National Security Network

The Progressive Approach: Russia

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Policy Paper 19 September 2008

Russia Russia

Responding to Realities

The past eight years have seen a Russian resurgence built off vast energy wealth and great power aspiration. Russia now can – and does – block US goals at the United Nations, threaten and even use force against young democratic countries the US supports, and influence issues of great concern to the United States, such as in Iran, in Central Asia, on the UN Security Council. The Bush Administration failed to understand this resurgence or send clear signals about how the US would respond. Instead, for the last eight years the Bush administration has pursued a misplaced approach founded on the personal relationship between President Bush and Putin. This approach has failed. Now the US faces a steep challenge with few good options – we must attempt to work with Russia on areas of mutual interest, as well as rebuild international consensus to stand up to Russia when its actions conflict with American interests and ideals.
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Former Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the 20th century’s greatest tragedy.  Putin spent the past eight years explicitly focused on reversing its consequences by increasing Russia’s prestige and power on the world stage:  sometimes at the expense of the US, Europe, NATO, and often at the expense of the smaller neighbors that were once part of the Soviet Union.

Russia’s vast energy reserves (it has about 30 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves and 5 percent of the world’s oil) have generated windfall profits in recent years.  Russia thus gained the renewed clout to adopt a more assertive foreign policy and to address perceived slights from the US and Europe in the 1990s, when many Russians at all levels believe they were betrayed and taken advantage of.

The Russian government, which former President Putin continues to control as Prime Minister under his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is overwhelmingly popular – it halted rampant inflation, restored economic growth, and is perceived to have restored Russian prestige.  However, in consolidating political power, Putin has restricted the press, imprisoned and intimidated political opponents, cracked down on political parties and political campaigning, hassled and shut non-governmental civil society organizations.  

Russia’s great power aspirations now stand on two pillars – its geostrategic position and its geopolitical status as a nuclear-armed Security Council member.

Russia’s size, location and wealth of oil and gas give it significant power over its smaller neighbors, and over Western Europe, which has grown more and more dependent on Russian natural gas. Europe now receives about half of its natural gas and about a quarter of its oil from Russia. Putin and his handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev have said explicitly that they view Russia’s smaller neighbors as residing in its natural sphere of influence and regard US and NATO overtures to them as hostile acts.  

Russia has made it clear that it is willing to use all its geostrategic tools to retain and grow its influence – cutting off oil and gas supplies to Ukraine and Georgia, pressing Uzbekistan to evict U.S. forces from the K-2 air base, which served an important function for coalition efforts in Afghanistan, seeking to undermine the “color revolutions” that spread democratic reforms in countries along Russia’s borders in Georgia (Rose), Ukraine (Orange), and Kyrgyzstan (Tulip).  

Russia’s opposition to US and NATO engagement with its neighbors, and Georgia in particular, grew more and more vocal throughout 2008, boiling over in August, when Russian forces invaded Georgia.  Russia had opposed Georgia’s 2004 “Rose Revolution,” the subsequent election of Mikheil Saakashvili as president, and his efforts to establish closer relations with the United States and Europe and to reassert Georgian control over the ethnically divided break-away regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Nevertheless, the Bush administration supported Georgian membership in NATO, established close connections with Georgia’s new democratic leader, and offered U.S. military assistance (More than 1,000 U.S. troops were in Georgia conducting a training mission when war erupted). As hostilities escalated this past year, the Bush administration continued to discount the possibility of war despite clear indications from Russia that it was willing to take aggressive action against Georgia.

In the aftermath of Russia’s August 2008 invasion, Europe is attempting to deploy peacekeepers that would then require Russian troops to pull fully out of Georgian territory (except the two breakaway regions), but Russian compliance is slow and incomplete, and the prospects for comprehensive negotiations to reduce political tensions and provide restitution to civbilian victims remain unclear at best.

The second pillar rests on Russia’s nuclear status and its membership in the Security Council, which gives it significant global influence – on North Korea, the Middle East Peace Process, and particularly Iran.  This has enabled Russia to resist efforts to level harsher sanctions on Iran through the Security Council, because of its extensive commercial interests.  Russia is also concerned that sanctions or military action would destabilize Iran – a country just 200 miles from the Russian border.  In the Balkans, Russia was able to block a Security Council resolution to the problem of Kosovo’s status – and threatened to destabilize the region further by countering US and EU support for Kosovo’s independence by recognizing the independence of the Serbian entity within Bosnia.

Yet with these strengths, Russia also has significant weaknesses.  Its petroleum-driven economic growth has masked rampant corruption and broken state institutions.  In its 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International ranks Russia 143rd out of 179 countries. Even with its vast energy resources, Russia will not be able to develop into a modern wealthy country without significant internal reform. New President Medvedev has been unable to give attention to combating corruption and creating a law-governed state – his stated priorities when he came to office – as Russia seems to be turning from an agenda of reform to one of belligerence. Yet the conflict in Georgia has sharply limited the possibility for meaningful internal reforms, as well as exposing the fragility of Russia’s financial system, as the stock market fell sharply and capital moved strongly out of the country – leaving international firms more wary of doing business in Russia, and the future unclear.  At the same time, a failing public education system, lack of innovation, and widespread public health crises limit Russia’s long-term potential.  The population is shrinking by half a percent per year, a development Putin has cited as a major threat to the nation but been unable to reverse. Average life expectancy is just 66, which ranks Russia 159 out of 223, and Russia faces alarming  HIV/AIDS and TB crises.

As Russia became increasingly undemocratic and adopted a more antagonistic approach toward the West, the Bush administration too often saw the warm relations between Presidents Bush and Putin as an end in itself. This relationship was born out of a meeting in the summer of 2001, where President Bush famously “looked into Putin’s soul” and saw a leader he could trust. Putin, on the other hand, used the relationship to immunize Russia from U.S. pressure.

The U.S. – Russia relationship must be about more than personal friendship. Instead, it should be a productive partnership based on mutual objectives and shared interests. The ultimate goal of U.S. policy should be a Russia that becomes a stable, prosperous, and positive stakeholder in the international community. Unfortunately, this is not Russia’s current path. Russia’s energy wealth allows it to buy stability, enables its leadership to maintain its popularity, and ensures that Russia will continue to have influence over issues such as the spread of nuclear weapons that matter greatly to the U.S. A responsible approach must recognize this reality and pursue a long term strategy that seeks to advance U.S. interests and values.

Policy Recommendations

The United States needs a long term Russia strategy that starts from U.S. national interests.  America’s leaders must maintain perspective on our larger goals in dealing with Russia. The objective of our Russia policy must not be to pursue confrontation for its own sake. There are times when U.S. interests will conflict with Russia’s, just as there are many circumstances when the U.S. and Russia will share the same interests and goals. Washington needs to understand what Russia’s interests are, anticipate conflicts, and do what we can to minimize them – even as we make clear what our core interests and values are, and how we will defend them.  We must establish a straight-forward balanced relationship with Russia where we are able to disagree on some issues, yet work together on issues of mutual importance.

The U.S. must support a sovereign and democratic Georgia – and continue to support Ukraine and other Russian neighbors. Continued U.S. leadership is needed in building international consensus for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgian territory, the restoration of Georgian sovereignty, and a firm insistence that terms that are agreed to are honored. The U.S. should also provide economic and humanitarian assistance to help the Georgia’s people and  economy. However, the U.S. must also make clear to the Georgian leadership that its support is not equivalent to a blank check.

The U.S. should be direct with Russia over its internal behavior but we must also seek to practice what we preach. The U.S. should not turn a blind eye to the blatant violation of human rights violations in Russia, as the Bush administration has done the past eight years. As with China, the U.S. must stand up for democracy and human rights, while at the same time pursuing productive relations on areas of mutual concerns. However, Russian policy makers watch the West closely for any signs of hypocrisy, and Washington must improve its own record in order to deal more effectively with Moscow.

Foster a united U.S.-EU approach toward Russia. An effective strategy toward Russia requires cohesion between the U.S. and Europe, as well as within Europe itself. Internal divisions within Europe have prevented the development of a unified approach. Washington must do more to stop the last eight years’ drift within NATO. In the wake of the Russia-Georgia conflict there is an urgent need to forge a common transatlantic position.

The United States must work with Russia where it can. Despite being adversaries during the Cold War, the U.S. and the USSR were able to cooperate on reducing and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Today the U.S. and Russia will have no choice but to work together on climate change and natural resources, nuclear security, Iran, and other issues. The war between Russia and Georgia makes significant progress on issues of importance to both countries less likely; but the U.S. should begin an intense diplomatic effort to rebuild its relations with Russia.  Specifically:

The U.S. will need to continue cooperation with Russia on reducing the number of nuclear weapons. The proliferation of nuclear weapons is a threat not only to the U.S. but to Russia itself, as Russia suffers from its own significant terrorism problem. The START Treaty will expire in 2009. The U.S. should work with Russia to extend the START treaty and should seek to work with Russia to further expand arms reduction efforts.

The U.S. will need to continue cooperating with Russia on securing nuclear materials. Both the U.S. and Russia are at great risk if terrorists gain control of nuclear materials.  The Nunn-Lugar and Lugar-Obama legislation has been instrumental in securing nuclear materials and in preventing smuggling. The U.S. must work to continue to implement this legislation.

The U.S. and Russia share common security interests in Afghanistan and Iran. It is in the interests of Russia that Afghanistan become a stable and prosperous country. Russia opposed the Taliban prior to the U.S. invasion and the U.S. should seek to cooperate with Russia concerning its operations in Afghanistan. On Iran, Russia does not want another nuclear armed country in its neighborhood. However it is also equally opposed to armed conflict between Iran and the U.S. Russia’s seat on the UN Security Council and its relationship with Iran make it an instrumental player in the dispute between Iran and the West.

The Conservative Record

The Bush administration has had a Putin policy, not a Russia policy. The Bush administration has clung to a policy focused on maintaining the warm relationship between President Bush and Putin, often refusing to let reality interfere. In adopting such an approach the U.S. stood silent as Russia was changing paths. The Bush administration did little to upset the relationship and failed to confront Putin over his efforts to suppress Russia’s democratic institutions and silence its civil society. Russia today is no longer a democracy and is substantially less free than when President Bush came to office.

Incendiary rhetoric will only lead to confrontation and possibly a new Cold War. The United States needs a disciplined policy rather than sweeping belligerent rhetoric.  In the midst of the Russia-Georgia conflict, Senator McCain proclaimed that “we are all Georgians.” Such rhetoric creates commitments the United States is unlikely to be able to keep, and in the case of Georgia emboldened the leadership into making rash decisions. In May 2006, Vice President Cheney explicitly implied that the U.S. and the West were in conflict with Russia, “It is fitting that we should gather in the Baltic region -- the very front lines of freedom in the modern world.” Such rhetoric only serves to escalate tensions -- the Russian press interpreted the Cheney speech as calling for the start of a new cold war -- and does nothing to advance U.S. interests.

The Bush administration made commitments it could not keep. The Bush administration pushed for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, which would entail a commitment to defend them against attack. Such an approach required engaging with Russia to assuage its fears, something the administration never achieved; at the same time it was unable to convince NATO allies to support the idea, leaving Georgia and Ukraine in limbo.

Our leverage over Russia has been drastically reduced over the last eight years. Russia benefited from many levers of power (oil and gas, nuclear weapons, Security Council seat) and a resurgent economy.  But the Bush administration’s personality-driven approach toward Russia, the decline in American stature around the world, and our inability to marshal our European allies have greatly weakened the West vis-à-vis Russia.

The Bush administration has had a poor understanding of Russia.  It failed to understand Russia’s redlines, to predict or prevent the conflict in Georgia, and allowed Russia to inflame or obstruct tense situations in the Balkans, Iran and elsewhere. It appears that our intelligence on Russia was little better than on Iraq.