Relations between the United States and Russia have come under close examination from a number of quarters as of late. The recent anniversaries of the Allied victory in Europe and Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech provided the kindling for the fire set by Vice President Dick Cheney’s criticisms of Russia during his visit earlier this month to the former Soviet Union. Russian president Vladimir Putin responded in kind by attacking the United States in his May 10 state of the nation speech. These developments have caused many to ask whether the United States and Russia are reverting to their old Cold War ways.
Two influential pieces appeared this spring in Russia focusing specifically on Churchill’s address at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, and the current state of relations between Washington and Moscow. In March, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote an article in the Russian daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta titled, “Sixty Years After Fulton: Lessons of the Cold War and Our Time.” The message of the piece was that the United States should refrain from Cold War style attempts to encircle Russia as, in the past, such a “threat to the country’s security provided a justification of total control of the authorities over society.” Colored revolutions in the post-Soviet states of Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine have furthered the perception that Washington is determined to tighten the noose around Moscow.
The highly influential Moscow-based journal Russia in Global Affairs in its April-June issue published a work by Vladimir Pechatnov under the title “Fulton Revisited.” As part of an issue that concentrates much of its focus on U.S.-Russian relations and the Cold War, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations professor states that the United States has entered a period of “imperial temptation” and offers an exact same quote noted in the aforementioned Lavrov article. As a lesson to the Bush administration, the authors agree that the following 1972 Henry Kissinger statement is instructive.
After the Second World War, we perceived Stalin’s Russia as an expansionist and aggressive force and we replied in kind. We recognize that thereby we probably gave the Soviet side the impression that we were trying to force the U.S.S.R. into a permanently losing position. We were not sufficiently aware that the security needs of a continental power differ substantially from the needs of a power surrounded by oceans on all sides, as ours. Our history of absence of foreign invasions from 1812 made us impervious to the problems of the country that had repeatedly been invaded.
The Russians’ argument here is that relations between the United States and Russia continue to be strained as a result of the persistent refusal from the leaders in Washington to understand the Kremlin’s legitimate security interests. Those interests entail ensuring that friendly states remain at the borders, the containment of radical Islam both in the former Soviet Union and the Russian Federation itself, and maintaining Moscow’s already diminished regional and global influence.
In the same issue of Russia in Global Affairs, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the State Duma International Affairs Committee, wrote that “few take the time to consider the effect that the West’s actions — for example NATO enlargement and the integration of former Warsaw Pact or [Former Soviet Union] countries (contrary to the gentleman’s agreement between them and the last Soviet government) into Euro-Atlantic structures — may have on the Russians.” As Gazeta journalist Anton Ivanitsky recently told me, Russians see traditional allies — even those in the Middle East such as Iran and Syria — as “their countries” and do not want to see United States’ gains come at the expense of Russian interests. This is important to consider as Russia continues to stand in the way — along with China — of bringing Tehran in front of the United Nations Security Council.
Although the majority of Russian citizens are unsure how Moscow should respond to the Iranian nuclear developments, the contentious issue of American regional incursions has drawn many to oppose Western actions against a Russian Middle East partner. According to Ivanitsky, “As far as I can judge, an average [Russian] person would rather see a new nuclear power than the United States going on a war against Iran.” This is reflected in the fact that only 22 percent of Russians surveyed in January by the highly respected and influential All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center believed that Russia should back the United States and its European allies in supporting a hard-line position against Iran. While just 15 percent of responders wished to side with Tehran, this has more to do with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Hitleresque comments on Israel than trust of the West.
The tempting conclusion here is to become isolationist and give the Russians their space. This, however, is a prescription for disaster. The Bush administration must be cognizant of Russia’s legitimate security concerns and work effectively with Moscow to ease apprehensions. Nonetheless, abandoning both the former Soviet republics and many of Russia’s traditional areas of influence will do little to spread democracy, secure American energy interests, and contain a rising China. There can be no geopolitical retreat, only reassurances to Russia that it has nothing to fear from the West.
VLADIMIR PUTIN, UNFORTUNATELY, maintains a great sense of fear of the West. In his Annual Address to the Federal Assembly in the Kremlin, Putin noted that the United States spends 25 times that of Russia on defense. He subsequently warned against the Cold War mistake of trying to compete with the United States in absolute defense expenditures as Russia’s “responses must be based on intellectual superiority” and “will be asymmetrical.” It thus seems that Moscow is determined to regain its wide deterrence capabilities and not fall farther behind the United States in terms of military power.
Referring to American efforts to spread democracy in Russia’s near abroad and gain allies in the region, Putin noted: “We also need to make clear the stronger our armed forces are, the lesser temptation for anyone to put pressure on us, no matter under what pretext this is done.” Therefore, fighting terrorism and promoting democracy and human rights will not be an excuse for Washington to intrude in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, or the South Caucasus. After all, the Russian president charged during his recent address, “how quickly all the pathos of the need to fight for human rights and democracy is laid aside the moment the need to realize one’s own interests comes to the fore.”
Putin’s accusations of hypocrisy from the United States were not the only charges leveled during his address. The former KGB officer claimed that “far from everyone in the world has abandoned the old bloc mentality and the prejudices inherited from the era of global confrontation.” This is a clear reference to Vice President Cheney’s recent comments in Lithuanian on Russia’s backsliding on democracy and American efforts since the end of the Cold War to extend NATO east throughout Europe and the South Caucasus. The Russian president also warned Washington against using the negotiations of Russia’s entrance in the World Trade Organization as “a bargaining chip” to attain unrelated concessions.
Following the address, the two major Western information companies drew vastly different conclusions. While the Associated Press headlined their report “Putin zings U.S. back after criticism,” Reuters announced, “Putin talks babies, avoids tangle with US in speech.” This is indicative of not only how media outlets can differ on how they report the news, but also how there is little certainty about where U.S.-Russian relations are headed.
PAVEL BORODIN, A FORMER KREMLIN head of the property administration under Boris Yeltsin and current Russia-Belarus Secretary of State, was quoted in April in the government information agency Itar-Tass stating that the “Russia-Belarus Union State is the first step towards the reunification of the whole of post-Soviet space.” While chances of this occurring are slightly less than none, there clearly are reasons to believe that Washington and Moscow are increasingly drifting apart.
The aforementioned article by Sergei Lavrov was not his only recent publication aimed at the United States. In fact, just days before the release of his Fulton article, the Russian Foreign Minister lambasted the United States repeatedly in a piece that appeared in the Russian weekly Moscow News. Here Lavrov sought to clarify that Moscow has no intention of siding with the United States in what he calls an “intercivilizational conflict” with the Muslim world as Russia would be destined to become a “front-line state.” He also castigated “the infatuation with obsessive ideas about changing the world,” such as promoting the advancement of democracy and following a post-Cold War myth of “victors and vanquished.” The Russian minister concluded: “Those who study Russia professionally…and are working out policy toward it, must understand that it would be naive to expect from us a readiness to be content in the world with the role of one being led.”
Moscow has drawn its line in the sand and made it clear that the interests and ideologies of Russia and the United States are incompatible in many areas. Washington must do all it can to ease Russian apprehensions over our involvement in their near-abroad. However, that will not be enough. Differences arise in too many areas — such as on issues of arms exports, democracy and human rights, Russia-China ties, and in traditional power politics — to simply suggest that there must be more “communication” and “understanding.” Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that this will change anytime soon as Vladimir Putin’s vast popularity may well ensure that an apparatchik carries on his legacy long after his term expires in 2008.