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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

End of the Era of Great Expectations

President Vladimir Putin has gathered power over his first year in office and now appears to have relegated his main potential opponents — regional governors and oligarchs — to the sidelines. Even before George W. Bush takes office as U.S. president, Putin is likely to change his Cabinet. U.S.-Russian relations are set to begin a new phase with new administrations on both sides. Whether this phase lasts four years or 10 years, January 2001 will have been a turning point.

The events leading up to this turning point are not encouraging. Nobody has been happy with U.S.-Russian relations since the August 1998 crash and then the NATO bombing of Serbia. Russian arms sales to Iran are starting again, which will almost certainly trigger some U.S. sanctions against Russia. The current mood seems set by Putin’s trip to communist Cuba, and his decision to fly from Cuba to Canada, bypassing the United States.

Almost everybody agrees that U.S. policy toward Russia under the administration of President Bill Clinton was flawed, but surprisingly few people agree on what Clinton should have done. Professor Stephen Cohen, a consistent critic of the tens of billions of dollars of aid that was used to support former President Boris Yeltsin, now proposes Western aid to Russia of $50 billion per year over 10 years. But let’s be realistic — ten times the money probably would cause ten times the problems. A half-trillion dollar aid package will not happen not just because it’s horrendously expensive but because it probably wouldn’t work.

Condoleezza Rice is expected to set a pragmatic or even hawkish tone to the Bush administration’s Russia policy if, as expected, she is named national security adviser. She certainly will not implement Cohen’s foolish proposal, nor will she repeat the Clinton administration’s mistake of over-estimating Russia’s will and ability to reform. But the new realism should also take into account that Russia is no longer a security threat to the United States and is working toward a democratic free-market system.

Russia has had its own unrealistic expectations of relations with the United States. Over the last eight years, its policy seemed to alternate between asking for money and advice, accusing the United States of patronizing or trying to take over Russia and requesting debt relief. Realistically, Russia should understand that money always comes with conditions attached, the main one usually being that it should be paid back. If Russia doesn’t understand this, its relations with all countries, all foreign investors and its own citizens will never be normal.

Perhaps the most unrealistic desire of some Russians is for a return to super-power status. It’s not going to happen because Russia’s economy is too weak. No country can be forced into aligning with Russia anymore, and Russia has very little to offer most countries in return for their cooperation. It will take a while for some Russians to get over their desire to return to days of glory and empire, but Putin is enough of a pragmatist that he will not waste resources on this fantasy.

The days of high expectations and idealism in U.S.-Russian relations are long gone. The days of disappointment and disillusion should also soon end if both countries take a realistic view of their own and the other country’s interests and abilities.

Peter Ekman is a financial educator based in Moscow. He welcomes e-mail.