Relations between Russia and the West will worsen after the G8 summit

Imperceptibly, American-Russian relations have crossed a dangerous line. The trend can only be reversed by a fundamental reconsideration of basic foreign policy in both countries – but it’s clear that neither Moscow nor Washington have the political will to do so.

The idea that the decision to hold this year’s G8 summit in Russia was too hasty has taken hold in the other G8 countries. Washington is concerned that the meeting might be regarded as conferring international legitimacy on President Vladimir Putin’s policies, and is doing all it can to prevent that. Western leaders fear that in St. Petersburg, President Putin will use the prospect of energy market instability as blackmail, turning the G8 from a club of confederates into an arena for covert power-struggles.

Moscow is annoyed by the fact that this summit is placing it under the microscope of the media and public opinion worldwide. Western analysts are doing autopsies on Russian democracy, trying to figure out the cause of death. Were it not for the St. Petersburg summit, there certainly wouldn’t be this much attention or criticism, or such diagnoses. Washington understands that Putin has outmaneuvered it – but how, and where? And Moscow can’t accept that Russia has lost the battle for its image yet again, though it had every advantage. Opinion in the West has diagnosed Russia as authoritarian; Russia’s battle against this diagnosis seems set to last a long time, and Putin will step down in 2008 as yet another authoritarian leader.

The summit is certain to be successful. Afterwards, however, relations between the West (particularly the United States) and Russia will deteriorate even more rapidly, with the leaders no longer even going through the motions of showing reciprocal trust and hope.

The American establishment’s biggest mistake was its belief that Russia made a deliberate choice not to resist or oppose the United States, because it didn’t want to do so (Russia was being reformed, democratized, Americanized, integrated, submissive, and so on) – rather than the lack of resistance being due to Russia’s military and economic weakness. The Russian elite’s biggest mistake was its hope that America, relieved of its mortal enemy (the USSR), would make the new Russia its strategic partner. But it turned out that in the view of the United States, nuclear parity didn’t give Moscow the right to retain parity in international affairs or politics. Russia was the only country to lose most of its security, and almost all of its international influence, after the end of the Cold War. This happened during the period of maximal rapprochement with the United States.

Americans and Russians assumed, naively, that they share ideologies and political systems. The systems have drawn closer to each other, ideological differences have disappeared, but Russia and the United States are inexorably drawing apart from each other. The idea of international threats and common enemies as a unifying factor has proved insufficient – as the debates over Iraq, Iran, Chechnya and Hamas bear out. Russia and the United States have fundamentally different, often contradictory, standpoints in global politics.

The St. Petersburg summit, where Russia will take the leading role for the first time among the equal rulers of the world, requires us to make a sober assessement of where relations are heading. The recent Council on Foreign Relations report, which caused such a stir in Moscow, advised Washington to move from strategic partnership to limited or selective cooperation with Russia. From there, it’s only one step to declaring a concept of limited, selective deterrence on both sides. That step will be taken within 12 to 18 months. And from there, it’s an easy transition to limited, selective confrontation; this will be welcomed by influential segments of the political establishment in both countries, along with many regional powers who hope that disputes between Russia and the United States will distract attention from local conflicts.

Imperceptibly, American-Russian relations have crossed a dangerous line – and further deterioration is inevitable. Both sides are to blame for this. Both the Kremlin and the White House are calculating their losses, which will mount. The trend can only be reversed by a fundamental reconsideration of basic foreign policy in both countries – but it’s clear that neither Moscow nor Washington have the political will to do so.

Germany did the G8 an unintentional disservice by handing over the chairmanship to Russia. Still, Germany should be thanked for involuntarily provoking a reality check that neither Russia nor the United States have passed.