Stable and Stagnant Relations

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The debate about the future of Russian democracy in the United States has been ongoing for several years. However, the accumulation of democratic setbacks over the past three years, the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in October and an electoral process assessed as being "not fair" by the OSCE in December have elevated the debate to the level of policymakers within the Bush administration.

Statements issued by U.S. State Department officials have expressed concern about democratic erosion in Russia. In an important article about National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, the main player in the making of U.S. policy toward Russia and a very close confidante of President George W. Bush, Rice hinted that she too was worried about Russia's anti-democratic drift. The article, published in The New York Times a month ago, reported that Rice "told Mr. Bush she was concerned about developments in Russia, where the man Bush calls a trusted friend, President Vladimir Putin, has jailed the country's richest businessmen." This expression of Rice's concerns about Russia represented a major departure from previous, more positive statements about Putin. Secretary of State Colin Powell then went much further while visiting Moscow a couple of weeks ago, stating in print in Izvestia that he too was worried about Russia's anti-democratic drift.

Many in the American business community still seem to believe that Putin is a positive force for political and economic reform, and while most in Washington continue to believe that Putin is doing the right thing on the economic side, fewer and fewer are willing to defend his record of achievement on the political side.

Does it matter for U.S. national security interests whether Russia is a democracy or not? Will U.S. policy toward Russia change fundamentally as a result of this heightened concern about Putin's authoritarian proclivities?

Within the Bush administration and the policy community more generally, there are two schools of thought about recent developments in Russia. One school argues that Putin's policies represent a break with Russia's slow, protracted democratization process; his policies are a reversal of the limited gains that Russia made in developing democracy in the 1990s. This group believes, therefore, that the Bush administration should criticize Putin and do all that it can to stop the backsliding. They believe that it was regime change in the Soviet Union and Russia that made the country a closer partner of the West; and, likewise, it will be regime change in an autocratic direction that will make Russia a competitor of the West once more.

A second school argues that Putin represents continuity. There was no democracy under Boris Yeltsin, and there is no democracy now. Putin is ruling Russia just like the former president did (and general secretaries and tsars before him). For this school, there is little that the United States can or should do to promote democracy in Russia; instead -- it is argued -- U.S. officials should and must do business with the regime in Moscow, no matter whether it is democratic or autocratic. The United States has strategic interests and cooperative relations with autocrats in China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The same should be true, so this group argues, with Russia.

Even if he does not share their analysis of Russian history, Bush so far has followed the policy prescriptions of this second school. In his State of the Union address last month, Bush claimed yet again that the United States has a mission to promote freedom around the world. In a more comprehensive speech about democracy promotion delivered last November to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment of Democracy, Bush stated that "the advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country." He bravely asserted that "liberty is the design of nature; we believe that liberty is the direction of history ... and freedom -- the freedom we prize -- is not for us alone, it is the right and capacity of all mankind." In this speech, Bush discussed those countries such as Cuba, Burma, Zimbabwe and China, where "our commitment to democracy is tested." Missing from his list was Russia.

This omission stems from the fact that Bush has a second mission before him, the war on terrorism, that is more important to him than the mission of promoting democracy. In this war, Bush has divided the world into allies and enemies with no one in between. And in this black-and-white world, Russia is on the white side -- an ally of the United States in the fight against terrorism. Therefore, no matter how many of his staffers express concern about Putin's autocratic tendencies, Bush himself will remain a staunch supporter of Putin.

Remaining a supporter, however, does not mean that Bush will invest any political capital in actually improving U.S.-Russian relations. Because Bush is focused first and foremost on the war on terrorism, he has less time to devote to aspects of U.S.-Russian relations.

Many in Moscow worry about Washington's seemingly aggressive role in seeking to spread U.S. influence in the states that emerged from the Soviet Union. This is a gross exaggeration, fueled by those in Moscow who need to have an enemy rather than those in Washington looking to build U.S. hegemony. In reality, senior Bush administration officials are consumed with Iraq, and therefore have little time or inclination to worry about the Russian portfolio or grandiose schemes of U.S. hegemony in Eurasia.

Places like Russia, Georgia or Uzbekistan only matter as they relate to the principal focus on the war on terrorism. So Uzbekistan was important when the war in Afghanistan was hot, but not today. Georgia will get onto Bush's radar screen only in times of crisis. Ukrainian electoral politics, considered by some in Moscow to be the next great theater of battle between Russia and the United States for influence in the region, is not a topic that will ever make it to Bush's desk. Even Russia has secondary status now. Russia was important in the UN votes leading up to the decision to go to war with Iraq, but is a lesser concern now. The idea of "strategic partnership" has been put on hold. The intellectual resources of top Bush administration officials are spread thin, so too are the military resources of the United States.

In the war on terror, the Bush administration does want a few concrete things from Russia: help with debt relief for Iraq, support in calling for greater transparency in Iran's nuclear program and support at the "six-sided table" in dealing with North Korea. So far, however, Russia has proven to be only of marginal use on these three fronts (on the debt relief).

Especially with Putin's authoritarian tendencies being more evident than ever before, few in Washington believe that now is the time to start some major new initiatives with Russia. The idea of a U.S.-Russian alliance, an idea floated soon after Sept. 11, 2001, is dead in the water. Instead, the Bush administration wants a steady, stable relationship with Russia.

This strategy of continuity will be true at least until the next U.S. presidential election. In an election year, no sitting president wants to change course in foreign policy, as change can be construed by opponents as a sign of policy failure. Bush will stay the course with Russia and hope that there will be no surprises in U.S.-Russian relations until November. This means no new major initiatives, in a positive or negative direction, coming out of Washington for the remainder of Bush's first term.

Michael McFaul, an associate professor of political science and Hoover Fellow at Stanford University, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times. He recently published, with Timothy Colton, "Popular Choice and Managed Democracy: The Russian Elections of 1999 and 2000."