REVIEW: Article

United States-Russia Relations: The View After Bratislava

With President Bush’s second term now underway, his meeting with President Putin in Bratislava on February 24 offered a good opportunity to take stock of the present state of United States (US)-Russia relations. Old “Russia hands” like me can attest to the profound transformation in Russian society and in the US-Russia relationship since 1985.  There is no doubt Russia has made dramatic strides toward a more open society and a market economy over the last twenty years. Our citizens move more freely back and forth between our two countries, and our common stock of knowledge and understanding of each other is growing exponentially. A more positive and constructive political and economic relationship with Russia has emerged.  We have put the tensions and anxieties of the Cold War largely behind us, enabling our countries to work together on a range of geopolitical and strategic issues in which we have common interests and to respond together to common threats.

In their meeting in Bratislava, our Presidents emphasized that cooperation against the threat of terrorism remains among the highest priorities of our two countries. It is an area where, following 9/11 and last September’s terrorist atrocity in Beslan, it is imperative that we work together. The United States also shares a commitment with Russia to enhance nuclear security, including help in securing fissile materials, and consolidating and reducing the stocks of such material worldwide. 

Our joint commitment to enhance our cooperation to counter nuclear terrorism, one of the gravest threats our two countries face, was reflected in the Joint Statement on Nuclear Security Cooperation issued in Bratislava. As part of this action plan, the United States and Russia will: develop an emergency response capability to deal with the consequences of a nuclear or radiological incident; share “best practices” for the sake of improving security at nuclear facilities, both bilaterally and with other countries that have advanced nuclear programs; and accelerate our cooperation on security upgrades of nuclear facilities under the Nunn-Lugar programs. Clearly, this heightened cooperation is as much in the interest of Russia as it is of the United States. After Beslan, no one in Russia can doubt that if terrorist elements were able to acquire nuclear or radiological materials, they would be prepared to use them against Russians. 

Our increasingly constructive interaction with Russia on nonproliferation reflects our common understanding that the number of nuclear-weapon states should not increase and that terrorists must not be permitted to obtain weapons of mass destruction or their means of delivery. President Putin has agreed with President Bush that Iran must not acquire nuclear weapons. Together with Russia we support the efforts by our three major European partners, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, to secure Iran’s agreement not just to suspend, but to abandon its pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle. Russia is also playing a constructive role with regard to North Korea, and is a participant in the Six Party Talks to combat the dangers posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

A good example of our increasing cooperation in the areas of combating terrorism can be seen in the recent arrangement between Russia and the United States signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov in Bratislava to enhance control of Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS). The arrangement provides a bilateral framework for cooperation to improve control of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that can threaten civil aviation if obtained by criminals, terrorists or other non-state actors. It facilitates the destruction of obsolete and excess stocks of MANPADS and allows our two countries to share information about MANPADS sales and transfers to third countries. 

Our countries have a demonstrated record of radically reducing strategic nuclear weapons that goes back many years, most recently under the 2002 Moscow Treaty. We also have worked to forge an historic partnership between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and expanded trade and investment links, including in the energy arena. We are actively negotiating with Russia on the terms for its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). While areas of disagreement remain, we are hopeful we can conclude our bilateral WTO negotiations with Russia this year. Russia’s accession will further its integration into the global economy. To join WTO, Russia must conform with international norms on tariffs, agricultural, financial and banking systems, protection of investors, creation of a non-discriminatory, transparent environment for foreign goods and services, and protection of intellectual property rights. The US and Russia also share common concerns regarding the dangers posed by illicit narcotics, trafficking in persons, scarcity of energy resources, and the spread of HIV/AIDS. We also have stepped up cooperation against illicit narcotics trafficking, a frequent source of terrorist financing. We work together on these issues every day and at every level. All of this represents good news in the US-Russia relationship.

Naturally, there are aspects of our relations where our outlooks differ. The momentum of our engagement recently has been affected by concerns about the strength of Russia’s commitment to the democratic principles so essential to our partnership. Without the consistent application of the rule of law, strong democratic institutions and a vibrant civil society, Russia is less likely to be a reliable, capable and dedicated partner, not only of the United States, but of other democratic countries as well. The move from popular election to, in effect, direct appointment of regional governors has increased concerns about what appears to many—including a good number of Russian citizens—to be an excessive centralization of power in the Kremlin and a diminution of pluralism in the Russian political system. 

This, combined with greater control over the national broadcast media, political pressure on the judiciary and nongovernmental organizations, and persistent corruption, raise questions about the accountability of government leaders to the people, as well as about whether there is a sufficiently varied flow of information to the Kremlin and the highest levels of the Russian government to serve as a reliable basis for policymaking.  These are not new issues; indeed, Russia has been dealing with them since the breakup of the Soviet Union, although our concerns have grown in recent years.  While we know there is no “one-size-fits-all” model of democracy, there are fundamental principles that must find expression in effective pluralism, and there are accountable institutions of governance common to all our major international allies and partners. This is in the first instance something Russia itself needs to recognize if it is to achieve its aspirations to remain a strong and influential nation in the 21st century. 

The Russian government’s commitment to a free and fair market economy and the rule of law has been called into question by the recent dismantlement of the oil company, Yukos. US officials at many levels have clearly expressed their concern about the implications of the Russian government’s actions regarding Yukos, and have urged the Kremlin to address the questions raised by this matter fairly and decisively, in a manner that would restore confidence in Russia’s economic and judicial institutions and show an equitable way forward in dealing with the problems of social justice that emerged from the privatization process of the 1990s.  No such concrete reassurances have yet been seen.

Other potential areas of friction are also present, particularly as they relate to developments in a number of other countries in Eurasia.  While Russian concerns about the US presence and interests in the region were most evident during Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” and the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, such sensitivities are evident elsewhere. As President Bush made clear in his second inaugural address, advancing freedom and democracy is the best guarantee of long-term political stability and economic development. The United States will continue to support democracy throughout Eurasia.  That support will not be partisan, but it will include promoting free, fair and credible elections, with true competition between candidates, equal access to the media, and an end to manipulation of the vote through the use of “administrative resources.” In so doing, we are not trying to undermine Russia’s relations with its neighbors, but are rather seeking to improve conditions for all people. We would welcome Russia’s support for this effort.  We believe it is in Russia’s interest to have stable, democratic neighbors—neighbors that do not export economic or political instability and extremism or criminal activities. Secure and democratic neighbors mean a more secure Russia.

A related issue is the question of separatism in Moldova and Georgia.  The US has worked to promote political solutions in those countries that would reintegrate the breakaway regions of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the basis of autonomy that fits the specific circumstances of each case.  Although Moscow declares its support for the territorial integrity of Moldova and Georgia, in practice it has preferred the preservation of the status quo as a means of ensuring that its interests are respected and of countering US and European influence—notwithstanding its own struggle against separatism in Chechnya. The challenge is to convince Russia that its longer-term interests lie in resolving these long frozen conflicts through diplomatic means, reintegrating these separatist regions into their respective national states on a stable and equitable basis, and building relations with its neighbors on the basis of mutual respect at the political level as well as strong, mutually advantageous economic relations.

There are those who argue that Washington’s aim is to isolate, weaken, or marginalize Russia. Nothing could be further from the truth. A weak, ineffective Russia would be contrary to US national interests. We need a strong, democratic Russia as an effective partner in Eurasia and around the world in combating problems such as international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Russia’s energy resources promise to make it an increasingly important player in the global energy market, and it is in the United States’ interests to ensure Russia acts as a reliable and responsible economic partner. Assisting Russia to move forward along the path of democratic and economic reform will continue to be one of our top priorities particularly in the lead up to Russia’s presidency of the G-8 in 2006.

Over the last twenty years we have come a long distance in our relations with Moscow. We have gone from the Cold War to a constructive and productive relationship enhanced by the warm personal connection enjoyed by our two Presidents. In order to continue the trend—to build even stronger ties and become closer partners—we must work to overcome outdated suspicions—in both countries—engendered by the years of propaganda that came along with the Cold War. People-to-people exchanges are enormously effective in breaking down stereotypes on both sides over time. Our Presidents recognize this, and have committed themselves to a significant expansion of exchanges. 

As Americans and Russians look to the next four years and beyond in our relations, we need to think more ambitiously about what we can accomplish. What kind of relationship do we want the next generation of Americans and Russians to enjoy? It will take time to build a relationship that mirrors the breadth and quality of our relationship with traditional allies, but we should set our sights that high. The challenge is to continue working together on vital issues that affect both countries, while working to overcome the problems that prevent our relationship from reaching its full potential. 

As President Bush made clear in Bratislava, we cooperate well with Russia on a host of issues where we have overlapping interests, but Russia needs to do more to establish a base of shared values that will sustain the partnership over the longer term.  It is shared values that allow relationships to weather disagreements and maintain open communication when interests diverge. It is shared values that make for strong and durable partnerships. The US will work to support democratic processes within Russia and to integrate Russia more effectively into the international system in order to promote the convergence in values that still eludes us. We hope that the Russian leadership, for its part, will rededicate itself to the values of freedom and democracy on which its future greatness depends.

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United States Ambassador to the Russian Federation