Reeling in Russia

PostGlobal asks: Nearly 20 years after becoming a democratic regime, Russia still faces many challenges. Domestically, this includes ensuring civil rights and civil liberties such as freedom of the press, freedom of enterprise and the freedom of religion. While internationally it has reasserted itself as a major player, it has been shunned by both Western Europe and America.

Will Russia be forced to acquiesce to the American status quo both domestically and internationally or will it be able to pursue its own goals?

Russia is not, at this time, a democracy, nor is it likely to become one anytime soon. The restriction on individual, associational and media freedoms, the close relationships between business and the government and the weakness of the rule of law are just some of the things that preclude Russia from being called a democracy. Moreover, it is inaccurate to continue to view Russia as a country in transition. The regime seems quite stable; with little real movement towards democracy. Russia is a largely consolidated illiberal semi-authoritarian regime. 

While the ideological divisions between the U.S. and Russia are not what they were during the Cold War, the regimes are sufficiently different, with sufficiently different foreign policy goals, to make real cooperation between the two countries on a range of economic issues unlikely.

The new semi-authoritarian Russia has clearly reasserted itself as a major player in global politics, particularly but not exclusively in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. The war between Russia and Georgia should have been a reminder to the U.S., but it was in fact more like a wake up call, that Russia seeks to once again position itself as a major player in global politics.

Russia, through its war with Georgia, opposition to the U.S. on the question of independence of Kosovo, cooperation with countries like Iran and Venezuela which are hostile to the U.S., has made it clear that it does not want to work within the rules, structures and conventions which have been laid out for them, largely by the U.S. For example, while NATO expansion and democracy assistance in the former Soviet Union have been popular components of U.S. foreign policy, for years, Russia has viewed these projects quite differently, seeing them as western encroachment and threats to their security. Similarly, Russia has sought to establish its own sphere of influence where the U.S. and Europe should not be allowed to exercise influence in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and most of the former Soviet Union. The war in Georgia and Russian policy towards Ukraine have made it clear that this sphere of influence would preclude true independence or sovereignty for those countries. The question for the west is what, if anything, are we going to do about it.

U.S. policy, if it can be called that, towards Russia over the last eight years has been hindered by underestimating Russia's strength while overestimating Russia's ability and willingness to work constructively and cooperatively with the U.S. For this reason, notions that the U.S. can make an agreement with Russia so that Russia would be able to assert its influence, (read: undermine sovereignty), in places like the Caucasus, in exchange for cooperation on bigger issues such as Iran, are somewhat wrongheaded and overly simple. It is, therefore, essential that U.S. policy towards Russia be grounded in a more accurate assessment of Russia's power and intentions. It is also essential, although more difficult, to recognize both the limits of American power in the post post-Cold War period, and the absolute necessity of cooperation with our European allies if we are to craft an effective Russia policy.

Russia, in recent months, has made the extent to which it will go to pursue their goals in its "near abroad" apparent. Equally apparent has been the inability of the U.S., or the west more broadly to stop them. The challenge for both the U.S. and Europe is to craft a policy towards Russia grounded in a recognition of political realities and aiming towards mutual, cohesive goals. A new Cold War is neither a wise or plausible option, but meaningful cooperation between the U.S. and Russia is equally unlikely.

Instead the U.S. must recognize that Russia is a powerful and often unfriendly country. We then must determine on which issues we are flexible and on which we are not and craft policy accordingly. This used to be called diplomacy; perhaps we should go back to that.