Priorities in U.S. Policy Following the Russian Presidential Elections

March 15, 2004 // 11:00am12:00pm

At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Celeste Wallander, Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., discussed how the reelection of President Vladimir Putin might affect Russian foreign policy and how the United States should order its priorities. She argued that Putin's victory in this election has three major implications: the lack of real opposition or public debate will hurt Russia's ability to formulate good policies; Putin has consolidated his control over the government, and therefore Russia's foreign policy goals will be the same as Putin's foreign policy goals; and Russia's clear movement away from democracy will prevent its relations with the United States or Europe from reaching the level of a deep partnership.

Wallander gave an evaluation of Russia's capabilities in foreign policy. She argued that in spite of the substantial decline in Russia's capabilities and international influence since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is still a major power and plays an important role in the international community. She noted that Russia is a consolidated state with a strong president and a growing economy, a military power with both nuclear and conventional capabilities greater than most other states in the world, an important player in world energy markets, and a member of the UN Security Council. Nevertheless, Russia faces serious weaknesses, according to Wallander. Its economic dependence on oil exports poses a threat to future growth, and its failure to enact military reform limits its ability to address new threats.

Most objective observers, Wallander believes, think that stability in Eurasia, prevention of Eurasian-based terrorism, ending ethnic conflicts in the region, and maintaining good relations with its neighbors and global powers are all in Russia's national interest. However, she argued that Putin and other government officials define Russian national interest as encompassing two other areas as well. Putin's frequent statements indicate that he believes Russia must be a great power and play a major role in regional affairs, and that Russia must work to create an international environment that is conducive to its economic development. Wallander noted that there are two ways Russia might go about becoming a great power—a 19th century approach based on spheres of influence and mercantilism, or a 21st century approach based on openness to globalization. Putin's remarks indicate that he favors a 21st century approach, but other factions in the government have favored the 19th century approach.

In Wallander's view, the highest priority for U.S. foreign policy today should be addressing the threat presented by Islamic radicalism, and she believes that Russia can and should play an important role in this. In order to cooperate, Russia and the U.S. will need to come up with a mechanism for discussing American involvement in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Wallander also argued that the U.S. should involve Russia in creating a new and more effective global regime of non-proliferation, engage Russia in order to develop a new arms control process, and demonstrate its interest in investing in Russia's energy sector. She explained that the United States also has a strategic interest in the Russian Federation remaining a coherent and stable state. In order to pursue this interest, Wallander suggested that the U.S. assist Russia in furthering economic development and combating its health and demographic crisis.

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