By: Deborah A. Palmieri, Ph.D. Issue: Vision Section: Government I have pondered and studied the ups-and-downs of U.S.-Russian relations over the course of my career. Yet, I remain baffled why the U.S. and Russia cannot find that common foundation for trust and expansive cooperation. There are so many reasons why this makes good sense, but it just doesn’t happen. Back in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville, well ahead of his time, in Democracy in America wrote, “There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing towards the same goal: the Russians and Anglo-Americans… Each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.” But, 177 years later, we have yet to achieve that synergy and belief that our destinies can intertwine. And Americans still see Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” as Winston Churchill once mused.
Hopeful dreams of friendly cooperation of the two large and potentially powerful countries in the 19th century gave way to the realities of power politics and superpower competition in the 20th century. Distrust and suspicion arose as a result of the implementation of Marxist philosophy and approaches in Russia’s transition from Czarism, to the growth of modern industrialism based on one party communism and command-style planned economics. Bolshevism, Leninism, and Stalinism threatened a young United States as it experienced its own burgeoning economic growth and political system with different outlooks and principals based on capitalism, free markets, and individualism. The cultures clashed.
Widely differing historical, cultural, and religious traditions conflicted and vast geographical distances contributed to a lack of direct observational knowledge and the ability to travel and communicate easily.
Condemnations of Russia’s choice of path to economic development with socialist foundations gave way to profound disagreements over the post World War II settlement and ensuing Cold War. This happened despite joining forces as Allies to defeat Hitler’s fascism and the Axis powers—a war in which the Soviet Union suffered casualties of over 26 million, and the U.S. over 300,000. The industrial and agricultural base of the Soviet Union had been decimated, not to mention the population loss, and while hopes were high for Marshall Plan aid on a magnitude parceled to Western Europe, it was never forthcoming. By 1949, and on the heels of the Chinese Revolution and growth of communist movements worldwide, including in the U.S., the arms race and superpower competition would define the bilateral relationship for most of the 20th century’s second half. So the relationship was embittered with growing conflict, mistrust, suspicion, growth of nuclear capability, and a race to expand spheres of influence in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
Nonetheless, bright spots such as the success of the SALT agreements, space cooperation and the opening of the Soviet economy to American companies such as Pepsi and Monsanto, as early as the 1950s and more so by the 1970s, showed a desire for joint cooperation and goodwill. But landmark events like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. boycott of the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow, President Ronald Reagan’s characterization of the “evil empire” and launch of Star Wars, fostered resentment and estrangement.
Perestroika, Opening, Collapse
By the end of the 1980s, both sides realized change was needed and with Gorbachev’s perestroika in the air, President George H.W. Bush proclaimed, “We stand at the threshold of a brand new era of U.S.-Soviet relations,” while President Mikhail Gorbachev echoed, “The world leaves one epoch of Cold War, and enters another epoch.” These leaders opened communication, including taking a joint position against Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.
Everything changed again with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. With its empire deflated, territory reduced, economy in shambles, national psyche demoralized, and superpower status gone, a new power equation emerged. President Boris Yeltsin reached out to America for help and assistance to support a fledgling democracy, but as with Marshal Plan aid, not much support was forthcoming, despite a Clinton-Yeltsin pledge for a “new democratic partnership.” Numerous Western advisors like Jeffrey Sachs promised that “shock therapy” would save the Russian economy, but between 1990 and 1995, GDP and industrial output declined by 50 percent. With a tumultuous political system, organized crime found a fertile ground in which to flourish, and by August 1998, a massive financial crisis shook Russia to its foundations, as debts defaulted and the ruble lost two-thirds of value in less than a month. President Yeltsin lost credibility, and resigned December 31, 1999, turning over power to acting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was elected to power in March 2000 by a wide margin.
Traditions of Cynicism and Disrespect
It takes two to tango—and blame for poor relations rests on both sides. What I have seen through my own career is that American attitudes towards Russia are often based on one-sided thinking revolving around our own interests. My comments here will focus on relationship failures solely from the American side. An often imperial attitude, suspicion, and mistrust are based on past rivalries between the countries, especially commencing during the Yeltsin era when Russia was weak and needed help. But certainly during the Cold War, many State Department officials adopted a preaching, criticizing, negative and belittling posture, and determined that Russian sovereign interests could not and would not be considered, despite talk to the contrary. I know direct-hand many examples of demeaning treatment of Russian nationals at the passport window at the American Embassy in Moscow, where Russians who waited in lines for hours, came to Moscow from Siberia because they were required to appear in person, brought bushels of employment, housing and personal documents to prove they were not a flight risk, answered detailed questions about their personal and professional lives but still had “denied” stamped on their application papers with no reason offered and no appeal available. Even ministry level officials, top scientists and academics experienced denials, delays, and trip cancellations as a result of similar treatment.
It’s a curious thing. We expect our own national security interests and pride to be respected, naturally. Yet, we don’t think it is expected that the largest country in the world should expect reciprocity and respectful treatment, a country whose borders are far closer than our own, to trouble spots like Iran and the Middle East, and the terror outposts of Al-Qaeda.
Impasse: Missiles in Europe, Art Exchange, Russian Elections
When President Obama came to office, he announced a policy of “reset” towards Russia, one designed to reverse the estrangement from Russia of the recent Bush years and enhance communication and cooperation. Yet, despite that, there is a logjam of big areas of conflict. One is Obama’s proposed missile defense system in Europe, used allegedly to deter threats from Iran, and known as The Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA). Between now and 2020, PAA will deploy a sophisticated new generation of missiles and receptors in Poland and Romania, with radar systems in Turkey and on ships in the Mediterranean at a staggering minimum cost of $10 billion annually, or at least $100 billion of American taxpayer dollars over the next ten years. The PAA has provoked Russians who fear it will upset the current strategic balance and their reaction has been incredulous and angry—considering that when Obama came to office, he scrapped the Bush plan for missiles in Europe, permanently they thought. President Medvedev warned the U.S. that progress in disarmament and arms control could stop, and that in retaliation, deployment of tactical missiles in western Kaliningrad was a serious option. This would entail a new sophisticated generation of missile defense penetration systems and advanced warheads. Medvedev alleges that U.S. and NATO have disregarded Russia’s sovereign interests and security concerns, causing little meaningful progress to be made. So, when both countries can least afford it, we could be approaching an intensified arms race. Furthermore, Russian efforts to secure written legal guarantees that the new system will not hinder Russian defense have been rebuffed by the U.S. and NATO.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expresses this frustration, “Now they do not want to give us such guarantees. And without this we will have to look for other ways to ensure our own security.” Adding to that, Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak declared, “Moscow is determined to maintain a strategic nuclear balance with the West.” The unilateralism of it all gnaws at the Russians, as expressed by UN Russian Ambassador Vitali Churkin, “Unilateral build-up of strategic missile defense complicates the process of nuclear disarmament… It is hard to imagine a situation, in which a significant reduction of nuclear arms is made simultaneously with missile defense build-up, designed to give military advantage to one of the parties.”
A second example of impasse pertains to cultural relations in the area of art exchange. Russia has called a halt to all art loans from Russia’s museums and collections due to the Chabad-Lubavich dispute over Jewish religious documents and books held in Moscow since World War II, known as the Schneerson Library. Such an embargo was never been experienced so bitterly even during the darkest moments of the Cold War, when cultural and art exchanges were unimpeded by politics.
A U.S. District Federal judge ruled a default judgment against the Russian Federation in the Chabad lawsuit, stipulating that Russia must return the collection to the New York-based Chabad. At various times, Chabad representatives threatened to seize Russian-owned art on loan in American museums as leverage to coerce Russia’s compliance to turn over the Schneerson Library. While the State Department claims it has made sufficient and necessary guarantees, and Chabad has back-tracked stating it will not seek court orders to enforce the judgment, Russia is not satisfied and demands written and legally binding guarantees, which have not been forthcoming (as of the date of this publication).
So an impasse at what should be a routine state matter with joint resolution has meant that Russia cancelled scheduled loans to The Met in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Getty, Los Angeles County Museum and more. And, the Museum of Russian Icons outside Boston was caught in the middle too. Icons from the Andrey Lublev Museum on loan through mid-2012 were seized when a “force majeure” warrant was slapped on the museum. Despite a contractual agreement and only midway through the term, under this unusual and rarely used order, the loaned icons were hastily packed up and shipped back to Moscow. Russian diplomats felt they could not rely on the word of the American government. Potentially, a court order against the icons, even if not enforceable, could have held Russian treasures in escrow for years with bitter and costly legal wrangling to free them. The Russians didn’t want to take that chance.
In another area of breakdown, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the Russian parliamentary process in December 2011, even before there was evidence of irregularities, according to Russian spokesmen. Concerning the election, Secretary Clinton called for a “full investigation” and made accusations of fraud and intimidation on the part of the current regime. She also said, “The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted. And that means they deserve free, fair, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them." They believe her comments in part were aimed to incite the massive demonstrations that followed the elections and that her comments constituted domestic interference.
Moving Forward: Innovation and Rethink
Concerning the aforementioned issues, both sides cannot agree. Obama’s reset policy did not change the underlying thinking about Russia. American government can do more to better understand Russian concerns. This makes for better diplomacy, including business relations and can result in huge cost savings and benefits for Americans. Unilateralism and inflexibility is symptomatic of a long-standing inability to react to fundamental Russian core values with a spirit of negotiation and understanding. A lack of respect, coupled with traditional imperial thinking, not to mention deep-seated fears from the Cold War have contributed to the growth of this dysfunctional relationship. It’s in America’s interest to fundamentally rethink our policies and the benefit that positive relations can bring to the table.
We muddled through our relations with Russia during the turmoil of the nineties under Yeltsin and the reforms of the Putin years, with few if any significant breakthroughs. Part of the reason was that we negotiated from a position of economic and political strength, and there was no compelling reason for any changes or flexibility. Russia under Yeltsin was weak and struggling, but then Putin began to log impressive gains in growth, focusing inward on domestic reform, managing its own Chechyan and terror threats, and creating viable legal, financial, and taxation regimes. As the Russian economy began to recover, first under Putin, and then under President Medvedev, simultaneously the American economy was experiencing a number of shocks, with a collapsing real estate market, financial woes, and soaring debt.
Under the Obama administration, despite the good intentions of “reset”, neither art, missiles or election monitoring are immune to failed diplomacy. Nor has the administration made it easier for Russians to obtain visas to fuel their great desire to come here and spend money in American as a tourist destination. Burdened by an antiquated visa system with a pendulous application process and often rude and sometimes even humiliating treatment at the U.S. Moscow Embassy, after a long wait or hours-long flight from interior Russia, Russians are taking their spending power to Europe, Latin American and the Middle East. The American tourism industry and local businesses across America lose out because an out-of-touch government has maintained decades old barriers, stifling the free flow of people and commerce. The visa system is in great need of reform and requires streamlining and the application of technology to ensure security, while allowing for travel viability. The idea that massive numbers of Russians want to violate their visas and sneak into the U.S. has long been assumed by the State Department, but now, is unrealistic. Russian tourism can generate hundreds of millions in revenue for struggling U.S. states and cities, as well as industries from airlines to souvenir shops.
It’s not a hugely complicated matter to change and shift course. Time is of the essence, and while we delay and preach to the Russians about how they need to change their system, we increasingly lose traction. And, if we don’t extend the olive branch with goodwill, we encourage Russia to cement partnerships elsewhere, such as China. The U.S. might want to be concerned by Sino-Russian rapprochement, especially as our policies estrange both these important and growing powers.
In many ways, the combined resources of these nations can leave the U.S. vulnerable in the event that their alliance grows, and we become isolated or estranged from both, which is not a remote possibility. China and Russia share common interests, a long geographical border, and a prior communist history. Although they fundamentally distrust, and even dislike each other, but both are pragmatic enough to join interests, especially given current U.S. policies. We have offended Russians over missiles in Europe, the Chinese over stationing troops in Australia, and overall accusations of unfair trade practices. We now need to focus on those core values that we expect from others but have been wont to give—respect, trust, understanding and wisdom. If a “reset” is to genuinely take place, it needs to start with our thinking and assumptions. We also need to facilitate commerce, trade and travel by simplifying our visa system and standardizing it to EU norms for Russian nationals.
America needs to set forth a revitalized standard of leadership and embrace realpolitik norms of conducting diplomacy and business. Our old-fashioned moralizing and preaching looks patronizing and out-of-date, and that undermines the credibility and respect that others hold for us. Now, policies based on pragmatism and realism are needed more than ever which emphasize practicality over ideology in order to maintain and secure our national interests.
Improving relations with Russia is sound pragmatic policy and good business for America. Re-thinking the viability of the European missile system alone could save at least $100 billion over the next ten years. In its place, we should work jointly with Russia, Europe and NATO to ensure our security and spread defense costs among our friends and allies.
By reforming our Cold War based visa system and facilitating Russian tourism to American resorts and cities, we can generate billions in tourist revenue for our airline, hotel, resort and tourism related companies, both large and small. By streamlining travel for business travelers from Russia to the U.S. and vice-versa, we facilitate the growth of trade, investment and productive business relations.
The foreign policy of the U.S. and government attitudes and actions should be accountable to the American public. In the past, politicians made foreign policy decisions giving little consideration to cost consequences, both short and long-term. Our policy towards Russia generated huge costs for our budget—costing billions in lost business revenue that went to other countries and foreign markets. But now, our thinking should shift to how to craft policy changes in a new era that can generate economic benefits and goodwill in diplomatic relations. This is the way of the future. At a time when 48 percent of Americans are categorized as low income, when the net worth of U.S. households is shrinking, and our budget deficit is nearly $1.3 trillion and government debt tops out at $15 trillion, the time is past due to innovate and re-think. Our foreign policy thinking towards Russia should focus on creating prosperity and productivity. We can benefit enormously by minimizing conflict oriented diplomacy and reigning in military spending on the missiles in Europe project, which will create a next generation arms race with Russia.
Is there hope? There is always hope, and I believe a sober assessment can and should be undertaken by our policy makers in Washington to improve relations with Russia. It is in our national interest to do so. Russia, as the largest country in the world, with a highly educated population who loves to travel and learn, with a growing middle class with ever increasingly amounts of disposable income is a market which can deliver huge benefits to the U.S. and in turn receive them. But most importantly, the U.S. and Russia share common regional and global security goals and threats and enjoy great structural economic complementarities. There exists an enormous potential for trust and mutual understanding.
Dr. Deborah A. Palmieri is Honorary Consul General of Russia in Colorado and founder and president of Deb Palmieri Russia LLC and Institute. Special thanks to Ricky Packard and David Springer for research support.