Don't Open the Door to Russia Yet


Nov 13, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on November 13, 2001.

Last June, when President Bush invited Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to visit his ranch in Crawford, Texas, it was almost certain that nuclear weapons would be the summit's centerpiece. Since then, Sept. 11 has reshaped the United States' view of the world, and Moscow has emerged as a vital link in Washington's war against terrorism.

Putin has been talking about Russia realigning itself with the West—possibly even seeking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Thus some observers argue that his visit to the U.S., which begins today, could herald a new strategic and political relationship. Still at the top of the Bush-Putin agenda is sorting out the legacy of the U.S.-Soviet strategic nuclear balance. The Russians want to reduce the number of each side's nuclear missiles. The U.S. wants to test a national missile defense system without Moscow's crying that this violates the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. A deal will likely be struck, in large part because the ABM treaty now mostly matters to Russia as a symbol of its still being taken seriously as a major power; and that role is now being filled by the new closeness between Moscow and Washington. The two sides have been trading favors. Putin has given Bush valuable support, including the sanctioning of a U.S. military role on Russia's Central Asian periphery. Bush has gained greater U.S. understanding of Russian brutality in Chechnya—now justified by Moscow as part of the fight against Islamic terrorism; more tolerance for meddling in places such as Georgia; and sympathy for Russia's economic hopes.

No element of these accommodations affects what either country sees as critical interests, so the exchange is relatively painless. More complex is Putin's expressed interest in aligning Russia with the West. If fulfilled, this could become a historic wrapping up of the Cold War's legacy, a route for Russia out of its 20th century isolation and a sound basis for its domestic political and economic modernization. But it is not yet clear that Putin is bent on such a change, or that, if so, he has the latitude to achieve it.

Since Peter the Great, Russia has had European aspirations. But it is also a country of continental dimensions, with most of its territory—and continuing problems with neighbors—in Asia. It thus lacks the freedom to shift its strategic focus as simply a matter of choice. Neither would Russia approach the West without baggage. Chechnya is not the only "Muslim" problem within the federation. Violent repression has been intended in part to signal to other non-Russian populations the limits of straying from allegiance to Moscow.

These struggles are far from finished. This is a major reason that Putin has embraced a campaign against "Muslim terrorism." That fact, and the continual erosion of media freedoms, shows that the new Russia still falls short of the democratic standards needed for true political alignment with the West, much less formal membership in NATO or the European Union.

The Western allies must also consider the implications of taking Russia formally within their embrace. NATO's core strength has always centered on its principle that an external attack against any one ally would be considered an attack against all. It is hard to conceive that the NATO allies could assume the burden of defending Russia's borders against all comers, including China.

A clue to Putin's thinking can be found in his recent musing about possible NATO membership next year for the three Baltic republics. This has been anathema in Moscow, on the grounds that these states were once part of the Soviet Union and lie athwart Russia's year-round access to the North Sea. Putin has said he might reconsider Moscow's objections to their joining NATO "if NATO takes on a different shade and is becoming a political organization." This has been a Russian objective for many years. Acceding to it would mean a weakened NATO before the creation of a viable security system that embraced Russia.

Putin may prove sincere about wanting to realign Russia with the West. It may be that changes since the end of the Cold War and Sept. 11 argue for new Continent-wide security arrangements. But these must be grounded in common interest and common practice. On its own, a coalition against terrorism is a fragile basis for building an enduring strategic relationship.

NATO and the EU need to reach out to Russia, as they have been doing for the last decade, and these efforts should be further strengthened. But former President Reagan's slogan—"trust but verify"—remains good counsel in matters of such moment.

Robert E. Hunter, a senior advisor at RAND, was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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