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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Era of Mutual Illusions

The prevailing American expectation as the Soviet Union disintegrated was that post-Communist Russia would -- after a fairly short period of shock therapy -- transform itself into a lesser-developed, Westernized or at least Western-oriented country. It would in matters of foreign policy be a loyal junior partner of the United States.


Russian diplomats contributed to this delusion by going out of their way to convince Americans, by word and deed, that such a role was indeed the most natural one for a new Russia. Ironically, it is these same people who are now upset and angry at having been "taken for granted" by Americans and treated as lesser partners.


The problem, of course, is that Russians also had their delusions. Some tended to think that (a) our post-Communist transition would be greatly facilitated by U.S. assistance and that (b) the world emerging from the Cold War would be both benign and eternally grateful to Russia for having done away with communism. Why, then, worry about our security -- something democrats do not like to do anyway -- when we were about to be "integrated" into a civilized democratic community?


This combination of delusions on both sides led to the inflated rhetoric and euphoria of "strategic partnership" in 1992-93. Like the ill-fated detente of the early '70s, this partnership was oversold and underfinanced, a fact for which we are now paying the price.


These problems could have been avoided. I was among those in Russia who were warning early on that the posture being advocated for our country was unrealistic abroad and politically unsustainable at home: It would provoke an ultranationalist backlash. Unfortunately, we were right.


A wave of "infantile pro-Americanism," which I first described almost two years ago, brought about its opposite -- infantile anti-Americanism. Russia's internal transformation turned out to be much more contradictory, painful and slow than was generally expected. It was too messy to fit into the U.S. stereotype of "reform." Meanwhile, America's own assistance to Russia was too little too late.


In foreign and security policies, Russia had to revise its initial rosy presumptions because of the very real problems and threats that began to engulf it almost at once: wars and smaller conflicts on its new borders, flows of refugees moving into Russia and millions of Russians left in "the near abroad," a disastrous disruption of economic ties with its new neighbors, etc. All this has forced Russia into a more active role within the Commonwealth of Independent States.


Similarly, in dealing with the West, Russia soon discovered that the idyll of partnership with the United States does not necessarily produce harmony in trade and economic relations or due regard for Russian traditional interests such as those in the Balkans. No wonder that, as the initial shock dissipated, Russia began to get serious about its reshaped national interests and to defend them more assertively.


In short, this has been a process of normalization of Russian foreign policy, proceeding in a fairly democratic way through public pressure, policy debates and consensus building. Yet many people in the United States insist on seeing it as a sinister throwback to "Russian imperialism" and the Cold War. Some of these people were spoiled by having had it too easy with Russia before. Others were simply adopting a double standard: It is okay for the United States to have national interests, but when Russia does it, it is "nationalism" at work. And some, of course, were simply old Cold Warriors thinking in old patterns.


In recent times, there seem to have been two images of my country ingrained in the American political mind. One is of the global Cold War rival. The other is of a democratic, Westernized country playing the role of America's junior partner. Unfortunately, this oversimplified view causes many Americans to conclude that if Russia ceases to be the latter, it has to become once again the former.


But this is a false dichotomy in the spirit of an old Bolshevik motto: "Who is not with us, is against us." Russia today has neither aspirations nor resources to again become a global rival of the United States -- not today and not tomorrow. In fact, my country is in the process of redefining its national interests in a democratic, non-expansionist way.


But Russia cannot be an American satellite either, simply because it is not in the natural order of things. Having renounced suicidal globalist pretensions, Russia, by virtue of its size and resources, remains a great power with many legitimate interests in adjacent regions.


These interests for the most part do not conflict with America's, and many are quite compatible with them. This has been the case historically; pre-Soviet Russia and the United States were among the very few great powers that never fought each other and cooperated more than they competed. Now, after the aberrations of the Cold War and its aftermath, we are returning to this historical norm. In fact, we can improve on it, since the new Russia is closer to the United States politically and culturally than its predecessor.


Americans and Russians have to rediscover this historical norm and learn to live with its ambiguities. If we remain steady and realistic, avoiding both illusions and cynicism, we can make this transition successfully.





Vladimir Lukin, a former ambassador to the United States, is chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Russia's parliament. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.