The Economist print edition
America and Europe confront a new freeze in their relationship with Russia
AMERICA'S security is “threatened less by Russia's strength than by its weakness and incoherence,” wrote Condoleezza Rice, now America's secretary of state, in 2000, shortly before Vladimir Putin and George Bush were elevated to their countries' presidencies. The Russia that Ms Rice visited this week sees itself differently. It feels economically strong, assertive and more coherent—at least in its anti-Americanism.
Russia has learned to use its vast natural resources to exert power in Europe and beyond. This week, just ahead of a testy bilateral summit with the European Union in Samara, its clout was enhanced by Mr Putin's crude but effective diplomacy in Central Asia. He persuaded Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to send more gas exports through Russia, spoiling the rival plans of America and Europe for a trans-Caspian pipeline that would skirt south of Russia. Ms Rice's comment that “no one needs a monopoly” in natural resources will merely bring smiles to the faces of Kremlin officials.
Just before Ms Rice's visit, the Kremlin's rumbustious anti-American rhetoric hit new peaks. In his speech on Victory Day (May 9th), Mr Putin seemed to liken America to the Third Reich. “The victory once again will be ours,” Russia's state television channel echoed. This week Ms Rice and Mr Putin agreed to tone down such verbal hostilities. But they made no progress on wider disputes.
One difference between the two sides is how much they matter to each other. To Russians, America is a yardstick of their own place in the world. To Americans, Russia is just one factor in its foreign policy—and not the biggest one. Few things give Russians as much sense of their own importance as a spat with America. “They like to counter America. It makes them feel good,” says one senior American official.
Russia's self-esteem has long been inseparable from its relationship with America. To have America as an enemy in the cold war gave the Soviet Union a sense of urgency and purpose. The end of the cold war deprived Russia of a vital adversary. It is only logical that Russia should now demonstrate its resurgence by sparring with America again. America's troubles in Iraq make this an apt moment for Russia to return to the world stage.
“America is a crucial part of Russian domestic life and its self-consciousness,” says Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “America consolidates Russia's elite and prolongs its existence.” But America has a big place in popular imagination too. Lev Gudkov, a sociologist, says the view of America as rival is inseparable from the perception that it is a country of wealth and happiness: a Utopia. (“Tell them I've gone to America,” says a character in Dostoevsky's “Crime and Punishment”, before putting a gun to his head.)
America has no equivalent neurosis. Russia matters, but much less than in the cold war. “Then, the American-Soviet relationship defined everything else. Now, everything else defines the relationship with Russia,” says a Russia analyst in Washington, DC. As a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, Russia can block resolutions on Kosovo's independence or Iranian sanctions. But as Richard Haass, head of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), says, “Russia has failed to articulate a positive strategy. Oil allows it to be a spoiler, but it is unclear what it stands to gain from it.” A CFR report concludes that a strategic partnership between Russia and America “no longer seems realistic”.
This is a big shift from Bill Clinton's hopes of integrating Russia into the West in the same way as America did for Germany and Japan after the war. “Clinton believed that America cannot be secure without a democratic Russia,” says Ms Shevtsova. Yet America's help in transforming Russia into a free-market economy in the 1990s is at the root of much Russian anti-Americanism, as America was blamed for the transition's failings. “The Clinton administration's embrace of Yeltsin and those who were thought to be reformers around him has failed,” Ms Rice argued in 2000. Mr Putin too sees the 1990s as a wasted decade and has spent the seven years since reversing much of the Yeltsin legacy, including on privatisations and freedom of speech.
The failures in the 1990s were not the only thing on which Mr Bush and Mr Putin agreed. The high point in their relationship came after September 11th 2001. Mr Putin was the first leader to call Mr Bush and offer support: “a master-stroke of diplomacy”, says Mark Medish, vice-president of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. Russia helped America to gain access to Central Asian states and provided helpful intelligence in the early months of the war in Afghanistan. “The Russians were among the few who had operational information on the ground,” Mr Medish says.
That co-operation led to two misjudgments. The White House felt that Russia's support meant there was a “strategic partnership” based on similar values; the Kremlin believed America would reward it. Inevitably, both sides now feel disappointed. Mr Putin thinks he got nothing out of his westward swing. Some of his grievances are legitimate, say former and present members of the American government. “We used Russian intelligence in Afghanistan, but did not want to let them too close to what we were doing,” says a former top official. Russia is still subject to the Jackson-Vanik amendment that penalises countries with non-market economies and restrictions on emigration. “It clearly does not apply to Russia. But Bush did not put any of his political capital into getting it lifted,” the ex-official adds.
But the main reason for the rift is Russia's behaviour abroad and at home: its arms sales to Iran and Syria, its links with Myanmar, its political use of energy, its harassment of the opposition and non-governmental organisations and its use of law as a repressive tool. The toning down of language that Ms Rice and Mr Putin want only masks these deeper problems.
The danger is not that Russia will prevent the independence of Kosovo or the placement of American missile defences in eastern Europe (both will go ahead, whether Russia likes it or not, Ms Rice said in Moscow). Nor is it that Russia will pull out of arms-reduction treaties. The bigger fall-out will be in Russia itself. Hatred of America gives cover for growing authoritarianism, nationalism and concentration of money and power in the hands of former and present members of the security services. If this continues, Ms Rice's successor may need to review what constitutes the real threat to America's security. Fiar use.