Russia's turn West: sea change or opportunism?

Author:Nichols, Thomas M.

"We sail in the same boat," an aide to Russian president Vladimir Putin said in late 2002 of relations between NATO and Russia, adding the hope that greater cooperation and better relations between Moscow and the West will develop "dynamically." (1) But do we, in fact, "sail in the same boat?" Should we? Those who object to a closer partnership typically point out that Russia, while democratic in certain political processes, is not a democracy; that the war in Chechnya is indicative of the true nature of the Russian regime; and that in any case Russia is serving only its own blunted imperial ambitions rather than any sense of the greater good, in effect coaxing the West to put its stamp of approval on Moscow's efforts to recapture the former Soviet empire and to reemerge as a force to be reckoned with in Europe and beyond. The fundamental concern is that Russia cannot (or will not) change, and that Moscow's turn to the West is insincere, motivated by opportunism rather than conviction.

Much of this concern is generated by the perception of President Putin himself, and understandably so. The idea that a former KGB agent, once sworn to the destruction of the Western system of government, has now seen the light and wishes to join the community of civilized nations is difficult for many to accept or comprehend. But this misses the continuity of Russian policy toward the West since 1991. While some of Putin's domestic policies have represented a shift away from those of his predecessor, his foreign policy is recognizable as a continuation and expansion of Boris Yeltsin's generally pro-Western line. Putin, even more than Yeltsin, has placed Russia squarely among the North Americans and Europeans as part of the "West." (Putin and Yeltsin have both shown a pro-Western orientation in their rhetoric, but because Putin almost certainly has more control over the decidedly anti-American Russian military and intelligence services than Yeltsin ever did, he has been more able to make it stick as a policy.)

The source of this decade-long shift toward the West is rooted in a change in the way Russians--and perhaps more important, their leaders--see themselves. This is not to say that Russia has made a dramatic conversion to all of the democratic West's values and norms, but rather that Russia since 1991 (and, some would argue, since about the seventeenth century) has been slowly coming to the realization that its destiny is as a Western power, rather than as an outcast or perpetual challenger to the Western international system. Indeed, when asked in 2002 to name their nation's military and political allies, 27 percent of Russians named Western countries (including 14 percent who named the United States), and 15 percent cited the former Soviet republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States; only 10 percent named communist states such as China, Cuba, and North Korea. (2)

Although the warmer Russian-American relationship has generally been attributed to the effect of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Russia's turn to the West predated the assaults on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. As Timothy Colton of Harvard and Michael McFaul of Stanford noted at the time, "Russians aligned themselves with the United States in its hour of need--and have been mote pro-American in their reactions than their own government--because, in part, of a deep support for democracy." (3) After 9/11, Russian-American cordiality accelerated, not least due to nimble Russian efforts to seize the opportunity. Russian help (or at least the absence of Russian opposition) made the first phase of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan much easier than it might have been otherwise. Putin, despite some opposition to the idea from within the Russian security and defense communities, allowed U.S. aircraft to use Russian airspace and accepted the basing of U.S. forces on former Soviet territory in Central Asia, a n unprecedented move that was dramatic even by the standards of the improved Russian-American relationship. The Americans, for their part, have seemed at times either confused by Russia's cooperativeness, suspicious of it, or uninterested in pursuing it, but this American indecisiveness has so far not deterred the Russians from continuing their efforts to forge stronger ties with the United States and Europe.

Lower tensions between Washington and Moscow are encouraging, but the question remains: is this indicative of a sea change in Russian policy (and Russian political culture), or is Russia only seeking a tactical and opportunistic accommodation for its own ends?

Russia as a Democracy

The answer, in large part, hinges on what kind of regime Russia has really become since 1991. If Russia has genuinely made the turn toward liberty, open markets, and the West, as many of its leading citizens claim--and more tellingly, many others decry--then there is no reason that America's relations with Russia cannot eventually become as cordial as those with other democracies. But if Russia remains an expansionist, repressive power, then the current comity between Moscow and Washington will eventually be seen as an aberration--or worse, a Russian deception, in which the Kremlin successfully played on Western hopes and fears in order to buy time to regain the strength and stature with which to resume its Soviet-era role as a threat to the international status quo.

There is no shortage of anecdotes to serve as reminders that Russia is still a rough and often brutal country. From the carnage in Chechnya to the corrupt dealings of the Russian political and economic elites, from the violence against Russians who run afoul of the nation's criminal organizations to the spectacle this past November of an angry President Putin responding to a question about the Chechen war by inviting a French journalist to come to Moscow to be emasculated, it is understandable that Westerners are reluctant to think of Russia as a democracy, and certainly as anything like a Western democracy.

But Russian democracy, however unlovely, exists. Russian elections are messy, often vicious affairs, but Russians now take it for granted that they will have them and that they matter, no small achievement in a nation that was a communist dictatorship only a dozen years ago. Like Boris Yeltsin before him, Putin seems to realize that to govern, Russia's chief executive needs an actual mandate from the electorate or he risks violence and bloodshed in the streets. Press freedoms are under attack, but while journalists all too often work in an atmosphere of fear, they still work, and information still flows into Russia from all sides. (Indeed, the Kremlin learned the limits of its ability to control information this past October, when Chechen terrorists seized hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theater; despite resorting to such desperate measures as shutting down a television station for what the Russian Press Ministry considered inappropriate coverage of the crisis, the story was covered minute by minute by Russi an and Western media.) Entrepreneurs and other businessmen have become accustomed to the freedom to make decisions in their private enterprises and to congregate with their colleagues abroad. Even if the Kremlin believed it could figure out a way to sustain a free economy among an unfree people, Russia's capitalists would not easily acquiesce in the loss of that freedom. (4)

But if Russia is recognizable as a democracy, is it a democracy whose interests coincide, or at least do not conflict, with those of the West? After all, despite the fact that a plurality of Russians identify the West as an ally, a solid majority over the past several years have continued to believe that the wealthy and powerful Americans are actively thwarting Russia's attempts to return to the...

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