Washington Post, June 9, 2001
Fifty years from now, scholars writing the history of Europe in this decade will have to address the introduction of the euro, Balkan reconstruction, the pace of NATO and European Union expansion, and maybe even the rise of Europe as a new global power. But the fundamental focus of their research will be Russia's success -- or lack of it -- in reintegrating into Europe.
If, 50 years from now, Russia has rejoined Europe, then it will have become a stable democracy. Threats to European security will be fewer, and Europe as a political and economic space will have emerged as one of the major powers in the international system. If, on the other hand, Russia has not succeeded in reintegrating, then it most likely will have become a dictatorship and a threat to Europe.
To date, the latter scenario appears the more likely. After a decade of flirtation with democracy, capitalism and the West, Russia is weaker than ever before. Dysfunctional government, economic collapse, massive corruption, infectious diseases and a declining population have destroyed Russia's power and spirit.
Not surprisingly, many within Russia now argue that the country's reorientation toward Western countries, institutions and values was a strategic mistake that must now be reversed. Russia's only hope to remain relevant on the international stage, they contend, is to be threatening but businesslike with the Americans.
Ironically, such a reorientation might be useful in the short run for President Bush as he prepares for his first meeting with Russian President Putin. A Putin interested in playing balance-of-power politics with the United States again might actually be willing to do a "deal" on missile defense. More generally, the atmospherics of the meeting could be businesslike and pragmatic, giving Bush a positive spin for his first encounter with his Russian counterpart.
But Bush should aspire to more than a good press conference. He has a realopportunity to redefine U.S.-Russian relations. The tone he establishes and visions he outlines in Slovenia will chart the basic course of U.S. policy toward Russia for the next several years.
In his meeting with Putin, Bush may be tempted to jump right into deal-making on missile defense. This is exactly what the Russians want. In fact, Moscow is filled with rumors about what Putin should ask for in return, with the wish list including everything from defense contracts to debt relief to American silence on Chechnya to a guarantee of no NATO expansion to the Baltic states.
Engaging in this kind of trade-making would be a real mistake. Instead of redirecting U.S.-Russian relations along a new trajectory, we would be returning to the dynamics of U.S.-Soviet relations from 30 years ago, when summits were zero-sum negotiations between hostile countries.
Equally disastrous, however, would be a chummy embrace between two new leaders who agreed on most issues. Bush must avoid looking like Putin's "friend" -- an image that would only serve to legitimate Putin's antidemocratic actions at home and threatening policies toward Russia's neighbors.
Between a continuation of engagement and a return to containment is a third path: realistic engagement. Bush needs to communicate to Putin that he believes in the possibility of Russia's integration into Europe and the Western community of states. But he also needs to clearly articulate the real terms of integration, terms that will require Russia to undergo serious political and economic changes. To help Russia integrate into the West, the American strategy must still be engagement, but with more realistic expectations about when, and with real standards for how this integration might occur.
Russian society is currently divided as to whether Russia can or shouldaspire to become part of Europe again. Russian foreign policy elites also articulate two paths -- West and East -- for Russia's strategic orientation. As former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov explained, Russia must decide whether it wants to be the weakest link in the core powers -- the eighth power in the Group or Eight -- or the strongest power among the "developing" countries.
Within Putin himself, one can see these two impulses pulling in opposite directions. He consistently states that Russia must become more integrated with European institutions, but at the same time he undertakes antidemocratic policies at home that make it more difficult for Russia to join these Western clubs.
President Bush thus must express his faith in Russia's ability to rejoin Europe as a democratic state with a market economy. Many within Russia do not believe the United States and the new administration in particular want to see Russia as part of the West. Bush should even be so bold as to present NATO membership for Russia as a real goal for the long term. Europe will only be whole and free, a goal Bush's father once articulated, if Russia is a member.
But Russia is now decades away from qualifying for membership in the European Union or NATO. Members of the Western community of democratic states do not slaughter their civilians in rebellious provinces, sell nuclear technologies to rogue states or control the press. Without swagger or righteousness, Bush should state clearly that the rules of joining Western institutions will not be bent to accommodate a "special" Russia. Nor will the expansion of European institutions eastward stop because of Russian objections. The only real questions are whether Russia can make the necessary changes to join Europe again, and whether Russians want to join Europe again.
Most Russians still hope their country can become a full-fledged member of Europe. They do not want to become an autocratic ally of China seeking to confront the West. But a decade of disappointed expectations about democracy and markets, coupled with seemingly hostile acts from the West, has fueled doubts about Russia's place in the world. President Bush cannot eliminate this self-doubt overnight, but he can make clear American intentions toward Russia. By articulating a positive but realistic vision for Europe -- whole, free and including Russia -- he can help to reverse Russia's dangerous anti-Western drift.