War Stories

Is Russia Our Enemy?

These days, it’s not so simple.

Vladimir Putin, right, and George Bush 
        Click image to expand.
Vladimir Putin, right, and George Bush

A president tends to make categorical statements only when his truth is in doubt. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” “I am not a crook.” “The state of the union is sound.”

Thus, on Wednesday, at the G8 summit, when President George W. Bush said, “Russia is not an enemy,” he did so, clearly, because many people are wondering if maybe it is.

The fusillades of harsh rhetoric fired back and forth between Moscow and Washington are casting dark shadows. Vladimir Putin likens the United States to Nazi Germany, tests a new intercontinental ballistic missile, and threatens to resume aiming nuclear weapons at Western Europe. Bush and Condoleezza Rice accuse Putin of abandoning Russian democracy—a charge that happens to be undeniably true.

Is the Russian bear awakening from its slumber? Are we all about to plunge into a new Cold War? Nearly 20 years after the Reagan-Gorbachev summit, the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, and the crumbling of the Soviet Union, are Russia and America once again enemies?

Something is happening. The era of Russia’s aspiring Westernization—of glasnost, perestroika, industrial privatization, and easy disarmament—is kaput. But, in this case, Bush is right: We’re not—or at least there’s nothing inevitable about our becoming—enemies.

Those who believe otherwise are falling prey to a Cold War mentality. By that, I mean not so much a mutual U.S.-Russia hostility, but rather a tendency to regard other powers as friends or foes, with nothing in between.

It’s a tendency left over from the Cold War Era, when the globe was divided into two spheres—an American-led, capitalist, Western bloc vs. a Soviet-led, Communist, Eastern bloc—and nations that wanted a steady place in world politics had to choose one side or the other. (A few nations had the resources or brashness to carve out their own space by playing the two off each other; but even in those cases, their conditions were set, and their options defined, by the superpowers’ competition and dominance.)

The implosion of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent end of the Cold War, shattered that whole global structure. Many believed, at first, that America was left in a pre-eminent position (“the sole superpower”). But in fact, the world was left in a condition of quasi-anarchy. Nations that once felt compelled to bow to their bloc’s protector could now pursue their own interests.

Formal alliances faltered; shifting coalitions became the rule. Americans weren’t accustomed to this disconnect between their dictates and the rest of the world’s actions. When France refused to go along with the invasion of Iraq, the reaction was manically fierce—the renaming of French fries, the boycotts of Bordeaux wine. But what this panic reflected was sheer bewilderment. France was hardly America’s enemy, but that’s how many Americans suddenly treated it. Habituated to the Cold War mentality, they found it hard to view a nation that contested America’s interests and blocked America’s policies as anything other than a foe.

Russia is not France. It does not share the bedrock Western values that France and America share (whatever other disputes may sometimes divide them). But what we’re seeing now in Russia is similar to what we saw in 2003 when France bucked the United States in the debate over war in Iraq—a nation (in Russia’s case, a large, increasingly powerful nation) pursuing its own interests.

Americans (and Europeans, too) were spoiled in the 1990s by the dramatic accommodations and reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, who, as Soviet communism unraveled, embraced the West with heroic urgency—destroying the Soviet Union’s empire, disarming its military, shutting down censors, opening free markets.

For many reasons, the great experiments didn’t work out. Several citizens, especially in Moscow and a few other cities, did very well by the reforms. But most fared poorly. And compared with the other nations of the Western world that Gorbachev and Yeltsin were trying to join, Russia as a nation was weak and impoverished. And the reforms highlighted, and aggravated, this fact.

Yeltsin did not extend privatization of industry as widely as many Westerners have thought. The gas and oil industries, in particular, remained under state control. When world oil prices soared, so did the fortunes of the Russian state. And with the Kremlin run by someone like Putin, a former KGB agent and an unapologetic (and, by the way, very popular) nationalist, it was no big surprise when he started flexing Russia’s muscles.

Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow center, put it well in an insightful article in Foreign Affairs, published a year ago. “Until recently,” he wrote, “Russia saw itself as Pluto in the Western solar system, very far from the center but still fundamentally a part of it. Now it has left that orbit entirely. Russia’s leaders have given up on becoming part of the West and have started creating their own Moscow-centered system.”

This does not mean the world is becoming divided into Moscow Central and Washington Central. Neither capital is the center of as much as its political leaders would like. Nor does either have the resources to rev up its military machine to the levels of the Cold War. Nor can either occupy the vast garrisons in Europe where they once faced off across the East-West border, which, among other things, no longer exists.

And though Russia may have left the Western orbit, it is not necessarily opposed or hostile to its tracings. American and Russian interests will sometimes coincide, sometimes converge, sometimes conflict (but uneventfully), and sometimes collide. The same can be said of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, French, and other countries’ interests.

In other words, the world has returned to its “normal” condition, to which the era of the Cold War was always an anomaly. (The era only seemed normal because its term, roughly 1947-91, extended through the entirety of most of our lives.)

This should not be taken as a reassuring statement. “Normal” conditions, through the centuries, have been rife with warfare and tension. The current era is particularly hazardous, as there is no structure, no widely recognized balance of power, that organizes international politics—nothing like the Congress of Vienna in the 19th century or the Soviet-American stand-off in the mid-to-late 20th century. (I don’t mean to romanticize the Cold War or any other system of global hegemony; I’m just noting that they kept a certain sort of order.)

One thing this condition implies—in fact, demands—is a greater premium on creative diplomacy, on balancing interests and building coalitions. It is daft and dangerous for Washington and Moscow to start regarding one another as an enemy.

We don’t have to overlook the outrages that Putin routinely commits these days. But it’s naive to expect him to kowtow to moral lectures from Americans, who can hardly claim purity in this administration. We have too many interests in common to foment further hostility. We have too few resources or automatic allies to turn mutual hostility into a national benefit. The Russians don’t threaten our vital interests. There’s not much we can do to threaten theirs. As long as Bush and Putin recognize these facts as the starting points, Russian-American relations won’t spiral too far out of hand.