Twenty years ago, on 6 November 1992, newly-elected US President Bill Clinton phoned his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin. When asked what they talked about for 20 minutes, Clinton gave journalists an evasive answer, “We just talked about what he was doing, and I said I supported democratic and free market economics in Russia. We had no substantive conversations”. The Russian side was a bit more open… the Kremlin press service quoted Yeltsin as saying, “I think, Mr Clinton, that my warm and good relationship with George Bush won’t prevent our relations from being even better. The boldness in politics and firm rejection of old dogmas and stereotypes that you stand for, match well with the principles of our Russian-American relations”.
Yeltsin was probably being a little disingenuous in referring to his warm relations with Bush. During his presidency, Bush Sr clearly favoured then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachyov during his intense rivalry with the future Russian leader. It was only when it became clear that Gorbachyov lost his grip on power that the White House switched its backing to Yeltsin. Moscow pinned high hopes on Clinton… during his election campaign, he criticised Bush Sr for his reluctance to provide large-scale aid to Russia and promised to adopt an entirely new approach to the issue. It came as no surprise when, shortly after the election, one of Clinton’s associates, in Moscow on an unofficial visit, was essentially presented with an ultimatum… “Help us now, or else we’ll be in trouble and that’ll hurt you, too”.
That December, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote sarcastically, “There’s a fearful symmetry in the pace at which President-elect Bill Clinton is assembling his administration and Russian President Boris Yeltsin is dismantling his. Just as the ‘new ideas’ people are being introduced in Little Rock, they’re being thrown out the door in Moscow”. Nonetheless, Clinton backed Russia, seeking to make its “democratic transformation” one of the crowning achievements of his presidency. This he failed to achieve. Clinton eventually became extremely disappointed in his “friend Boris”, and at the end of his term, he had to deal with Vladimir Putin, whom he saw as a symbol of the fact that Russia was heading in completely the wrong direction. However, Putin established a good personal relationship with George W Bush, underpinned from the very start by their mutual desire to open a new chapter in USA-Russia relations. However, at the interstate level, the dialogue ran into a complete dead end. Barack Obama revived it, but the limited agenda of “the reset” was fulfilled fairly quickly without delivering any qualitative shift.
During the last 20 years, relations between the two countries have come full circle. Mitt Romney’s description of Russia as the USA’s “Number One Geopolitical Foe” was the most striking statement made about Russia during the recent election campaign. Although even his supporters took this statement with a pinch of irony, nothing more meaningful was said about Russia. In parallel, Moscow decided to get rid of the legacy of the 1990s once and for all. On 1 October, Russia ended the activities of USAID, with whom it signed an agreement in 1992. It also curtailed the Nunn-Lugar programme, under which Washington funded the dismantling of Russia’s excessive nuclear warheads, obsolete missiles, and chemical weapons.
The same logic motivated both decisions… Russia will no longer sign agreements as a junior partner or accept foreign involvement in its domestic affairs. We’ll resolve our problems on our own, and you’ll have to deal with Russia as it is today and on an equal footing. However, the USA has almost no tradition of equal partnerships. There was a kind of partnership, albeit a very peculiar one, during the Cold War… nuclear parity. Rather than leading to cooperation, this prevented conflict, thus, ensuring equality. On all other issues, the USA builds its external relations on the basis of the master-slave principle. Moreover, any partner either needs to sign up to its idea of the socio-political order, or at least recognise it, and agree to help introduce it as quickly as possible. Modern Russia doesn’t intend to accept either of these conditions. Russian-American contacts are in for a radical overhaul.
Russia isn’t so aggressive as to justify a need for deterrence against it, which Romney clearly feels is necessary. Russia won’t expect aid from the USA, as had been the case in the past. Nor will it try to match American-established criteria of democracy. Russia remains an influential global power that one can’t ignore, despite George “Dubya” Bush’s attempts to do just that. However, its position in the world is too amorphous, and, above all, has the aim of retaining a free hand that’d allow it to build systemic relations. Moscow isn’t strong enough to hope for full equality. These are objective facts that don’t depend on who’s in the White House or the Kremlin.
The two countries must realise that they’ll never enjoy linear relations… they’ll neither be unequivocal foes or genuine allies. Nor will they be soulmates or ideological opposites. A desire to achieve full clarity, in whatever field, undermines all attempts to create a solid foundation for relations, whereas a willingness to be flexible on current issues makes it possible to achieve concrete results. In this context Russia, above all, needs to overcome its fixation on the humiliation of the recent past, and the USA must realise that the primacy of its values can’t be a prerequisite for cooperation in the 21st century.
No long-term agenda accommodates the potentially-crucial changes that lie ahead for both countries. Today’s agenda will take on new accents only when other issues come to the fore, such as the situation in Asia, the prospects of the commercial development of the Arctic, the reform of the nuclear non-proliferation system, etc. These issues require serious discussion, which, for now, nobody seems willing to conduct. To quote Yeltsin’s words from his conversation with Clinton 20 years ago, we need a “firm rejection of old dogmas and stereotypes”. If we don’t change anything, our relations will continue going round in concentric circles of cooling off, détente, and resets, whoever the US President is.
8 November 2012