The End of the Post-Soviet Era

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The dream that many inside and outside Russia had since the Soviet collapse -- to see Russia integrated with the West -- was crushed long before Russian tanks rolled into Georgia. The Kremlin's assault on democratic institutions such as the press, political parties and the parliament began years ago. The controlled process by which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin moved from president to prime minister was the defining moment. It marked the end of the post-Soviet era.

Pundits and policymakers in Washington are now scrambling frantically to figure out what a new U.S. policy should look like. Will the United States be successful in forging this new policy together with Europe, or will there be divisions? No one I have talked to has good answers yet to these questions, but surely the answers will come through analyzing what type of power Russia is and what type of power the United States wants to be.

Under Putin, Russia has been advancing a sort of "benevolent authoritarianism." The government has engaged in elaborate soft-power projects at home and abroad, such as the Nashi youth movement, Russia Today satellite television and rewriting history books. This effort seemed to be paying off. Many world leaders view Russia as a status quo power -- one that is needed to help solve some of the world's most difficult problems, such as Iran and North Korea. At the same time, they tend to dismiss Russia's human rights abuses, violations of international law and poor governance inside the country.

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The quandary for the United States is that it has only two models to choose from: a containment policy from the Cold War era or a policy of integrating Russia as used in the post-Soviet era. Neither approach is appropriate today.

I do not believe that Russia currently poses an existential threat to the United States or the West as it did during the Cold War, despite its nuclear arsenal. But evidence suggests that the Kremlin is interested in shaping a new international order and taking advantage of the decline in U.S. influence worldwide. President Dmitry Medvedev's July 15 speech calling for a new international collective security arrangement is one such example.

The United States must proceed with enormous caution. On the one hand, it is true that existing institutions such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe are feeble. On the other hand, Russia has exerted much greater influence on every multilateral institution to which it is a party than the reverse. The Kremlin has successfully used divide-and-conquer strategies numerous times on numerous issues, including at the United Nations, where it (together with China) successfully delayed international responses to Darfur, Burma and Zimbabwe. The Kremlin is sending a clear message to the world: Countries can commit horrendous human rights abuses with impunity.

At a minimum, this lack of response has had an enabling quality. While violating another state's sovereignty, Russia advances a 19th-century approach to international affairs. It views democracy as a rather weak system and unsuitable for Russia. It also considers the elastic sovereignty of the European Union soft and ineffective. The Kremlin has bet on international ambivalence toward Russia's crackdown on the opposition and its monopolization of power, and I fear that it made a good bet.

The West has not yet identified what ought to replace containment or integration, but diplomacy will be critical to the task. Moscow will be largely successful in undermining the human rights and democracy agenda until and unless the United States adopts smarter policies and coordinates with Europeans. There should be no gap between Washington and its European allies on these issues.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a speech months ago in Kansas about the need for enhanced U.S. capacity "to engage, assist and communicate with other parts of the world." His points about civilian national security capacity are relevant for a new U.S. policy on Russia. This new policy, which has yet to be constructed, will not be mainly about military might. Instead, as Gates points out, the United States has weakened and even obliterated many policy instruments and agencies that it will need in order to face future Russian challenges.

Going forward, there will be much speculation about what the new policies toward Russia should look like. For the next decade, we will most likely see a continuation or strengthening of Putin's policies, with Russia slipping farther from the West and with the Kremlin forming its own set of allies and networks. Yet in contrast to the myth that Putin is modernizing the country, the government structure is rotten with corruption.

Putin's platform cannot respond to the challenges Russia faces internally. And here may lie the seeds of a future democratic Russia. Maybe within a decade -- maybe two decades -- Russians will become tired of the manufactured Soviet nostalgia we see today and begin to demand governance structures that are more consistent with the dreams many of us had when the Soviet Union collapsed. While the role of outsiders will likely be modest in this future transformation, we should be thinking about how to get back to that ideal. It is in both U.S. and Russian national security interests to do so.

Sarah E. Mendelson is director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.