The West Must Now Reassess its Gamble on Russia


Mar 19, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on March 19, 2004.

The re-election of Vladimir Putin as president of the Russian Federation has raised some compelling questions. Will Mr. Putin pursue a course whose objective, tsar-like, is to increase his control and reduce still further the Federation's rudimentary checks and balances? Or is he gathering power in order to create the basis for a more effective democracy — and economy — than have so far resulted from more than a decade of trial and error?

Few in Russia believe there is any turning back, at least to the country's authoritarian past, whether of the tsars or of the Bolsheviks. However much Mr. Putin may try to rein in the media, the Soviet system was brought down by Russians who had far less scope for communication than today's cell-phone, internet society offers. However much individual oligarchs are replaced by state oligarchy, the Russian economy cannot again be isolated from the forces of globalization.

A decade ago, the U.S. and its European allies made a grand strategic choice. George H.W. Bush, then U.S. president, proclaimed the goal of a “Europe whole and free”, which he intended should include Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. Western leaders contrasted the treatment of Germany after the two world wars and opted to treat Russia according to the post-second world war model: promoting post-defeat inclusion and encouragement rather than punishment and isolation.

But Mr. Putin has eroded some high hopes in the west about his democratic commitment, and the U.S. and its allies must now decide whether to continue their great historic gamble on Russia's future. To a large degree, their choice is constrained. The U.S. is preoccupied with the war against terrorism, and last week's Madrid bombings will deepen similar concerns in Europe. In Washington, Russian co-operation on combating terrorism has been seen as both important and forthcoming since Mr. Putin became the first leader to contact President George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. While Russia will remain a second-rate power for some time to come, it cannot be ignored as the U.S. embarks on new efforts on the greater Middle East initiative while trying, with its allies, to prevent any repeat of 20th-century conflicts in Europe.

All this argues for a large degree of turning a blind eye to Mr. Putin's domestic policies. But how much? Over the past five decades, U.S. security policy in Europe has moved beyond balance-of-power theories to rely on a combination of free-market economic progress and democracy. The U.S., so far with doubting European allies, is now pressing a similar approach upon the Middle East. Surely, some ask, the Russian Federation cannot be bypassed in this historic process?

Here the argument reaches a fork in the road. Should Russia's economic transformation be viewed as good in itself, a prerequisite of the slow but steady emergence of middle-class-based democracy? This worked, for example, in Taiwan and South Korea. Or must economic advancement necessarily go hand in hand with social and political progress? The latter formula characterised the experience throughout Europe and America, although over decades and even centuries rather than a few years. Equally, western — or at least, U.S. — public opinion is unlikely enthusiastically to support a Russia lagging behind in its embrace of democracy as well as liberal capitalism.

Since 1991, American-led initiatives have done quite well in devising a “soft landing” for post-cold-war Russia on the security front. But the U.S. has been reluctant to risk much in providing capital and forging ties that could accelerate Russian economic reform. Herein lies Mr. Putin's personal challenge: to solicit the external support needed to buttress internal change, while carrying it through at home. Thus, the shake-up of the Russian cabinet should not be seen simply as a symbolic “new broom” but as a signal of real intention. In this respect, Mr. Putin's choice of his ambassadors to the European Union and United Nations for the highly visible posts of prime minister and foreign minister is particularly significant.

Given the widespread interest in Russia's long-term success and in developing its role within the international community, the west should take Mr. Putin at his word and be more supportive of his economy. But it also needs, collectively, to be both clearer and more precise in setting benchmarks for political reform in his new term — and in showing the limits of tolerance for any retreat from his parallel experiment with democracy.

Robert Hunter is a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, from 1993 to 1998.

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