The Politics of U.S. Policy toward Russia
Mendelson explained that her presentation drew on the results of a task force organized by the Century Foundation and the Stanley Foundation that met in 2001-2002 to discuss factors that shape U.S. policy toward Russia. The group was trying to identify the domestic influences that impact U.S. policy, with a particular focus on the period since President Putin rose to power, and the events of September 11.
The group examined several cases: the U.S. response to Russia's war in Chechnya; U.S. support for the development of democratic institutions in Russia; U.S. support for the safe dismantlement and storage of weapons of mass destruction in Russia; and U.S. responses to Russia's relations with Iran and Iraq. Among the conclusions that emerged from these cases was an appreciation that Russia, in the post-Soviet period, has not been a major focus for the American public. Mendelson contended that there is very little policy debate on many issues even among experts who follow Russia closely, and that powerful lobbying has mostly been absent. Also, Mendelson stated that the group's research found an "inconsistency" when looking at U.S. policy toward Russia, which led on occasion to deeply problematic policies. Finally, Mendelson noted that "there is not one office which entirely controls U.S. policy toward Russia, but rather Russia has been managed and directed by a multitude of forces."
Mendelson discussed the Chechnya and democratic assistance cases more in depth, because in her estimation, "they are under-explored." Mendelson said that, though Russia has waged two brutal wars in Chechnya since 1994, U.S. policy toward these wars has largely been "rhetorical." Also, within the U.S. government, there hasn't been a senior administration official who "owned" the issue; no one had his/her "name attached to Chechnya." Mendelson cited the lack of media effect as another factor and attributed the lack of coverage to editors' skepticism that "this is a story to be prioritized."
Mendelson argued that relatively weak support for democracy assistance in Russia from the U.S. Congress and the administration is related to a "poor understanding of what this work entails and how important it is to our mutual interests." There is a big discrepancy "between the amount of rhetoric surrounding assistance, and the amount of money it actually receives." She posited that external funding is crucial because the political system in Russia lacks many of the supporting institutions that make democracies robust. "The party system, rule of law, civil society – these are all very weak and underdeveloped," Mendelson remarked.
Mendelson stated that U.S. budgets for democracy work in Russia have been "flat or declining," and expressed concern that if the U.S. support declines, other donors "will follow." She was critical of the U.S. and European business communities noting that they have largely been silent on important issues like the need for a critical media.
In conclusion, Mendelson suggested that by engaging in a public discussion about the threats to democracy in Russia and how this is connected to U.S. national security interests, there might be a possibility that "we can reverse declining assistance budgets. We need to make a better match of the needs of democracy and human rights activists -- the very real capacities in Russia -- and our investment in Russia's future."