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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Transition Is Over

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In preparation for the first meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Cairo on Saturday, the United States would be well served to make fundamental changes in its approach to Russia. The new U.S. administration must resist the temptation of inertia in dealing with Moscow and break decisively from the failed policies of its predecessor.

The first step is to recognize that Russia's post-Cold War transition is over. This does not mean that Russia will cease to evolve — but it does mean that the years of radical transformation have come to an end. The Untied States must therefore comprehensively redefine its interests and priorities with respect to Russia; policies geared toward a nation in transition are simply no longer appropriate.

Developing a hierarchy of U.S. interests is also essential. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration effectively identified a range of U.S. interests vis-?-vis Russia but largely failed to establish meaningful priorities. The result was a policy more or less blind to the trade-offs among competing U.S. objectives and constant pressure on Russian officials on a laundry list of issues. This had the effect of irritating Russian leaders without winning their cooperation on the issues most important to the United States.

When the Bush administration establishes priorities — such as national missile defense to protect Americans against a limited ballistic missile attack — it should be very determined in advancing them regardless of Russian opposition. Nevertheless — taking into account that the United States has not yet developed a workable technology for NMD and that it cannot affect Russia's nuclear force for a decade or two — there is no reason to allow the issue to provoke a crisis in relations with Moscow at this time. Once Russia accepts that NMD will be deployed eventually, the United States can likely accommodate its legitimate concerns through creative diplomacy. At the same time, the United States should be prepared to be flexible on matters of lesser priority to us.

In operational terms, the United States should cut back dramatically its involvement in Russian domestic politics and other internal matters. It is by now widely recognized that the Clinton administration's love affair with the so-called radical reformers in Yeltsin's various governments served primarily to discredit both parties. As a result, the United States has lost considerable moral and political standing, not to mention influence, within Russia.

Many Russian commentators eagerly anticipate less U.S. involvement in their country's internal affairs, which they see as typical of Republican presidents. Some even seem to believe that the Bush administration will essentially ignore developments in Chechnya, limits on press freedoms or other troubling actions by the Russian government. This is a serious mistake. Being less intrusive in Russian affairs does not mean being less interested or less concerned; rather, it means that the United States should work to address its concerns outside the arena of Russian domestic politics. Though this may result in less attention to many specific incidents, the consequences of a pattern of undesirable behavior could be much more severe.

The United States should maintain friendly relations with Central Asian states — and should deter Russian expansionism at their expense — but should generally acknowledge Moscow's legitimate interests in the region.

The United States must also work to reestablish mutual respect in the U.S.-Russian relationship. This has two components: making clear to the Kremlin how the United States defines its interests and what steps Washington will take to advance them, and seeking to understand legitimate Russian interests and to respect them when they do not conflict with our own. More clarity about U.S. interests and priorities could help to avoid misunderstanding and limit Russian behavior of concern to the United States. At a minimum, it would ensure that Moscow understands the potential consequences of ignoring U.S. preferences.

On the other hand, showing greater respect for legitimate Russian interests should to some degree address Russian resentment of some U.S. international behavior and would create a much greater "upside" for Russia in its relations with the United States. This approach would show Moscow that it could reap tangible benefits from cooperation on issues important to the United States.

Iran is undeniably one of the United States' top priorities in this regard; Russian assistance to Tehran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles presents a direct threat to vital U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf and beyond. Continued assistance to these Iranian programs, whether officially sanctioned or not, should be a "deal breaker" in the U.S.-Russian relationship.

The United States should be somewhat more flexible in other areas, such as Russia's southern frontier, where many Russians have been deeply concerned by perceived U.S. efforts to exclude Moscow from the region or redefine it as a U.S. sphere of influence.

Russian interests in the former Soviet states of Central Asia are clearly quite significant; instability in the region could directly threaten Russian security. In the United States, the maximum result of a crisis in Central Asia would likely be (slightly) higher energy prices and a few back-page newspaper stories. The United States should maintain friendly relations with Central Asian states — and should deter Russian expansionism at their expense — but should generally acknowledge Moscow's legitimate interests in the region.

Finally, the United States must learn to treat Russia like a normal country. This means communicating clearly to Russian leaders that their country's role in the international system will depend primarily on Russian internal and external behavior rather than its status as a former superpower. More specifically, it means that Russia will not be able to play a genuinely prominent role in international affairs without developing its economy and earning international respect for its conduct. The Clinton administration tried to give Russia such a role — for example, through pressing for largely symbolic Russian membership in the G-7, but was unsuccessful. Today, Russia's standing has more to do with the trouble it could cause than the contributions it can make.

This is the context in which troubling internal Russian developments must be addressed. Rather than lobbying on behalf of particular Russian factions or repeating moralistic criticisms of Russian policies, the United States should simply make clear that Russia must act like a serious country if it wants to be treated as such — not only by the United States and other governments but by foreign investors as well. Serious countries do not kill thousands of their own citizens in "anti-terrorist operations," tolerate massive corruption and capital flight, refuse to honor their debts or strive to eliminate public opposition to their governments. Once this message has been delivered clearly and forcefully, governments, businesspeople and others should draw their own conclusions about Russian behavior and act accordingly. Moscow should then be left to make its own decisions and live with the consequences.

A sustainable, bipartisan policy based on these three principles would avoid needless misunderstandings between Washington and Moscow by helping each country to understand the other's interests and priorities. It would also extricate the United States from the swamp of Russian domestic politics while imposing real costs on Russia for troubling internal policies. Perhaps most important, however, by acknowledging Moscow's interests, it would finally create a basis for a win-win relationship between Russia and the United States. Disagreements with Moscow are probably inevitable, but — with the right policy — conflict is not.

Paul Saunders is director of the Nixon Center. He contributed this comment, which is based on the center's recent report "What Is to Be Undone? A Russia Policy Agenda for the New Administration," to The Moscow Times.