Angela Stent’s The Limits of Partnership traces the development of US-Russian relationship from the end of the Cold War until the present day (or at least, until just before the latest Ukraine crisis). Limits of Partnership lays a fair degree of blame on both sides for the ongoing problems in the relationship, but also identifies the intractable areas, explains why they’re intractable, and considers the deftness of the diplomacy in this context.
Stent worked on Russia policy for both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and has a long career of specialization in the area. She lays out the serial “resets” that the United States and Russia have pursued since the end of the Cold War. All of these resets have, to some degree, been productive, but all have eventually collapsed under the weight on misperception and momentum. In particular, she suggests that Americans have consistently failed to appreciate the importance of core Russian security interests to Russian diplomatic behavior, just as Russians have failed to appreciate the multifaceted nature of American diplomacy. The Americans fail to understand what the Russians find important, while the Russians consistently overestimate their own importance to Washington.
Stent argues that partisan politics have played a relatively minor role in the United States with respect to Russia policy. While the opposition party has often maintained a highly critical stance, in practice the policy undertaken by the four administrations has fallen into a very similar set of ruts, with essentially the same high and low points. She points out, for example, that the Bush administration had very high hopes for relations with Russia, believing that Putin could and would prove a useful partner and ally in the wake of September 11.
Stent also contends that US presidents have consistently over-personalized their interactions with their Russian counterparts. Bill Clinton developed a strong relationship with Boris Yeltsin, a relationship that prevented him from fully appreciating Yeltsin’s faults, or the weak position that Yeltsin occupied at home. George W. Bush famously believed that he could deal productively with Vladimir Putin based on the strength of their developing friendship. Barack Obama tried developing a similar relationship with Dmitry Medvedev, although that one crashed and burned as Medvedev’s real position in the Russian policy hierarchy became clear. These personal relationship became counter-productive as the divergence of Russian and American interests pushed the countries into conflict over key issues. Policymakers on both sides came to view setbacks not merely through the lens of international behavior, but also as personal affronts.
Stent doesn’t fault the foreign policy decision-making of either the United States or Russia for the friction. Rather, she explains how each country decided to treat the relationship, based on its own set of logics (logics that were often opaque to the other side). This is a remarkably even-handed account, in the best kind of way; it explains how each side has understood the serial breakdowns, and explains how the misperceptions on either side have allowed them to happen.
And the biggest obstacle to US-Russia comity has, since the end of the Cold War, been the security of Russia’s near abroad. Policymakers in the Kremlin believe that the United States should recognize its right to unilaterally intervene in Russia’s neighbors through economic and military means, and its right to ensure that governments friendly to Russia come to power, and stay in power. Russia’s concern about its near abroad stems not simply from fear of NATO invasion, but also from fear of revolutionary “contagion” that might destabilize or overturn the Russian government along the same lines as the colored revolutions. This has led to a great deal of confusion on the American part. Bush never fully understand the importance of missile defense to the Russians, in part because he conceived of missile defense in primarily domestic, rather than international, terms. Similarly, while the Obama administration never had quite the rosy appraisal of Russia that characterized the early Bush years, it did overstate the potential gains from the reset, and was not well prepared for managing relations when conflict inevitably emerged.
The neocons, with their relentlessly grim appraisal of the prospect of US-Russian cooperation, occupy an interesting position. It’s not quite correct to say that Cheney was “right” about Russia, but he (and those close to him) did recognize the basic incompatibility of the Bush and Putin views of international affairs. This made them much more realistic about the prospects for long-term collaboration, although it should also be noted that the Cheney-ites were willing to leave money on the table with respect to short-term, transactional agreements with Moscow. It’s only right to say that Russia is a “geopolitical foe” of the United States is we accept as given certain US interests in playing a role in Russia’s near abroad. On a whole host of issues, Russia and the United States can collaborate productively in ways that the neoconservative approach forecloses.
With this is mind, it’s difficult not to sympathize with the Russian government, and even Vladimir Putin. From his point of view, the United States consistently violated the unspoken agreements it had come to with Russia regarding the management of Russia’s near abroad, even as Moscow took costly steps to demonstrate its support of Washington. Putin, in other words, has ample reason to believe that his, and Russia’s, grievances are legitimate. The Russian foreign policy establishment believes that it has been betrayed, and the assessment isn’t absurd, given the way that Washington has struggle with developing and communicating its own approach to the post-Soviet space.
Part of the problem is that Washington has, since the end of the Cold War, approached Russia policy on several mutually-contradictory tracks. On one track, it has sought to accord Moscow with respect by listening to Russia’s voice on major matters. On another, it has attempted to achieve recognizable gains on a series of issues of interest to both countries, such as non-proliferation and counter-terror. And on yet another, it has attempted to detach several states in the Soviet sphere from Moscow’s orbit, an activity to which Moscow reacts with anger and fury, and takes far more seriously than the other two tracks. In part because of the bureaucratic structure of American foreign policy, the parallel development of these policies aren’t always obvious. The United States government is not well-equipped to recognize and respect Russia’s sphere of influence, a problem exacerbated by domestic ethnic lobbies, as well as the periodically eager diplomatic entreaties of Russia’s neighbors.
The broader problem is that there’s no sustainable solution as long as Russia’s neighbors have independent governments. Understandably, Russia’s neighbors are reluctant to accept quasi-permanent subjugation to Moscow’s interests. They appreciate that NATO membership can insulate them from Moscow (there’s little question in my mind that the Baltics would suffer ceaseless economic and political interference if they remained outside the NATO umbrella). At the same time, a strong Moscow never has an interest in allowing free or fair elections in its neighbors, because such elections might bring to power pro-Western governments that (even if they fail to join NATO) might try to escape Moscow’s orbit.
And so Russia’s neighbors have a) good reason to seek US support, and b) a compelling moral case that the United States should support them. It is difficult, in this context, for Washington to supply a blanket guarantee to Russia that it will not entertain such entreaties, and it’s become even more difficult for Russia to believe the bland assurances that the United States offers about respecting Russian security interests. This is a fundamental, enduring conflict, and it’s not obvious that any sort of “grand bargain” can resolve it.
Stent is clear, however, that the United States and Russia have accomplished a great deal over the past two decades, despite these differences. On non-proliferation (both bilateral and global multilateral), economic governance, terrorism, Iran, and a range of other issues, US-Russian collaboration has borne fruit. Indeed, Stent points out that Putin has facilitated the central economic objectives of the United States with respect to Russia, which involve the security of US investments, the security of Russian energy production, and the full entry of Russia to the global system of economic governance.
For my part, I think it’s entirely sensible to recognize that Russia views its near abroad as a core security interest, and that Moscow will react poorly to what it perceives as US inroads into that area. In many cases, a practical appreciation of this should forestall US action; the US was right not to intervene in the South Ossetia War, and has (by and large) pursued a reasonable course of action with respect to limiting its support for Ukrainian military activity. The US shouldn’t even consider fighting a war against Russia in order to save Donetsk and Luhansk, neither of which are worth the bones of a single Pennsylvanian grenadier.
This view is not, however, incompatible with an appreciation that Moscow seeks the political, economic, and social domination of its neighbors, and that given a free hand it will exercise this domination through a variety of violent, anti-democratic means. “Recognizing Russian security interests” means not recognizing the right Russia’s neighbors to chart their own path. At certain times, it may be possible to “peel off” certain of Russia’s neighbors and grant them (through NATO) what amounts to immunity from Russian interference. Another way of phrasing is that Russia’s security interest are real, and should have an impact on the practical application of foreign policy, but they’re also morally and ethically abhorrent, and the United States has no particular responsibility to respect them beyond what the practical demands.