Policies towards Russia: reaping what one has sown? [update]

February 27, 2008

It is increasingly clear that “the West” has got Russia badly, very badly, wrong. Europe and the US have accumulated errors towards Russia and are now reaping what they’ve sown. Hard statement, I know.

Dmitri Trenin from the Carnegie Moscow Centre recently wrote one of the first books – entitled “Getting Russia Right” – that tries to undo the mythical fear and loathing in which Russia’s policies are held in the West. Not that the recent slide in both democratic achievements and economic freedoms combined with growing international sabre-rattling is not worrisome: on the contrary! Yet it could be that the West should have been able to see it coming. It even probably could have averted some developments had it acted rightly on time, based on more realistic perceptions. Just a few random illustrating examples:


US perceptions

Foreign Affairs announces an interesting book; The American Mission and the “Evil Empire”: The Crusade for a Free Russia Since 1881., by David Foglesong. Abstract of the short review:

“Americans start by seeing Russia as a backward and barbarous land; they optimistically conclude that American religious and social ideas can transform it; they engage in the process of reform — and as this engagement ends in failure and disillusion, they revert to stage one. Perhaps the most remarkable and depressing insight of the book is how blindly each U.S. generation repeats the errors of its predecessors.”

US international policies since the 1990s: international security

Foreign Affairs again had a good article by Dimitri K Simes entitled “Losing Russia”

“(…) the Clinton administration’s foreign policy further (…) heightened Russia’s resentment. NATO expansion — especially the first wave, which involved the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland — was not a big problem in and of itself. Most Russians were prepared to accept NATO enlargement as an unhappy but unthreatening development — until the 1999 Kosovo crisis (…).

Notwithstanding Russian anger over Kosovo, in late 1999, Putin, then prime minister, made a major overture to the United States just after ordering troops into Chechnya. He was troubled by Chechen connections with al Qaeda and the fact that Taliban-run Afghanistan was the only country to have established diplomatic relations with Chechnya. Motivated by these security interests, rather than any newfound love for the United States, Putin suggested that Moscow and Washington cooperate against al Qaeda and the Taliban (…).

Clinton and his advisers, frustrated with Russian defiance in the Balkans and the removal of reformers from key posts in Moscow, ignored this overture. They increasingly saw Russia not as a potential partner but as a nostalgic, dysfunctional, financially weak power at whose expense the United States should make whatever gains it could (highlighted by me). Thus they sought to cement the results of the Soviet Union’s disintegration by bringing as many post-Soviet states as possible under Washington’s wing.”

COVERAGE OF RUSSIA. Biased international media coverage, a single narrative, and not much good scholarship

Take again the last issue of Foreign Affairs – I take Foreign Affairs because it is probably one of the world’s most influential international relations publication.

On China, probably as much a challenge to the US and the West than Russia: the January-February 2008 edition has four in-depth, deeply researched scholarly articles on highly sensitive issues surrounding China: China’s perception and “practice” of democracy. The Russian government also has its own discourse but nobody bothers analyzing it. Another article is on China’s dealings with rogue states . China is not better than Russia on the matter, even maybe worse. That issue also contains a critique of US economic policy, namely the currency issue. Is there a good critique of US economic policy towards Russia? On Russia in that issue: only one scholarly article, after a year 2007 that hardly covers Russia at all. The article undoes a never really existing myth about Putin’s personal contribution to Russia’s recent economic success. The article is good, but the way it is published and the topic chosen is a 100% reflection of the blinding single narrative that has dominated official discourse in the West in the last years: a failing democracy and a rogue state, not a full international actor to be taken really seriously. Personally I have always been dismayed by the simplicism of the coverage of Russia by publications such as The Economist. Not that what the publication writes about Putin and contemporary Russia is wrong. Just that it gives a biased, partial picture. The coverage of Russia in Western media remains overwhelmingly journalistic, focused on sordid stories. But a genuine attempt at studying and understanding what is going on is still lacking (I am exaggerating: The FT over the last years has made efforts to give a more mixed and nuanced picture of Russia, for example).

What we especially need to know better today is how the Russian system actually works. What economy is this? What politics is this? What society is emerging? What do Russians actually think, in government, in the population? More painfully: Is not Russia sometimes right in its criticism of the West? Addressing these issues is important because policy-makers need to deal with Russia in one way or the other. If you want to achieve your goals with Russia you need to know how to handle it.

Good international scholarly literature on Russia is scarce. One can count a few excellent scholars here and there (especially in/from Sweden and Finland, some in Germany), but I am surprised at the very limited pool of real connoisseurs of contemporary Russia.


International policies: empty condemnations in energy politics, followed by individual deal-making with Gazprom (Hungary now a case in point). Human rights: rhetoric followed by no action. What is the Council of Europe for? What is the OSCE standing for?. There is no integrated or common foreign policy in Europe and traditional complacency of the big countries, in blatant contradiction to the shrillness of some new EU member states, makes matters even more complicated.

Official discourse: pie-in-the-sky “values” or shocking “realism” ready to make whatever deals with Gazprom and other entities (see this post)

Economic policies.

  • Free trade: Take the just-expired Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between Europe and Russia. It was signed in 1994, among others “with a view to the establishment of a free trade area between them”. I wonder
    if Europe really wanted a free trade area with Russia. Russia is a popular anti-dumping target of the European Union: second to China. Russian agricultural products, should its agricultural sector revive, are also rather threatening. Steel and agriculture could be a good start in supporting the diversification of the Russian economy and Europe might find it a sound policy to let Russian exports in freely.
  • Economic cooperation: No aid when it should have provided some. Here an abstract from Anders Aslund’s “How Capitalism was Built”. On pp 286ff there is a little section on “Western Failure to Act in the East”. In the midst of a dramatic economic crisis, Yeltsin in early 1992 appealed for economic aid. A US$ 24bn aid package was promised by President Bush senior and Helmut Kohl: it never came. Result: “By June 1992, President Yeltsin effectively gave up on reform (…). The spectacular absence of Western support contributed to the fall of the Russian reform government.”
  • Yet the idea that Europe is inherently better than Russia and that it simply will/should adapt the European model. Dixit article 55 of the PCA:

“The parties recognize that an important condition for strengthening the economic links between Russia and the Community is the approximation of legislation. Russia shall endeavour to ensure that its legislation will be gradually made compatible with that of the Community”.

In 2008, this type of paragraph is a bit laughable, since in practice it is about EU regulatory export (although it is only a “best endeavours” article). No wonder it is hard to get talks going again – Russia will not want an EU regulatory model, even if it were an ideal model to follow – and even if the European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson is eager to revive talks (see previous post).


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