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How long will the new Cold War between Moscow and Washington last, and what might its consequences be? We discuss this with Leon Aron, director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, an influential think-tank closely associated with the US Administration.
Question: The Washington Post has delivered its verdict: “The debate in America is over: Russia is no longer a democracy.” Do you agree with that conclusion?
Leon Aron: Actually, there’s a different and broader debate under way in the United States: concerning America’s national interests and Russia’s place in that system of coordinates. Indeed, relations are said to be deteriorating rapidly–but there’s no sorcery or malice in that phenomenon. Rather, the two regimes differ in their very essence. In this case, I’m using “regime” to mean the ruling elite, with its agenda and ideology.
Two trends dominate in American policy. The first is determined by the consequences of the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. From that point of view, the White House will certainly continue to value Russia, and US priorities will continue to be the war on terror and nuclear non-proliferation–two areas where Russia plays an important role. Of late, these foreign policy directions have received an incredible boost because of the danger of nuclear weapons being obtained by states that might hand them over to terrorists.
The other characteristic feature of this administration is that it’s dominated by neo-conservatives. They attach great importance to the relationship between what another country does in the international arena and how it behaves at home. And there’s the dividing line between the neo-conservatives and the so-called realists. The realists pay less attention to what’s happening within Russia; what’s important for them is how many missiles the Russians have and how we can reach agreement with them.
Question: How would you account for the mutual irritation that is visibly growing between Washington and Moscow?
Leon Aron: I’m absolutely certain that the Russian leadership is not deliberately pursuing an anti-American policy. And Washington doesn’t set itself the goal of pursuing an anti-Russian policy. But the United States, precisely because the neo-conservatives dominate the administration, is starting to watch events in Russia very closely. And people are starting to trust Russia less, because they can see that democracy is being rolled back there. In Moscow, meanwhile, there’s a kind of “genetic predetermination” about Putin’s policies. People there feel ashamed of the chaos and weakness of the 1990s, when Russia followed the lead of the United States. Moscow has decided that it needs to revive the role of the state and capture the commanding heights. These conclusions also dictate Russia’s foreign policy. According to the Kremlin leaders, it ought to be completely independent.
The problem is that due to the nature of the present regime in the United States, this policy of Russia’s is perceived there as anti-American. Likewise, US policy is perceived in Moscow as anti-Russian. Advancing democracy–or, to put it another way, “imposing” democracy–is becoming the main factor in American policy. But Moscow sees the consequences of that policy in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan–and immediately concludes that these actions are anti-Russian. But that’s not the point. It’s just that due to the different nature of the two regimes, Moscow and Washington have ended up on two parallel planes. And neither country intends to change course.
Question: One of the irritants for Washington is Moscow’s support for Alexander Lukashenko.
Leon Aron: Yes, that has aroused both irritation and incomprehension here. Why has Russia paid so much attention to Lukashenko? After all, there aren’t any economic benefits for Russia in that, and politically it’s a total loss. In Russia, on the other hand, people think that such a strategy is a sign of Russia’s prestige: we’ve become a stronger state, capable of supporting our allies and taking action against those we don’t like.
Question: Yet President Bush has promised not to give up on Russia. And he seems to be ignoring Senator John McCain’s calls for Russia to be expelled from the G8.
Leon Aron: McCain isn’t responsible for America’s security, but Bush is. This administration has been burned by September 11, and as long as it remains in power, it will be very cautious about severing anything in relations with Moscow. And let’s not forget Russia’s energy value. People in Washington understand that it’s better to buy oil from Russia than from countries where the money might be passed to terrorists. But mark my words: when campaign debates begin a year from now, we’ll see some very substantial attacks on Russia by McCain. And he’ll be one of the strongest Republican contenders for the presidency. Washington will be paying even more attention to your country, and you can be sure it will see a lot of flaws. Attention to Russia always grows stronger 18 months to a year before a presidential election in the United States. That’s been the case in the Yeltsin years and the Putin years.
Question: And how will Russian-US relations develop in the remaining time before the next election?
Leon Aron: Nothing catastrophic will happen. But fasten your seatbelts–although the plane won’t crash, it will be a very bumpy ride.
Question: What about the famed “friendship” between the presidents of Russia and the United States? Will that be history after the change of administration?
Leon Aron: Such a relationship won’t continue. The personal friendship between the presidents has largely determined American policy on Russia. Amidst the terrible shock that gripped America on September 11, Putin telephoned Bush and offered some words of support. Such things aren’t forgotten. And that’s the main reason why Bush will maintain his earlier stance on Putin and Russia.
Question: Moscow is annoyed by the fact that America keeps making more and more demands as conditions for Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Many see a “political subtext” in this.
Leon Aron: No, that’s wrong. Business interests take priority here. The private sector is accusing Russia of subsidizing energy prices and violating intellectual property rights. It’s not a political conspiracy by the Bush administration.
Question: What about the notorious Jackson-Vanik amendment?
Leon Aron: The calculations are different there. Verbally, the White House supports repealing it. But the Bush administration has practically run out of political capital. It’s half-dead, bleeding due to the war in Iraq. Under the circumstances, going up against Congress or McCain would mean certain defeat. The White House would say: This amendment is obsolete, Russia has complied with all obligations concerning unrestricted immigration. But Bush would immediately encounter the following objections: What about democracy in Russia, and the lack of free elections, and the media’s dependence on the Kremlin, and the arrest of Khodorkovsky?
Question: Will Washington decide to boycott the G8 summit?
Leon Aron: I’m sure it won’t. The G8 is too significant an organization. Destabilizing it is dangerous and unwise. But there is one element that might pose a danger to the forthcoming meeting: Iran. If the crisis is exacerbated severely–if there’s the impression that Tehran does intend to carry out its threats–if the West forms a united front, while Russia refuses to cooperate–that could lead to a situation where the summit might be cancelled.
Question: And what’s your personal forecast?
Leon Aron: I don’t think that scenario will happen. Iran will stall for time. Russia will demonstrate flexibility. The summit is an extremely important event for the Kremlin. I get the impression that Moscow is praying the conflict doesn’t get out of control before the summit. Because if we’re talking about Bush himself, and the administration, and Congress, then Iran’s insolence and Moscow’s condoning of it could provoke a major conflagration. In that sense, the fate of the G8 summit depends on Tehran, in some sense.
Leon Aron is a resident scholar at AEI.
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