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Disappointed with Russia
By Mark N. Katz


September 08, 2009

Russians, we know, have a long list of grievances against the West in general and America in particular. NATO expansion, intervention against Serbia, recognition of Kosovo, the plan to deploy an American ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe, and criticism of Russia for going to war with Georgia are just some of them. But has it ever occurred to Russians that Westerners - especially those who hoped for friendly relations with Russia after the Cold War - might be disappointed in Russia? Well, we are. And there are several reasons why.

First and foremost: we fully expected that Russia could and would become a Western democracy that respected human rights and the rule of law. Instead, it has reverted into an increasingly authoritarian regime that does neither. Even more amazingly, the vast majority of Russians seem to be satisfied with this situation. Why? How was it that the former communist countries of Eastern Europe and even some former Soviet republics have been able to make substantial progress toward democracy, but not Russia? Why is it that the people in these countries wanted to make the transition to democracy, but Russians apparently did not? This is the biggest disappointment with Russia and Russians that underlies everything else.

Although the West does not believe that NATO expansion threatens Russia, I understand why many Russians think that it does. What I don't understand, though, is why it is that Moscow is doing more than Washington to promote NATO expansion. Even if Russia had evolved into a Western democracy after the end of the Cold War, surely it would be understandable that the experience of Soviet domination would result in East European as well as former Soviet states being fearful of Russia. The United States government is not the driving force behind NATO expansion; the continued fear of an increasingly assertive Russia in these countries is instead. It shouldn't take a genius to understand, then, that friendly Russian behavior toward its neighbors would be far more effective in reducing their desire to join NATO than the hostile behavior toward them Moscow has engaged in which has only reinforced their demand to do so. On the other hand, it may be unrealistic to expect that a gov ernment which does not treat its own citizens decently could recognize the advantages of self-restrained, non-threatening behavior toward others.

Russians are furious that America and many Western nations recognized the independence of Kosovo. Unlike them, Moscow is prepared to ignore the desire of the vast majority of the people of Kosovo for independence or the fact that Serbian behavior toward them was instrumental in inculcating this desire. Moscow, Russian leaders told us, opposes secession unless the state being seceded from (in this case, Serbia) agrees to it. Moscow, they told us, pursues a principled foreign policy. So why, then, did Moscow then turn around and recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia (which clearly did not consent)? Can't Moscow see how contradictory its policy is?

Nor does Moscow seem to have considered that recognizing Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence from Georgia might encourage Muslims in the North Caucasus to think that they can secede from Russia. It may be clear to the Russian nationalist mind that secession from Russia is a very different thing than secession from Georgia. It is doubtful, though, that this distinction is so clear to the North Caucasus' restive Muslims. Is it just a coincidence that Moscow's recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence last year has been followed by increased unrest in the North Caucasus?

And as for those ballistic missile defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic: surely it is obvious that the Obama Administration is not nearly as enthusiastic about this as the Bush Administration was. But canceling the plan while Moscow fulminates about how Russia will retaliate if the U.S. goes forward with it would reinforce East European convictions about how they need American protection against Russia. Moscow would do the Obama Administration, and itself, a favor if it would just stop talking about this issue and make an effort to behave moderately and reassuringly toward Poland, the Czech Republic, and other countries in its vicinity.

What is especially disappointing to those of us who hoped for improved relations between Russia and the West is that Moscow doesn't seem to understand how its own behavior harms its interests. Although clumsily executed, the Obama Administration's call to "reset" the Russian-American relationship was an earnest effort to improve the bilateral relationship. Moscow's aggrieved, suspicious response, though, was highly counter-productive. Perhaps the Russian foreign policy "elite" (as it is fond of calling itself) calculates that such a response will result in Washington coming to its senses; about how upset Moscow is, and thus will change American foreign policy in order to please it. What is far more likely, however, is that the Obama Administration will see Moscow as unwilling to work with it to improve relations, thus making a continuation of the effort not worthwhile.

Mark N. Katz
Professor of Government and Politics
Department of Public and International Affairs
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA


About: Mark N. Katz, Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, writes on Russian foreign policy.

Received September 08, 2009 - Published September 08, 2009


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