The Economist reports:
AMERICA’s blunders risk making Russia into an enemy, argues Dimitri Simes of the Nixon Center in Washington, DC, in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs—and if so, watch out.
His main point is that America mistakenly treated Russia as a defeated enemy at the end of the Cold War. After initially cautious and sensible treatment of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, American administrations then lurched between stinginess, indulgence, suspicion and ill-judged bossiness in their dealings with both Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s former president, and then Vladimir Putin, its current leader.
In the early 1990s, when outside money could have helped Mr Yeltsin’s first “reformist” government survive, none was forthcoming. Later billions were squandered on propping up Russia’s precarious, corrupt and ineffective rulers.
Yeltsin’s excessive use of force against the hardline parliament in 1993, and the first Chechen war (1994-6) both went uncriticised, but Mr Putin’s offers of cooperation against terrorism were first spurned (in 1999) and then abused (after 2001). Meanwhile, America recklessly promoted NATO enlargement and encouraged gadflies like Georgia in Russia’s backyard.
For these and other reasons, Russia’s rulers and its people now distrust America deeply. Thanks to the economic resurgence of recent years, America has little influence on events there. Bad job.
This argument has strong points, but many weak ones. Mr Simes is right to say that Russia was not a defeated adversary. But who said it was? He overlooks the main point, which is that the Soviet system (a Russian empire clothed in totalitarian ideology) had indeed been utterly defeated at home and abroad.
It was right and reasonable for the outside world to try to consolidate that victory in any country that showed willing. Russia objected to the world’s efforts to bring security and prosperity to those once-captive nations; this was telling, but no reason to stop.
Secondly, Russian democrats and reformers indeed deserve great credit for the intellectual and political challenge that they posed to the Soviet system. Mr Gorbachev’s initial reforms allowed them to move them from the fringes of public life to the centre of it.
But the Soviet collapse was the triumph of free markets, free elections, free media, free nations. These are values, institutions and habits exemplified by western Europe and north America. It would have been absurd to soft-pedal them in the hour of victory.
Nobody would dispute that the West made plenty of mistakes in the 1990s—and has done so thereafter. The economic history of those years will be the subject of a future column.
But it is hardly fair to criticise America both for being too soft on Russia’s political flaws in the Yeltsin years, and also for promoting NATO membership for the countries worried by just those trends. America’s democracy-promotion efforts may be self-interested, perhaps even cynically so, but they are a great deal better than the democracy-suppression efforts of the Kremlin.
Hawks may quibble with this and much more besides. But they may find Mr Simes’s conclusion surprisingly agreeable. Russia is not an enemy—yet. But it is heading that way, and could become an alarming one. America should therefore continue to cooperate on terrorism, Iran and proliferation, but treat Russia like China or Kazakhstan: hard-headedly. It should use “words and deeds” (tantalisingly, Mr Simes does not elaborate) to show that America will not tolerate any attempt to recreate the Soviet Union.
“Given the Kremlin’s history of poor policy choices, a clash may come whether Washington likes it or not. And should that happen, the United States must approach this rivalry with greater realism and determination than it has displayed in its half-hearted attempts at partnership”. From a quarter sometimes seen as pro-Kremlin, those are striking words.
Edward Lucas, the magazine’s Russia-expert-in-chief, continues the discussion on his blog:
RUSSIA longs to join the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a club mainly comprised of old rich countries that is anxiously trying to expand and stay relevant as the global economy’s centre of gravity shifts south and east.
Earlier this month Poland dropped its objection to Russia, and the OECD agreed to start negotiations. Now the question is whether Russia will manage to raise its standards to the required levels of transparency and good government. If it fails to do so, will the OECD will turn a blind eye, or will the accession talks fizzle out?
Russia first applied to join in 1996, when it was a basket case. Now it is a huge, if not altogether healthy, economy, with GDP over a trillion dollars. That alone is no ticket to membership: China and India are not OECD members, though the organisation is establishing other ties with them.
Since the end of the Cold War, the OECD has been a club strictly for democracies, either rich or nearly so. Now talks have opened with four other countries—Chile, Estonia, Israel and Slovenia—that easily meet that definition, and will likely join pretty quickly. Russia is a different question altogether, both on the demanding technical details of the “roadmap” to meeting OECD standards and on the broader question of “like-mindedness”.
The issue is divisive. Russia’s backers—chiefly Germany and France—prize engagement over the finer points of OECD integrity. Other countries, including but not only Sweden, Britain and America, are more dubious.
Such sceptics note the effects of Russia’s behaviour in other multilateral organisations: it has crippled the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, turning a once-lively democracy-promotion organisation into a sterile talking shop. It has discredited the Council of Europe, which is meant to be the continent’s human rights guardian.
Russia throws its weight around in the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (though even that body flinched when it turned out last week that its partner in a planned venture-capital fund was in fact a Kremlin-sponsored corporate raider). Optimism (or wishful thinking) brought Russia into the then G-7 in 1998. Few would argue in retrospect that this was a wise move.
If Russia joins the OECD while making only pretend reforms, the problem is severe: predatory state activity and other forms of lawless capitalism are certainly not confined to Russia. Once the OECD loses its bark and bite, the developed world will be without its best watchdog on issues of global importance, including money laundering, bribery, corporate governance and reform of bureaucracy.
Will it happen? The OECD operates on the basis of consensus, so all 30 members will need to be satisfied that Russia has truly changed. In theory, that’s a big safeguard. But political pressure, particularly when exercised through big countries, has a way of flattening even the rockiest mountains.
A common Kremlin tactic is to escalate discussion of practical issues to a higher level where political or commercial considerations trump everything else. When President Nicolas Sarkozy of France congratulated Vladimir Putin on his party’s supposed victory at the polls, he demolished the already feeble common EU position criticising the blatant shortcomings of Russia’s parliamentary election. That the French auto manufacturer Renault clinched a juicy deal in Russia later that week was doubtless pure coincidence.
The danger is that Russia’s membership negotiations become politicised too. Objective, practical questions of shortcomings, remedies and evidence may become agenda items to be horse-traded elsewhere. So OECD members will need to stay focussed and resolute when considering Russia’s application. Alas, these aren’t words that leap to mind concerning the West’s approach to the Kremlin so far.