Report: Relations with Russia Moving in ‘Wrong Direction’

WASHINGTON – Fifteen years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, bilateral ties between Russia, its successor state, and the United States are "headed in the wrong direction," according to a new report [.pdf] released here this week by the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

In addition to disagreements over a growing number of foreign policy issues – most recently, Moscow’s hosting of top officials of the Palestinian Hamas party – the U.S. is concerned about internal developments in Russia, particularly what it regards as the growing concentration of power in the Kremlin under President Vladimir Putin.

"At a time when the president of the United States has made democracy a goal of American foreign policy, Russia’s political system is becoming steadily more authoritarian," according to "Russia’s Wrong Direction: What the United States Can and Should Do," the 94-page product of a CFR task force that included many top U.S. experts and former policy-makers who have specialized in Russian affairs.

"Russia is a less open and less democratic society than just a few years ago, and the rollback of pluralism and centralization of power may not have run their course," according to the report, which is likely to strengthen those in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush and Congress who have called for a tougher line with Moscow.

The task force, which was chaired by former vice-presidential candidates from both major U.S. parties, comes amid growing signs of contention within the administration over Russia policy.

According to a recent Washington Post report, Vice President Dick Cheney convened a group of independent Russia specialists to his office in January as part of a review initiated by his office of policy toward Moscow. He also asked Director of National Intelligence (NDI) John Negroponte for an assessment of Putin’s future plans and policies.

One month later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Russia specialist in her own right and widely regarded as the chief defender of maintaining good ties with Moscow within the administration, convened a similar group to discuss Putin’s trajectory in what was taken as a response to Cheney’s moves.

The Post described the two moves as preliminary skirmishing in advance of Russia’s assumption of the chairmanship of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized nations in mid-July for the first time since it joined the exclusively Western Group of Seven (G7) in 1998.

Because Putin is seen increasingly as taking Moscow in a direction that threatens U.S. and Western interests, the administration has begun considering how it may take part in the St. Petersburg meeting without appearing to endorse Putin’s leadership. One prominent Republican and possible president candidate in 2008, Sen. John McCain, has even called for Bush to boycott the summit in protest.

CFR’s task force, which was chaired by former Rep. Jack Kemp, the Republican candidate for vice president in 1996, and former Sen. John Edwards, the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate in 2004, does not go nearly as far and, indeed, repeatedly stresses the importance of "positive" engagement with Russia.

"On a whole host of issues – Iran, energy, HIV/AIDS, and preventing terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction – it’s vital to have Russia on our side," Kemp said, adding that the G8 summit offered "a real opportunity to lock in more helpful Russian policies. But if we don’t see progress, people are going to ask what Russia is doing in the G8 in the first place."

The best way to proceed at the summit, according to the task force, is to "make clear that [Russia’s chairmanship] does not exempt [its] policies and actions from critical scrutiny" and, at the same time, to effect "a de facto revival of the [G7]" that will enable Washington and other Western states to assume a "stronger coordinating role" within the G8.

The report’s dominant tenor is one of disappointment and concern over the way U.S.-Russian relations have developed over the last several years. "U.S.-Russia relations are clearly headed in the wrong direction," it asserts. "Contention is crowding out consensus. The very idea of a ‘strategic partnership’ no longer seems realistic."

"U.S.-Russia relations are now marked by a growing number of disagreements. The partnership is not living up to its potential," according to the report, which recommends a policy of "selective cooperation" and "selective opposition."

Aside from what the report calls Putin’s "de-democratization," the greatest concerns listed by the task force include its recent use of energy exports as a weapon, particularly against countries in its "near abroad" – namely, Ukraine and Georgia.

"The reassertion of government control over the Russian energy sector increases the risk that this weapon will be used again," according to the report.

Similarly, it cites a growing split with Washington over Bush’s "war on terror." In particular, recent efforts by Moscow – along with China – to curtail U.S. access to military bases in Central Asia; and to engage Hamas, as it did in meetings in the Russian capital just last week, "[fit] into a worrying pattern," according to the report, which added that Moscow’s efforts to crush the insurgency in Chechnya have not helped.

At the same time, the report notes that U.S.-Russian cooperation on a number of fronts has been valuable and continues. These include programs designed to increase the security of nuclear materials and other sensitive technologies and to encourage growing U.S. trade and investment in Russia, and more recent cooperation on curbing Iran’s alleged ambition to acquire nuclear weapons.

It also notes that Russia has experienced significant economic progress under Putin. Due in part to the rise in global energy prices, the number of people below the government’s poverty line fell from 42 million to 26 million between 2000 and 2004, while unemployment declined from more than 10 percent six years ago to about 7 percent today, the report said.

It offers a series of recommendations, including increasing – rather than decreasing, as proposed by the administration for 2007 – "Freedom Support Act" funds for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in advance of the 2008 Russian elections; and to work with Washington’s European allies to press Moscow on reforms to its trade and investment regime and assurances that its state-controlled energy companies will "act like true commercial entities," rather than as instruments of government policy.

The report calls for Washington to offer greater support to states along Russia’s periphery, particularly those that wish to pursue greater independence from Russian influence, including in their choice of security allies and partners.

Directed by Stephen Sestanovich, who served as ambassador-at-large to the states of the former Soviet Union during the second term of former President Bill Clinton (1993-2001), the task force included a number of other top Clinton officials, including former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott; Walter Slocombe, a senior Pentagon official under Clinton; as well as former Bush officials, such as Dov Zakheim and Robert Blackwill.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.