In an interview with RFE/RL on October 23, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stressed that Russia is still Washington's "strategic partner" and soft-pedaled fears about Moscow's newly assertive international posture.
The defense secretary's conciliatory tone contrasted sharply with a controversial speech that Vice President Dick Cheney made last year in Vilnius, where he assailed Russian President Vladimir Putin for restricting citizens' rights and warned Russia about using its energy wealth as "tools of intimidation or blackmail."
Gates made his comments during a visit to Prague in which he also announced key concessions to Moscow on U.S. plans to base components of a proposed missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The contrast between Gates's and Cheney's approaches reflects an ongoing debate among top foreign-policy officials in President George W. Bush's administration about how to deal with Putin's resurgent and confident Russia, analysts say. Cheney has long been advocating a more confrontational approach, while Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are pushing for engagement and patience.
It is a debate that Gates and Rice appear to be winning -- at least for now.
"I do sense that the administration has made a decision not to confront Russia right now," says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "The U.S. feels that it needs to be conciliatory. That it needs Russian cooperation on Iran and Kosovo principally, but [also] on a host of other issues. And therefore it is important to make nice to Russia."
In contrast to previous debates on Russia policy at key junctures -- during Perestroika in the 1980s, in the detente period in the 1970s, or in the early stages of the Cold War in the 1940s and 1950s -- this time around, the dispute about how to deal with Russia is far from the center of the U.S. foreign-policy universe.
"There is...a black hole in the Washington foreign-policy community called Iraq," Kupchan says. "Iran [also] gets a little bit of daylight. And most of the other key issues on the foreign-policy agenda are really in the shadows. And I would put Russia in that category."
The Russia debate may be in the shadows, but its contours are beginning to take shape in the think tanks, policy centers, and elite universities that influence the U.S. foreign-policy community. And as this debate develops, it will eventually provide a menu of choices on how to deal with Russia for future policymakers.
Long-time Russia-watcher Michael McFaul, who is the director of Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, calls it a discussion about "how to deal with a rising autocratic power."
McFaul and most other U.S. analysts identify three broad -- and often overlapping -- perspectives: hard-liners, like Cheney, who advocate the vigorous containment of Russian power; pragmatists who favor constructive engagement to keep Moscow in check; and neo-Wilsonian idealists who consider democracy promotion to be the central U.S. foreign-policy goal.
Mapping The Debate
Some pundits, like former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, straddle the hard-line and the pragmatic positions. Although he doesn't explicitly use the term "containment," Brzezinski has called for a robust defense of former Soviet states trying to break free from Moscow's orbit. In an interview with the journal "Foreign Policy" in October, Brzezinski argued that the United States and its allies "should oppose any attempts at Russian imperial restoration." And writing in "Time" magazine in June, he urged Washington to "react firmly when Russia tries to bully its neighbors."
Presidents Bush (left) and Putin at a recent summit
Most of the key debate, however, is among those who favor constructive engagement as a tactic but differ on what the ultimate goal of that strategy should be. There is little appetite in Washington for a policy of outright confrontation.
"I would say that there is a very broad enthusiasm for that middle school," says Kupchan. "There is in part a rational explanation for this. And that has been that thus far, Putin's bark has been much worse than his bite. A lot of the concern here in Washington stems more from what he said in the Wehrkunde meeting in Munich, or his threat to pull out of various arms-control treaties. But there hasn't been a lot of follow-through."
At the Wehrkunde meeting in February, Putin accused the United States of trying to impose its will on the world. He has also suspended Russia's participation in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty.
McFaul, who last year contributed to a Council on Foreign Relations report titled "Russia's Wrong Direction: What the United States Can and Should Do," identifies himself as a neo-Wilsonian who favors constructive engagement.
"You've got to have a real bilateral agenda...so Putin has a stake and feels like he's doing things with the United States and is not just comparing us to Hitler," McFaul says. But in engaging Putin, McFaul adds that Washington also needs to be "proactive" about promoting democratic change in Russia.
"If you had a more interesting agenda on reducing nuclear weapons, and if you engaged the Russians on those kind of classic realist issues, that would actually make it easier to help the Garry Kasparovs of the world," McFaul says, referring to the former world chess champion and current Russian democratic opposition leader. "Whereas if you are...confrontational...with the regime, it's difficult for the OSCE to do their work, it's difficult for the National Endowment for Democracy to do their work, and that's where we're at now."
Nikolas Gvosdev, a Russia expert and senior fellow at the Nixon Center, also favors engagement. But he differs from McFaul. Gvosdev thinks that the main goal of that engagement should be promoting U.S. security and strategic goals.
"We need to start setting our priorities," Gvosdev says. "What is it that we want from Russia. What is it that we expect from Russia. What are we prepared to put on the table. What are the issues where you draw the red lines and what are the issues that you say, 'OK, we don't see eye-to-eye on this, but we're just not going to make it an issue in the relationship.'"
Gvosdev says that the key issue for him and other foreign-policy realists is whether or not Russia turns into a security threat. "The Russia that you have -- and nobody on this side of the Atlantic is particularly thrilled with the kind of Russia that is emerging -- is it a Russia you live with the way we live with China or Saudi Arabia or is it a Russia you look at and say this is really going to become a security challenge to U.S. interests?" Gvosdev says.
Kupchan likewise favors realpolitik as opposed to a neo-Wilsonian approach to Russia, arguing that the need for Russian cooperation on key issues overrides concerns about democracy promotion.
"We still need Russia," Kupchan says, adding that Washington needs Moscow's help on "a host of issues ranging from access to bases to fight the war in Afghanistan, intelligence sharing on Islamic extremism, Iran and tightening the screws on the nuclear program," and in other areas like resolving Kosovo's status. "The list goes on and on. We simply cannot afford to break with Russia at this point. And if that means that we need to be somewhat quieter on the question of democratic reform, then so be it."
Gvosdev and others say that many officials and analysts in Washington are invoking the experience of South Korea, which gradually evolved from an autocratic regime into a democratic one. "A number of these guys have really just bought into the South Korea model," he says. "They see Russia today where South Korea was in the late 70s or early 80s" and that "10 years from now, you are going to have this flip that takes place."
Fritz Ermarth, a retired Soviet and Russian affairs expert at the CIA, says the long-term trends in Russia favor an eventual democratization. "A thriving modern society is dependent on knowledge management and creation, which is antithetical to authoritarianism. I think their days are numbered no matter what," he says.
"The Putin regime and the Putin elite are not building democracy. But I think with a little luck, we'll look back and say the underlying forces and currents did move forward," Ermarth continues. "You've got new generations learning new things about the world around them and the internal world. And that I believe have...objectively push in the direction of democratization in the broad sense."
Washington and Moscow remain locked in an uneasy limbo between strategic partnership and confrontation over Kosovo, Iran, and missile defense.
But with a Russian presidential election scheduled for March 2008, and a U.S. vote the following November, that balance could tip. Here's what some of the front-runners in the U.S. presidential race have to say about their future strategies in engaging or confronting Russia:
Arizona Senator John McCain (Republican) has suggested that Russia should be barred from the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrial nations because of its "diminishing political freedoms" and "efforts to bully democratic neighbors, such as Georgia." Of Russian President Vladimir Putin, McCain said: "This is a dangerous person. And he has to understand that there's a cost to some of his actions." Alluding to U.S. President George W. Bush's 2001 comment that he had "looked into Putin's soul," McCain said, "I looked into Mr. Putin's eyes and I saw three things -- a K and a G and a B."
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (Republican) has stressed the importance of Russia's cooperation in antiproliferation efforts. "They've got to be engaged in frank and open discussions about the serious and disturbing turn of events in their own country. But we also have to remain a partner with them on the issue of securing the vast amount of highly enriched nuclear material in their country."
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (Republican) has backed expanding NATO and shoring up relations with Eastern European democracies, naming Ukraine in particular as a "hedge" against Russia. "We should make it clear that America can speak softly and carry a big stick.... We want to continue to commercially engage Russia; at the same time, we should move as quickly as we can to build missile defense."
New York Senator Hillary Clinton (Democrat) wrote in "Foreign Affairs" magazine that Putin has "suppressed many of the freedoms won after the fall of communism, created a new class of oligarchs, and interfered deeply in the internal affairs of former Soviet republics.... We must make clear that our ability to view Russia as a genuine partner depends on whether Russia chooses to strengthen democracy or return to authoritarianism and regional interference."
Illinois Senator Barack Obama (Democrat) has made curbing nuclear proliferation a key point of his foreign policy. "We know that Russia is neither our enemy nor close ally right now, and we shouldn't shy away from pushing for more democracy, transparency, and accountability in that country. But we also know that we can and must work with Russia to make sure every one of its nuclear weapons and every cache of nuclear material is secured," Obama said. "One way we could strengthen this relationship is by thinking about the Russians as more of a partner and less of a subordinate" in nonproliferation efforts.
Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards (Democrat) has called for maintaining a strategic partnership with Russia because of its influence over issues of global security. As the co-author of an article published by the nongovernmental Council on Foreign Relations, Edwards writes, "it is in the U.S. national interest for Russia to be a part of the G8 and eventually other key institutions such as the World Trade Organization," but adds that Russia's inclusion must be justified by changes in policy.