Russian-American relations: time for Russia to set the agenda

In relations with the United States, Russia should act according to its strategic national interests only. This is precisely what Vladimir Putin explained so passionately in his recent Munich speech. Russia should work with the next US administration on the principles set out by Putin in Munich.

President George W. Bush and his administration will remain in charge of the world’s most powerful country for another 22 months or so. Many in the US political establishment already feel sorry for the next president, realizing that instead of pursuing his own policies, he will certainly have to focus on sorting out the problems created by his predecessor. Presumably, the 44th president will spend at least all of his first term doing that. Consequently, many other countries, including Russia, can already predict what most of the next US president’s actual agenda will be like, and prepare their policies on America in advance.

In my view, three interrelated tasks should be Moscow’s immediate priorities in relations with the United States.

First: as long as President Bush remains in the White House, Russia should prevent any drastic deterioration in Russian-American relations, regardless of any provocations on the part of Washington or other “well-wishers.” Moreover, Moscow should try to find ways of improving and stabilizing relations, adding positive content. The next American president must not be placed in a position where he regards the bilateral relations inherited from the Bush-Putin duo as an unpleasant problem – because he won’t have time, opportunity, desire, or any great need to solve it.

Second: it’s important to start working actively with Bush’s most likely successors, their foreign policy teams, and the American media. Russia, Russia’s problems, and Russia’s policies must not be hostages to American domestic political battles, as has been the case in the past. But it would be an even greater mistake to remain passive during the American election campaign, without attempting to convince the American public and political establishment that cooperation with Moscow on a number of vital issues for the United States is valuable and effective. Moscow frequently makes the mistake of assuming that we don’t need America, but America does need Russia, so all we have to do is sit and wait until they approach us and ask for help. As past experience shows, they might not approach us at all – or if they do, they might demand rather than ask, twisting our arms.

The next 18 months will be exactly the right time for Moscow to demonstrate its goodwill, abilities, and resources, attempting to overcome the anti-Russian trend which has taken shape in the American media – acting professionally, with an understanding of the American mindset, political culture, and the situation at home and abroad. No matter who comes to power in the United States, they should not start out by thinking of Russia as an unfamiliar, negative, unfriendly, aggessive quantity. Making an effort here is in Moscow’s strategic interests, and no one but Moscow itself can handle this task.

Third: in the time remaining until the American presidential election, it would be preferable for Moscow to work out the basic principles, goals, and content of its policy on the United States. It should not repeate the mistakes of the past, when the bilateral relations agenda was largely shaped by Washington as an improvised tactical reaction to the international situation from the standpoint of American interests. The next president of the United States won’t have time for Russia. This is a good thing, in part – but it might lead to Washington ignoring Russia’s interests even more than it does now. It seems to me that Russia has a chance to become the leader rather than the follower in shaping the bilateral relations agenda.

This should be done in a well-considered manner, without any excessive optimism or hopes. Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Vladimir Putin all started out as pro-American politicians, but by the end of their periods in office they had been disillusioned, outmaneuvered, or simply deceived by their American partners. As a result, they all ended up in opposition to Washington’s policies. So perhaps it’s time to change this trend, so that Russia’s next president can start out by demonstrating overt skepticism and distrust of America, while also showing goodwill and readiness to cooperate on equal terms.

But action must be taken, based on a clear understanding of Russia’s national interests. Moscow should not do anything for the United States or for the sake of the United States. It wouldn’t be appreciated, anyway. The language of national interests is what America understands best – its own political culture is based on that. The United States never makes any foreign policy moves contrary to its own national interests. Not for the sake of Russia, or Ukraine, or Georgia. No matter how far apart the national interests of the United States and Russia may be at present, they are the only possible basis for a dialogue on equal terms, mutual respect, and recognition from the American establishment. If the Americans see – as they have in the past – that what they’re dealing with in Russia is not an elite united around national interests, but a power-struggle among corrupt special interest groups, all kinds of “families” and clans, then the Americans will once again be tempted to take advantage of that for their own benefit.

In relations with the United States, Russia should act according to its strategic national interests only. This is precisely what Vladimir Putin explained so passionately in his recent Munich speech. I believe this was a correct and timely message. But did the White House, absorbed in its in own internal quarrels as usual, hear that message? Hardly at all. Over the next 18 months, Russia needs to make some serious preparations for working with the new US administration on the principles set out by Putin in Munich. Then Putin’s successor will find it much easier to engage in constructive dialogue on equal terms with his American partner, and bilateral relations won’t resemble a roller-coaster – an attraction known in Russia as “American hills.”