After nearly 13 years of tough negotiations, the United States and the Russian Federation have finally reached a bilateral agreement about Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).  When President Bush and President Putin sign this accord in Hanoi, it will mark the first piece of really good news for the US-Russian relationship in a long time.  In fact, since the brief honeymoon after 9/11 when Mr. Putin fully supported the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, the relationship has steadily deteriorated to a point of acrimony and distrust not seen since Mr. Gorbachev came to power more than twenty years ago.

The list of grievances on the U.S. side is well-known beginning with human rights violations in the second Chechen war, weakening of democratic institutions under Putin, the Yukos affair and returning state control in the economy, aggressive meddling with its neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine, and others.

The Russians, rightly or wrongly, believe they have received little in return from Washington for a number of conciliatory measures they have taken since Putin came to power.  As recently conveyed to us in Washington by Alexander Voloshin,former chief of the presidential administration for both Yeltsin and Putin, Vladimir Vladimirovich counts on his fingers all of the steps he has taken to conciliate Washington, unpopular with his political elite, including closing down the Russian naval base at Camh Ranh Bay and the listening post in Cuba, fully supporting the US in Afghanistan and allowing US military bases in Central Asia, quietly accepting US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and a second round of NATO expansion.  When the Russian president looks at his other hand to count what he has received in return, he is embarrassed as there is little to count, leaving his hand clenched in an angry fist.

The fist has been pounding tables and walls in the Kremlin more loudly as criticism of Putin’s leadership from Washington has increased and the U.S. supported regime change through “color” revolutions in Russia’s backyard.  The failure to reach the WTO accession agreement in time for Putin’s coming out party this summer in St. Petersburg led to Russian complaints that they had been “deceived.” When I had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Putin and other leading figures in his administration at the Valdai Discussion Club meeting in September, the clear message was that unless the United States behaves like a genuine partner, Russia would accelerate its economic and security orientation eastwards to China.

The fundamental problem in the “partnership” is that Moscow and Washington have different conceptions of the term. For the United States, Russia will never be a very trusted partner until it more fully embraces Western values and becomes really democratic.  Until and if that happens, Russia will remain in the category of countries that are partners and allies of convenience or necessity.  These countries, including the likes of Saudi Arabia, China, Pakistan, and many others, are treated differently because of the combination of security, economic and other interests at stake as perceived by Washington.  Moscow can whine about U.S. “double standards” till the cows come home…or until it promotes real and not Potemkin democratic values.

Russia for at least the near term appears fated to trust nobody and have no genuine allies, but only partners of convenience or necessity.  The superb economic recovery of recent years has instilled a new confidence and vigor in Moscow, but that confidence barely masks the enduring sense of insecurity that historically pervades the Kremlin.  It is understandable after the 1990s why Russia is pleased that it can feel free to turn away from integration with the West and instead trumpet its independence and sovereignty.  But I am skeptical about the shelf-life of a foreign policy orientation driven only by the desire to be an independent “pole” in a multi-polar world and commercial interests.  It is a lonely, vulnerable, and  potentially dangerous position that is probably not in Russia’s longterm interests.

Despite the heightened tensions of late, we remain familiar with the long list of economic and security reasons why a Russia more integrated with the West is in the interest of Washington and Europe.  Russia’s joining the WTO is obviously not a game changer, but it can mark a shift in momentum in the US-Russian relationship after years of steady decline.  

But in order for the signing agreement photo opportunity in Hanoi to be more than a blip on the screen, some other things need to happen.  First and foremost, the United States and Russia must bridge the gap in their positions on Iran.  Sometime in 2007 Congress will debate giving Russia permanent normal trade relations status (PNTR) and lifting the Jackson-Vanik amendment.  This vote will not simply be judging Russia’s fitness to join the WTO; rather it will be a broad referendum on Russia and the U.S.-Russian relationship.  If Congress is not satisfied with Russia’s Iran policy, that vote will be dead on arrival.

Finally, the Russian government will need to get serious as other countries do about lobbying in Washington.  That for years the recently ousted, scandal-ridden Curt Weldon was regarded in Moscow as the leader of the Russian lobby says all you need to know the abject failures of Russian lobbying efforts.  The mood in this town about Russia is pretty grim, and the democratic takeover of Congress will not likely improve matters for Mr. Putin.  It is past time for Moscow to take a more professional approach to improving Russia’s image in Washington.  While Mr. Putin and his colleagues can guarantee outcomes in the Duma with a number of phone calls, the US Congress does not exactly work that way.

Andrew Kuchins directs the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C.