U.S.-Russian Relations in an Emerging World
"Because the level of mistrust between the two sides is extremely high, the only way improve U.S.-Russian relations is to start with new fundamentals," noted Nikolai Zlobin, Director of the Russian and Asian Programs at the Center for Defense Information at a recent Kennan Institute meeting. Using the U.S. terror alert system as a grading scale, Zlobin categorized current relations between the two countries as "deeply orange and approaching code red." He explained that exactly two weeks before Presidents Bush and Putin meet in St. Petersburg, it appears that U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest point in nearly 10 years. Zlobin argued that Iraq "became a sort of magnifying glass which exposed the tremendous differences between Russian and American attitudes towards the world." He continued that "the Russian-American conflict over Iraq ended an epoch in Russian-American relations," and both sides need to work towards building a new relationship.
Zlobin posited that people in both Washington and Moscow have misread each other's intentions and policies. He explained that many people in Washington were caught off guard by the Russian position on Iraq, while many in Moscow were taken aback by Washington's push for military action. He noted that Russia's position was motivated in large part by the unofficial start of President Putin's re-election campaign. According to Zlobin, Putin's used his address to the Foreign Consul—in which he outlined Russia's views on Iraq—as an opportunity to show that his decisions and foreign policy are not run by the White House. The necessity to protect certain economic interests in Iraq also proved to be a motivational factor behind the Russian stance on Iraq.
Perhaps more importantly, Zlobin continued, is the fact that Putin has "become a hostage to his own popularity and high rating." He attributed Putin's high rating, popularity, and financial backing for his re-election campaign to many of the businesses in the Russian energy sector. According to Zlobin, Putin has done very little in foreign policy over the past year, instead choosing a relatively "indecisive position" on most foreign policy issues. Zlobin explained that before Iraq such a position was very beneficial and contributed to his high rating and popularity, but leading up to and during the Iraq situation, Putin failed to explain the Russian position, instead allowing Foreign Minister Ivanov to do most of the talking.
The fallout from this, Zlobin contended, is that during and after the war, the U.S. "has lost essentially all interest in Russia." He mentioned that the Bush administration's passive and indifferent attitude toward Russia frustrated Putin. Zlobin argued that Washington failed to recognize the importance of Putin's overtures toward the West, instead inflaming relations by developing a missile defense system, establishing military bases in Central Asia, failing to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment and so on. Zlobin explained that although these things may not seem important in Washington, they are very important to those back in Moscow.
According to Zlobin, current U.S.-Russian relations are based on current events, rather than actually solving problems. He stated that both sides disagree on most foreign policy questions, including the definition of terrorism, the role of international law, as well as other tactical foreign policy issues. He argued that while both sides have solved issues such as Iraq or the Russia debt successfully, the next major crisis could further splinter relations. Zlobin contended that we must not try to "improve current relations" but rather try to find new fundamentals, recognizing each other's geopolitical strategies. He warned that if both sides fail to improve relations in the next presidential terms of both Putin and Bush, the next opportunity might not come for a long time.