maandag, juli 24, 2006

U.S.-Russia Relations Through the Prism of Ideology door Leon ARON in Russia In Global Affairs, Juli/Sept. 2006.

Charles de Gaulle once remarked that countries have no friends, only interests. He failed to specify, however, that those are interests interpreted by the elites (in authoritarian regimes) or, if we speak of democracies, by the elites and public opinion.

In turn, the interpretation of national interests stems from the ruling ideology, that is, the nations’ leaders’ view about how their country should live and what it should aspire to. This is why relations between countries, as a rule, reflect the very essence and internal political priorities of the regime and the place of other countries within these coordinates.

The present ties between the United States and Russia are no exception. The current deterioration of their mutual relations, which stems from their policies and which is likely to persist at least for the next three years, is not a result of a conspiracy or someone’s ill will. The roots and dynamics of this process lie in the way the regimes in Moscow and Washington implement their strategic agendas, based on their ideologies, and in how they view – again through the prism of ideology – their partner’s responses to their actions.


Washington’s present ideology is based on two premises, two overlapping leitmotifs. First is the 9/11 tragedy. Since that fateful day, the White House has been gripped by anxiety about the threat of Islamic extremism, the likelihood of a new terrorist act, and the possible transfer of weapons of mass destruction (above all, nuclear weapons) to terrorists by unstable, fundamentalist, or Anti-American states.

Another “birthmark” of this administration is its neo-conservatism. There is much nonsense in the present talk about the almost conspiratorial, Bolshevik-like unanimity of the neocons, and their “puppeteering” control over the White House. The institute where the author of this article works is often called the “brain trust of neo-conservatism,” and from the inside these conjectures look very far from the reality, to put it mildly.

Yet if there are any postulates of “neo-conservative ideology” in foreign policy, two are central. First, the interests and security of the United States are much easier to defend in a world of political freedom. Hence, the adoption, at least as an ideal, of President John Kennedy’s inaugural address of 1961, long forgotten by his own party, the Democrats: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” From this follows the second principle: for neo-conservatives, the link between the domestic and the foreign policies of states is of fundamental importance.

The evolution of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is very indicative in this respect. Her doctoral thesis was on the Soviet Army’s suppression of the “Prague Spring” in 1968. Since then, military aspects of the U.S.-Soviet relations and arms control were among her main scholarly interests. Rice became a protÎgÎ of General Brent Scowcroft, a leading Washington “realist” and National Security Adviser to George Bush Sr., who eventually appointed Rice as his assistant on Soviet affairs. In August 1991, in response to Russia’s national-liberation movements and the democratic revolution, Bush solemnly cautioned the Ukrainian people against “suicidal nationalism.” Neo-conservative critics have since used his speech, which became known in political circles as “Chicken Kiev,” as an example of the narrow-mindedness of the “realists” and their political and historical deafness.

Scowcroft personified the idea of stability as a basic value and an objective of American foreign policy. And when in 1998, Rice began to advise the then governor of Texas, George W. Bush, on foreign policy, judging by Bush’s speeches during the presidential campaign and signals from the White House in the first nine months of the new administration, a realist policy clearly prevailed. It did not really matter what kind of state Russia was: Soviet totalitarian, new democratic, authoritarian China-style, or even “failed,” to use Rice’s term. Sorting it all out would take too long and was unnecessary. The important thing was how many nuclear-tipped strategic missiles the Russians had. This seemed to be the only subject on the bilateral agenda. (Shortly after George W. Bush came to power, one of the architects of U.S.-Russian relations in the Bill Clinton administration complained with unconcealed irritation in a narrow circle of people that in the course of the transfer of power from Clinton to Bush, Rice demonstrated a pronounced disregard for Russia’s domestic problems.)

September 11, 2001 blew up the axioms of realism. The maintenance of the status quo suddenly turned out to be an unacceptable risk. What happened was a change of paradigms. President Bush and his National Security Advisor became, rather unexpectedly, neo-conservatives.

America, the strongest and most self-sufficient power, which a year, a month or even a week before that terrible day had rested on the laurels of victory in the Cold War, fell from Olympus onto hard cold earth – injured, frightened, alone and searching for friends. Yes, friends, as opposed to mere business partners, like Saudi Arabia, which had nurtured 15 out of the 19 terrorists that attacked the U.S.

It was then that Russia burst upon the stage, crisply and competently, as if it had been waiting for that moment, and had done all the “homework.” Vladimir Putin called George Bush minutes after the attack. Moscow consented to the use of Russian airspace by U.S. and NATO aircraft and the deployment of their bases in Central Asia; cooperation between Russian and Western special services; the sharing of Russian intelligence on Afghanistan and Russia’s extensive ties to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Moscow offered all of this without any preconditions, bargaining or demanding anything in return. (On top of this, Russia closed its naval base in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh and shut down an eavesdropping station in Lourdes, Cuba.)

When the essence of particular regimes and their ideology suddenly became important for the newly fledged neo-conservatives from the White House (hence the slogan “If necessary, we will change regimes”), the situation in Russia also acquired new significance. The number of its missiles became a third-rate issue. It turned out that the Russia of the autumn of 2001 was not at all a China; Russia enjoyed political freedoms, the freedom of conscience, a multi-party system, a real (at that time) opposition, free press, and uncensored culture. Also, liberal reforms in the economy were conducted in earnest, competently and on a large scale.

It was this concurrence of basic values and many vital national interests (although far from all) that laid the grounds for a long-term, strategic alliance between Russia and the United States.

However, following a paradox, so liked by History (and Friedrich Engels), this triumph already contained the seeds of defeat. The same neo-conservative approach to defining U.S. national interests that earlier had brought about the closest rapprochement between Moscow and Washington since the end of WWII and President Putin’s visit to the Bush’s family ranch in Crawford, Texas, became the cause of strain in the relations between the two powers, when the Kremlin changed its domestic and, as a result, foreign policy priorities.


In the second half of 2003, it became more and more obvious that Putin was not set upon mending the “mistakes” of the 1990s, while continuing with Boris Yeltsin’s strategic line, albeit in a more consistent, “cleaner” and “more civilized” way. On the contrary, one had the impression that the dominant ideology was informed by the shame for the “chaos” of the 1990s, above all, in the weakening of the state. The simple wisdom that chaos and weakened statehood accompany all great revolutions was either unknown to or dismissed by the authorities.

In this perspective, domestic and foreign policy was viewed as a result of a conspiracy, as a product of refined political technologies paid for by the oligarchs, as opposed to being the result of conscious and free choice by the majority of the Russians. The choice, although not perhaps implemented in the best way, was confirmed by the election of Yeltsin as president of the then Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) in June 1991; by the April 25, 1993 referendum; by the crucial presidential election of 1996; and by the still free election campaign of 1999, when the leftist “popular-patriotic” majority in the State Duma was buried for good. Returning in force were the traditional maxims of the Russian statehood: the state equals society; everything that is good for the state is a priori good for the country; the strengthening of the state is the strengthening of society. Only two leaders in Russian history, Alexander II and Boris Yeltsin, realized that a weaker state could – in certain circumstances and only in the long term – strengthen society. Peter the Great and Joseph Stalin brought the opposite tendency to the extreme.

Ergo, the bureaucracy (naturally, educated, intelligent hard-working and, of course, incorruptible) is a much more effective and reliable agent of progress than the free press (corruptible, focused on sensations and caring only for profits, instead of state interests), the average voter (so naÕve, uneducated and unpredictable), independent judges (such bribe-takers) or, God forbid, private businessmen.

If so, the Kremlin must have concluded, the decentralization of state policy and economy, carried out in the 1990s, was inadequate in principle and in many respects even harmful. Thus, the state must reanimate its role, seize the “commanding heights” in the economy, and return the “diamonds” of the country’s economic crown to the rightful owner: the state. Most importantly, it was deemed necessary to establish the executive’s control over the other branches of government and reassert the Kremlin’s dominant role in politics.

Changes in foreign policy followed logically. The Kremlin no longer viewed the generally pro-Western policy of the previous regime as the consequence of a commonality of interests, as a search for ways toward “universal values” and the “European home” or for a place in the union of “civilized” states.

These ideals, designed by Mikhail Gorbachev, Alexander Yakovlev, Eduard Shevardnadze and Boris Yeltsin and rooted in the era of glasnost, were now subject to an ideological revision. The breakup of the Soviet Union was described as the biggest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. Hence, the new imperatives in Russia’s foreign policy: not to speed up the pace of the integration into “the West” and make no sacrifices for its sake (for instance, with regard to political freedoms inside the country, or relations with pro-Russian dictatorships in the Commonwealth of Independent States). Wherever possible, Russia will seek to restore and strengthen its former ties on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Those new states that assist this process will be rewarded, while those standing in the way will be punished.

Of course, this is not a return to the policy of the Soviet Union. After all, stability of borders and friendly, or better yet, vassal regimes along the perimeter was an imperative of national security of all great continental powers, from ancient Babylon, Persia, China and Rome to the U.S., at least through the 1970s. This objective naturally fits into the meta-goal of restoring the unity of the post-Soviet space (and Russia’s superpower hegemony in the region). Hence the Russian equivalent of support for “our sons of a bitch” – a phrase taken from the pages of U.S. foreign-policy vocabulary [former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when speaking of Nicaragua’s dictator Anastasio Somoza, said, “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” – Ed.]. The Kremlin’s support for the “last dictator in Europe,” Alexander Lukashenko, evokes irritation and incomprehension in the White House. Moscow knows much better than Washington the odious nature of the Belarusian regime, let alone the personal qualities of its leader; yet apparently it considers the worsening of its relations with the West an acceptable price to pay for the advancement toward the goal.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia’s foreign policy shows obvious signs of pragmatism, that is, the wish to have its hands free and be above the fight, as well as a striving for classical Realpolitik. In other words, it does not want to bind itself by abstract principles (e.g., “Western civilization,” “freedom” and “human rights”) but to have the freedom to maneuver; not to enter ideological alliances but to work with countries mainly on a bilateral basis. Long-term results are less important than the nation’s role today and the dividends it yields now. As Leon Trotsky used to say, “The end is nothing; the movement is everything.”

Russia resorts to tactics known in business as ‘asset leveraging,’ that is, the most effective placement of assets. The emphasis is made on areas of “comparative advantages,” be it nuclear technologies, advanced conventional arms systems or, most importantly, energy. Another integral part of the new Russian foreign policy is the diplomatic equivalent of arbitrage, i.e. attempts to earn a profit from structural defects of the pricing mechanism responsible for the difference in prices on the same products on different markets. In other words, maneuvering on the knife blade (and the sharper, the better).

The use of comparative advantage is behind, for example, the arms supplies to China, which represents the largest market for Russian military technologies: new aircraft (including the giant IL-76 cargo plane and the IL-78 refueling aircraft), ships and submarines. In August 2005, Russia and China held their first-ever joint military exercise, which involved over 10,000 troops. There is irritation in Washington, which has de-facto pledged to defend Taiwan from an attack by Beijing. There is also the danger of selling weapons to Russia’s geopolitical rival (which has never recognized the “unequal treaties” of 1858 and 1860, under which Russia acquired huge areas in Siberia); and the possibility that China will achieve nuclear parity with Russia within the next decade. Yet Russia seems to believe the risk is outweighed by her eliminating the mistakes of the 1990s: acquiring “independence” on the global scene, prestige and billions of dollars.

Another example can be found in Russia’s deal with Syria, a totalitarian regime supporting terrorism, to supply it with SA-18 tactical air defense systems. To Russia, this agreement is a way to restore its former positions in the Middle East, which it lost after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The invitation of Hamas leaders to Moscow was, among other things, an attempt at arbitrage in the hope of achieving important concessions (for example, renunciation of the permanent war against Israel) and, as a consequence, establishing Russia’s reputation as an indispensable mediator in conflicts between the East and the West. As Napoleon (and later Lenin) used to say, “On s’engage et puis on voit!” (First engage in a serious battle and then see what happens).

Perhaps the best example of the “New Line” in Moscow’s foreign policy is its relations with Iran, which have caused the most serious Moscow-Washington conflict to date. Since the resumption last December of conventional arms supplies to Teheran, suspended by the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission at Washington’s insistence in the summer of 1995 (over five years before that, Russia had sold to Iran aircraft, battle tanks and submarines worth about $2 billion), Moscow has supplied Iran with the Tor-1 mobile air defense missile systems, MIG-29 fighter aircraft, and coast guard ships; in total, these purchases cost about one billion dollars. As Russia’s gold and hard currency reserves now stand at about 300 billion dollars, profits are certainly not its main objective here. Rather, it is using the situation with Iran as a way for achieving the same meta-goal. According to Moscow expert Radzhab Safarov (and as the Kremlin architects of this policy seem to see it), Iran offers Moscow a “unique and historic chance to return to the world scene as a key actor and as a superpower reborn. If Russia firmly upholds Iran’s interests in this conflict, it will immediately regain prestige in the Moslem world and globally. And no financial offers by the United States will be able to change its strategy.”

Hence the tactics used by Russia in the negotiations between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Britain, Russia, China, the U.S. and France) plus Germany and Iran: postponing “the moment of truth” as long as possible, while defending the status quo and delaying the sale of the “goods” (Russia’s support) in order to raise their price. As for public statements by Iran’s leader that he believes the 12th imam will appear after a global catastrophe (that is, nuclear war), and that Israel must be wiped off the face of the Earth, these statements seem to be interpreted in the Kremlin as daydreams, out of sync with the reality of our times.


In a different time, Moscow’s present policy would probably not cause serious problems in its relations with Washington. After all, the U.S. has become accustomed (although, not without irritation, of course) to the diplomacy of France, which, after the loss of its status as a great power after WWII, also practiced pragmatism and diplomatic arbitrage in its relations with the main blocs in the Cold War. But times – and values – have changed. Even with America bogged down in the Iraqi quagmire, such an approach is anathema to the American foreign-policy establishment (except for the fringe isolationists on both flanks of the political field). The U.S. “post-September 11” activism – with the emphasis made on freedom and democracy as central elements of national security and on the “proliferation of democracy” as a major way to ensure it – has bumped up hard against the post-Soviet and post-imperial restoration of Russia, whose essence is economic and political re-centralization and Realpolitik abroad.

Due to their difference in values, Russia and America have started to drift in opposite directions; the great ships have begun moving away from each other. But they have not yet lost visual contact. This is due to special “anchors” – the main assets of one side that meet the strategic interests of the other.Russia’s assets are of major importance for the fulfillment of four long-term and strategic tasks facing Washington: achieving victory in the global war against terrorism; preventing nuclear proliferation; ensuring energy security; and developing commonality of interests vis-È-vis China, a future conflict with which seems inevitable to many among the U.S. foreign-policy elites.

Incidentally, it is the conflicting estimations of the importance of these Russian assets as compared to the “liabilities” of the Kremlin’s domestic policy that cause frictions inside the U.S. administration, as well as Washington’s inconsistency concerning its Russia policy, which so often irritates Moscow, – not the personalities: for example, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Eric Edelman, on the one hand, and George Bush and Thomas Graham, on the other. In this inevitable ambivalence of Russia’s image in Washington, one of the two positions prevail: the geopolitical, which is centered around interests (“anchors”), or the neo-conservative, which attaches particular importance to etatist tendencies inside Russia. In Moscow’s first-priority strategic interests, America is primarily viewed as an ally in the struggle against Moslem terrorism, including Chechen militants. Second, Moscow expected from the United States understanding of its “special role” (and hence special interests) in the post-Soviet space, which is populated by 25 million ethnic Russians and supplied (until recently essentially on credit) with Russian gas, oil and electricity. Third, Russia hoped for support for its integration into the global economic system, starting with the WTO.

But perhaps the most important American asset, the most valuable thing that the United States can give Russia, is respect and equality. However much semi-official propagandists may denounce America in pro-Kremlin newspapers and TV channels, and however much they may speak of a “change of guidelines” – Europe, Asia or Eurasia – to ordinary Russian people and the elites alike parity with America (no matter in what area: in armies, continental missiles, satellites, meat, corn, democracy or economic growth rates) and its respect for Russia has always been one of the main legitimizing factors in its domestic policy. This was equally applicable during the rule of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. No other country or region – Europe, Asia, Germany, China, France or Japan – come ever close to America.

This list of vital mutual interests is nothing new, of course. What is new is that in the last few years, these assets have no longer been sustained or burnished by ideological commonalities and, as a result, have begun to rapidly depreciate. The anchors’ chains are beginning to rust. What formerly would be an easily solvable technical problem is becoming a source for deep and persisting resentment and serious conflict. The number of such problems is growing with every new round of this vicious circle.

In particular, from Washington’s point of view (together with American public opinion, which is much more important in the long term), Russia’s image as an ally in the counterterrorist struggle has been seriously compromised over the last year by Moscow’s efforts to establish special relations with the Hamas movement, as well as by the shipments of missiles to Syria and MIG-29 fighters and Mi-24 helicopters to Sudan, a nation which uses terror and even genocide (in the Darfur region) against its citizens.

As regards the non-proliferation of nuclear weapon, the hopes that Russia would be able to assist the settlement of the North Korean crisis by influencing its former client, Pyongyang, have not materialized. This disappointment, however, pales in comparison with the consequences of Moscow’s position on the Iranian issue. One gets the impression that Moscow underestimates the risks involved in its relations with the U.S. (and, by now, with Europe as well) as it plays the role of a diplomatic advocate and supplier of advanced conventional armaments and civil nuclear technologies to a regime that openly calls for attacks against the United States. Furthermore, this is a government that finances, arms and trains terrorists, and one that publicly declared its plans to start enriching uranium, the primary component for nuclear arms production.

Perhaps Russia has already passed the “no-return point” and, to borrow language from the world of business, no amount of hedging can save it from serious losses from the liquidation of the market positions it staked out. In the long run, in order not to jeopardize the Group of Eight summit, Russia is likely to vote in the UN Security Council for sanctions against Iran (or at least to abstain). The latter will almost certainly respond by a withdrawal from the non-proliferation regime, thus provoking further sanctions against it. These sanctions may include a ban on cooperation with Teheran not only in civil nuclear engineering but also in spheres related to conventional armaments, finance, and investment in non-nuclear engineering (gas). Russia has invested in all these areas more than any other country, including in the construction of a nuclear reactor in Bushehr, at a price tag of over one billion dollars. Whatever actions Moscow decides to take in this crisis, it will hardly avoid long-term losses of prestige (not to mention material losses).

Next is the issue of America’s energy security. When the Kremlin vetoed the construction of a private pipeline from Western Siberia to Murmansk, even despite heavy lobbying at the Cabinet level, Washington’s hopes for a partial substitute of oil imports from the Persian Gulf with direct supplies from Russia vanished. Anxiety over the reliability and, most importantly, stability, of the growth of Russian oil exports increased after the YUKOS and Sibneft oil companies fell under state control. The move resulted in a decrease in output growth rates from eight percent on average in the previous seven years to two percent in 2005. For the first time since 1999, the volume of Russian oil supplies to the world market decreased in absolute figures.

No sooner had the West “digested” the short-term suspension of gas supplies to Ukraine, accompanied by a drop in pressure (due to gas siphoning by Ukraine) in pipelines transporting gas to the European Union, than in April 2006 Moscow made a series of menacing statements that reverberated in the West like machine gun volleys from the strategic heights of Russia’s energy and political sectors. Thus, Moscow said it might cut oil and gas supplies to Western Europe in favor of Asian customers if the EU barred Gazprom and Russian oil companies from entering the European retail market. Statements to this effect were made in Moscow by the CEOs of Gazprom and Transneft, Alexei Miller and Simon Vainshtock respectively, and two days later by Vladimir Putin in Tomsk. (Vainshtock even mentioned the amount of oil – 30 million tons a year – which could be exported to the East instead of the West.)

In response, Condoleezza Rice, during a visit to Turkey, expressed fears over Russia’s gas monopoly and called for the construction of a gas pipeline bypassing Russia and running parallel to the Baku-Supsa-Ceyhan oil pipeline. Setting aside the neo-conservative principles, the White House received Ilham Aliyev, who has inherited the “throne” in Azerbaijan, while Vice President Dick Cheney, on a visit to Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, extolled the bilateral “strategic partnership,” while addressing the country’s seemingly president for life, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who received 91 percent of the votes in the latest elections. (After the elections, agents of the Kazakh special services killed one of Nazarbayev’s main political rivals, and another was arrested.) Yet, despite Washington’s advances, Astana still does not transport oil by the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline and, like Ashgabat, has displayed no interest in a gas pipeline that would serve as an alternative to Gazprom’s.

Finally, as Russian policy toward China continues to emphasize arms sales and priority energy supplies, American-Russian cooperation in restraining the ‘Celestial Empire’ looks illusory, even if one takes with a big grain of salt Moscow’s and Bejing’s declarations of eternal friendship and joint opposition to a unipolar world.

The erosion of American assets in Russia has been just as obvious. Moscow has the impression that Russia’s special interests in the post-Soviet space are deliberately ignored, instead of being met with a degree of understanding. The Kremlin perceives anti-authoritarian “colored revolutions” in the Commonwealth of Independent States as being directed against Russia, and blames Washington for these activities. Following the rapid granting of NATO membership to the Baltic States, plans to speed up NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia are viewed by Moscow as a frontal attack on its interests. It is as if the Kremlin has completely forgotten the recent history of its country and is unable to imagine true popular protest, not one that is conspired and paid for from abroad. Such political cynicism is characteristic of all restorations, be it the epoch of Charles II of England or Napoleon III of France.
Moscow’s hopes for at least moral support from the U.S. in the counterterrorist struggle on Russian territory have been disappointed as well. Instead of providing assistance or at least keeping silent on the issue, the Department of State, nongovernmental organizations and the mass media continue to criticize human rights violations in Chechnya and refuse (like the majority of Russians) to view the policy of “Chechenization” (“Kadyrovization”) of the conflict as a reliable way out of the impasse. Besides, following the example of Great Britain, the United States has clearly shown its unwillingness to cooperate with Moscow in extradition of people accused by Russia of aiding and abetting the Chechen terrorists.

The third strategic asset of the U.S. – providing assistance to Russia with integrating into the global economy – has proven to be an even less reliable factor in Moscow’s eyes. Moreover, America has turned out to be, perhaps, the largest roadblock on Russia’s way to WTO membership. Moscow blames Washington for this predicament, although the Bush administration does not set the tone here but obviously follows in the footsteps of powerful business interests. American companies demand effective measures to be taken to combat the large-scale theft of intellectual property, especially music, films and computer programs. In 2005 alone, this piracy cost U.S. copyright owners about two billion dollars. Furthermore, banks want to be given the right to open not only affiliate offices but also branch offices.

The ongoing problems with admission to the WTO have reopened Moscow’s old wound inflicted by the Jackson-Vanik amendment which has been aggravating relations between post-Soviet Russia and the United States for almost 14 years now. The amendment forbids the granting of “most favored nation” treatment to countries with a non-market economy which restrict the right of their citizens to emigrate. Although post-Soviet Russia has lifted all restrictions on trips abroad and emigration and has for at least ten years produced most of its gross domestic product in the non-governmental sector (unlike China, which was granted this status in 2000 despite obvious violations of both conditions), this affront to Russia’s national dignity continues, in essence in violation of America’s own laws.

All of these unfulfilled expectations are undermining an asset that is the most important for Moscow: the realization of parity with America and respect on its part. And now even Russian liberals are calling for the accelerated development and deployment of Topol-M (SS-25) strategic nuclear missiles with multiple re-entry vehicles – mainly in order to make America resume negotiations for mutual reductions of nuclear potentials! Commenting on this position, one of its main advocates, expert Alexei Arbatov, said frankly: “Of course, no one is planning to attack Russia, yet no one wants to negotiate with it, either.” After the Russian president delivered his address to the Federal Assembly two months later, this approach seemed to have become part of official state policy.


The alienation between Washington and Moscow will most likely continue to increase until at least 2009 when new administrations will come to power in both countries. But even then the dynamics is not likely to change in less than a year or two.

This flare-up of tensions is connected to the political calendar: both the United States and Russia will almost simultaneously launch presidential campaigns in which foreign policy, as a rule, ceases to be an esoteric area dominated by the highbrows and breaks out into a political fist fight.

In America, which “loses” Russia every four years since 1996 (later, after the presidential elections, it is “found” again), the attack on the incumbent White House will start earlier than usual: the United States will scrutinize the elections to Russia’s State Duma in December 2007 under the microscope. It is difficult to imagine a situation where there will not emerge numerous unpleasant instances from the point of view of democratic procedures.

Besides, Moscow is very unlucky as far as the personalities are concerned. The most popular Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency today is Senator John McCain, who made the issue of the “lost Russia” a catchphrase of his election campaign in 1999-2000 and whose critical ardor has since been only growing. McCain (like all the other candidates) needs Russia in order to demonstrate his knowledge of foreign-policy matters, as well as the attachment to the moral component of the U.S. behavior in the world. The latter factor has been an indispensable condition of all successful presidential campaigns over the last 25 years, from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to George Bush Jr. (The underestimation of this factor in 1992 was one of the main reasons for the defeat of George Bush Sr, who was accused by Clinton of “coddling the butchers of Tiananmen Square.”) In this context, Cheney’s provocative comments on May 4, 2005 in Vilnius can be interpreted, at least partially, as internal political tactics: a preventive attack intended to let off steam as well as serve as a lightning rod. In other words: Better we attack two months before the G8 summit in St. Petersburg than let John McCain do it two days before it.

But criticism by McCain, who will have to “hold his horses” because of party loyalty, will hardly compare with the storm that will be brought down on the “pro-Russian” White House by the Democrats (most likely by ex-Virginia governor Mark Warner and certainly Hillary Clinton). This will be done in the same way the Republicans did it in 1998-2000, when the subject of Russia was used as a cudgel against Clinton. The refrain of the future Democratic attack is easy to predict: in the 1990s, under Bill and Boris, Russia followed the right path and we were friends, but then along came the neo-conservative Republicans and spoiled everything; now Russia is “lost” as it has come off the democratic rails and instead of warm friendship we now have, at best, “Cold Peace.”

For his part, the Kremlin’s official nominee for the presidency (as well as other candidates) will have to return fire by adding to the dose of anti-Americanism that will be initially prescribed by political consultants for his campaign.

Yet, a head-on confrontation and a new Cold War are highly unlikely, at least for four reasons.

First, despite their erosion, the aforementioned geo-strategic “assets” are far from being depleted and continue to serve as a kind of frame outlining the basic relations between the two countries.

Second, the objectives of Russia’s foreign and defense policies, set in 1992-1993, remain unchanged. They are: Russia as a regional superpower; Russia as a global nuclear superpower; and, most importantly for America, Russia as one of great powers (but not a superpower that would politically compete with the United States worldwide). Although these objectives may irritate Washington now and again, they will hardly evoke its deep anxiety about America’s vital interests.

Third, despite the Kremlin’s inclination to flex its muscles, Russia, unlike the Soviet Union and contemporary China, is not a “revisionist” power that constantly seeks to change the global balance of forces in its own favor. Such efforts require an ideology and, as a result, a system of priorities, which Moscow does not have today and will hardly have in the future. What ideology can we speak of when Russia, while passionately defending Iran’s right to the “peaceful development of nuclear energy” and a resistance to “pressure through force,” simultaneously launches a rocket from its Far Eastern space launch site Svobodny that is carrying an Israeli spy satellite intended to monitor Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear bomb!

The share of the GDP spent by Russia, now rolling in petrodollars, on defense (3 percent) is even less than it did in 1992-1997, after the Russian Federation had inherited an absolutely empty treasury from the Soviet Union, and at least ten times less than the Soviet Union did in 1985. On the basis of its purchasing power parity (in absolute figures estimated for 2005), Russia’s defense spending ($47.77 billion) is more than eleven times less than the outlays on defense in the U.S. ($522 billion).

Yet, the most important factor of counteraction to a new Cold War is the one that the Kremlin strategists have long dismissed with contempt – namely, public opinion. Neither Americans nor Russians will support any confrontation plans of their elites, as they will not view them as necessary.

What did Americans know about the Soviet Union? They knew that it was not allowed (or dangerous) to believe in God and go to church there; that a person making “seditious” speeches or reading banned books could be imprisoned; that this country was a dictatorship in which people could not vote the way they wanted, could not organize a political party, stage public protests, go on strike or go abroad; that Moscow occupied Eastern Europe and was preparing for war against the West. This knowledge was enough for the elites to receive a mandate to wage the Cold War and sacrifice billions of dollars and even the lives of Americans and their allies. Ordinary people did not go to the root of the matter, content to leave that for the elites.

In the late 1980s-early 1990s, ordinary Americans learned that the situation in the Soviet Union had changed. Today, contrary to Russia’s inexplicable qualification in various kinds of “freedom indices” (for example, in frequently quoted annual reports by Freedom House, Russia, since 1994, has been assigned the same category as North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Libya), Americans know that it is still a long way before Russia would turn into an enemy. They know that Russians can go to church or synagogue; travel abroad; write, publish, read and say anything they like. They can participate in demonstrations, go on strike, and vote for anyone they like; no one threatens Eastern Europe, while former members of the Warsaw Pact and even former Soviet republics have entered or are about to enter NATO. The remaining issues are for the elites and have not yet formed a critical mass necessary to change the post-Soviet stereotypes that shaped public attitudes toward Russia almost 15 years ago. According to a February 2006 public opinion poll in the U.S., Russia ranks tenth among 22 most popular countries: 54 percent of Americans had a positive attitude toward the country (France received as many votes), while China received 10 percent less votes. Last year’s poll conducted by the Harris firm showed that only 8 percent of Americans considered Russia an “enemy.”

In Russia, the situation is actually the same, despite recurrent upsurges of anti-Americanism brought about by the developments in Iraq, the Olympic Games, or various colored revolutions. While Russians continue to be very critical of U.S. foreign policy, according to a March 2006 poll by the Levada Center, 66 percent of Russians expressed a good or very good attitude toward the U.S. (against 17 percent whose opinion was bad or very bad). This proportion has not changed since December 2001. (In America, the number of people who have a very good perception of Russia has been exceeding 80 percent since February 2000.)

So the ship will not sink. Yet be prepared for some heavy rolling, pitching, rocking and seasickness. Put on your life jackets and try to stay calm.

Leon Aron is Director of Russia studies at the American Enterprise Institute

Bron: Russia in Global Affairs