!") But talk matters less to the more calculating Mr. Putin. For him, it's what the other guy hands over that counts.

As it happens, Mr. Bush has cards to play that can significantly reduce the chance of a major Russian-American showdown on security issues. He has already indicated that he is preparing a program of deep and rapid (and perhaps even unilateral) reductions in the size, capabilities and war-readiness of our own offensive nuclear forces.

Such cuts are implicit in Mr. Bush's claim that he wants to liberate both sides from the cold war balance of terror. The sooner he begins to make them, the sooner he can begin to alter the dynamics of the internal Russian debate on missile defense -- and the sooner he can enlist Mr. Putin against the ommanders of the strategic rocket forces, who like the balance of terror just fine.

A second factor that helps Mr. Bush is the almost unnoticed end of Russian-American conflict over the Balkans. The fall of Slobodan Milosevic and now the threat to Macedonia's stability have put Moscow and Washington (and their troops) on the same side against an armed separatist insurgency.

Finally, there is the hard question of NATO enlargement. A new round of invitations to join the alliance will open next year, and because the Baltic states are among the candidates, the process may put even greater stress on Russian-American relations than the first round did. President Bush should oppose Russia's efforts to gain a veto over any country's membership. But he can act to prevent a confrontation by taking a new approach toward Russia's future relationship with NATO.

One year ago, Mr. Putin complained privately to President Clinton that after he spoke out about Russia's possible interest in eventually joining NATO, not a single Western leader, publicly or privately, welcomed his statement. Mr. Bush should respond positively to Mr. Putin's overture, and in this way endorse the appeal of Russian liberals that the United States not rule out any Russian link to NATO. The Russians, of course, have to stop stalling on practical cooperation with NATO, but there are signs that they are now more willing to do so; Russian forces exercised with NATO in the Baltic Sea just this week.

No matter how well the discussion of security issues goes, however, Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin must pay equal attention to the threats to political freedom that have increased since Mr. Putin took office and that are widening the gap between Russia and the West. Mr. Putin's campaign to gain control of independent television has put Russian democracy at risk -- a risk that is not made any less serious by the fact that Russian democracy has other failings, too.

Unfortunately, international condemnation of pressures on Russian press freedom has made no impression whatever on Mr. Putin, and he probably thinks that the West's concern is waning. He needs to hear from Mr. Bush that he's wrong. The continuing antidemocratic evolution of Russia will jeopardize the benefits of integration into the West that Mr. Putin seems to care about most.

How long, after all, would the West accept having one nondemocratic state in the G-8? A scaling back of Russian participation in this "directorate of democracies" seems outlandish now, but if the seizure of the television station NTV is followed by further action against other stations and media outlets, it won't seem outlandish at all. Similarly, should political freedoms be cut back, Mr. Putin may get a less receptive hearing if he appeals next year for debt relief from Western governments. He may find that the West's desire to help a democracy is one thing, but helping a neo-authoritarian regime is another.

The un-Clinton and the un-Yeltsin have low expectations going for them tomorrow. To succeed, they don't need to show that they can do the vision thing. That's been done. But getting integration to produce real results -- that hasn't been done enough and needs to be. You might almost call the job heroic.


Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as America's ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.