America's relationship with Russia is on a downward slide. President Vladimir Putin's recent threat to retarget Russian missiles at some of America's European allies is just the latest flash point.
The elaborate charade of feigned friendship between Putin and President George W. Bush, begun several years ago when Bush testified to the alleged spiritual depth of his Russian counterpart's soul, hasn't helped. The fact that similarly staged "friendships"--between F.D.R. and "Uncle Joe" Stalin, Nixon and Brezhnev, Clinton and Yeltsin--ended in mutual disappointment did not prevent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from boasting not long ago that U.S.-Russian relations were now the best in history. Surely it would be preferable to achieve a genuine, sustainable improvement before staging public theatrics designed to create the illusion that one has taken place. It's a lesson Bush should keep in mind in July, when Putin is scheduled to visit the President in Kennebunkport, Maine.
There are many reasons for the chill but none greater than the regrettable wars both nations have launched: Russia's in Chechnya and the U.S.'s in Iraq. The wars have damaged prospects for what seemed attainable a decade and a half ago: Russia and the U.S. genuinely engaged in collaboration based on shared common values, spanning the old cold war dividing lines and thereby enhancing global security and expanding the transatlantic community.
The war in Chechnya reversed the ambiguous trend toward democracy in Russia. Mercilessly waged by Putin with extraordinary brutality, it not only crushed a small nation long victimized by Russian and then Soviet imperialism but also led to political repression and greater authoritarianism inside Russia and fueled chauvinism among Russia's people. Putin exploited his success in stabilizing the chaotic post-Soviet society by restoring central control over political life. The war in Chechnya became his personal crusade, a testimonial to the restoration of Kremlin clout.
Since the beginning of that war, a new élite--the siloviki from the FSB (the renamed KGB) and the subservient new economic oligarchs--has come to dominate policymaking under Putin's control. This new élite embraces a strident nationalism as a substitute for communist ideology while engaging in thinly veiled acts of violence against political dissenters. Putin almost sneeringly dismissed the murder of a leading Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, who exposed crimes against the Chechens. Similarly, troubling British evidence of Russian involvement in the London murder of an outspoken FSB defector produced little more than official Russian ridicule. All the while, Russia's mass media are facing ever growing political restrictions.
It doubtless has not escaped the Kremlin's attention that the West, including the U.S., has remained largely silent. The Bush Administration was indifferent to the slaughter in Chechnya, and after 9/11 it even tacitly accepted Putin's claim that in crushing the Chechens, he was serving as a volunteer in Bush's global "war on terror." The killing of journalist Politkovskaya and Putin's dismissal of its import similarly failed to temper the affectations of personal camaraderie between the leaders in the White House and the Kremlin. For that matter, neither has the general antidemocratic regression in Russia's political life.
The apparent American indifference should not be attributed just to a moral failure on the part of U.S. policymakers. Russia has gained impunity in part because of the effects of America's disastrous war in Iraq on U.S. foreign policy. Consider the fallout: Guantánamo has discredited America's long-standing international legitimacy; false claims of Iraqi WMD have destroyed U.S. credibility; continuing chaos and violence in Iraq have diminished respect for U.S. power. America, as a result, has come to need Russia's support on matters such as North Korea and Iran to a far greater extent than it would if not for Iraq.
As a consequence, two dominant moods now motivate the Kremlin élite: schadenfreude at the U.S.'s discomfort and a dangerous presumption that Russia can do what it wishes, especially in its geopolitical backyard. The first has led Moscow to take malicious slaps at America's tarnished superpower status, propelled by feel-good expectations of the U.S.'s further slide. One should not underestimate Russia's resentment over the fall of the Soviet Union (Putin has called it the greatest disaster of the 20th century) and its hope that the U.S. will suffer the same fate. Indeed, Kremlin strategists surely relish the thought of a U.S. deeply bogged down not only in Iraq but also in a war with Iran, which would trigger a dramatic spike in the price of oil, a commodity in plentiful supply in Russia.
The second mood--that Russia has free rein to act as it pleases on the international scene--is also ominous. It has already tempted Moscow to intimidate newly independent Georgia; reverse the gains of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine; wage aggressive cyberwar against E.U. member Estonia after the Estonians dared to remove from the center of their capital a monument celebrating Soviet domination of their country; impose an oil embargo on Lithuania; monopolize international access to the energy resources of Central Asia. In all these cases, the U.S., consumed as it is by the war in Iraq, has been rather passive. U.S. policy toward Russia has been more grandiloquent than strategic.
Despite the tensions, the uneasy state of the relationship need not augur a renewed cold war. The longer-term trends simply do not favor the more nostalgic dreams of the Kremlin rulers. For all of Russia's economic recovery, its prospects are uncertain. Russia's population is dramatically shrinking, even as its Asian neighbors are growing and expanding their military and economic might. The glamour of Moscow and the glitter of St. Petersburg cannot obscure the fact that much of Russia still lacks a basic modern infrastructure.
Oil-rich Russia (its leaders refer to it as an "energy superstate") in some ways is reminiscent of Nigeria, as corruption and money laundering fritter away a great deal of the country's wealth. To an extent, Russia can use its vast profits to get its way. But buying influence, even in Washington (where money goes a long way), cannot match the clout the Soviet Union once enjoyed as the beacon of an ideology with broad international appeal.