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U.S./Russia: Zbigniew Brzezinski Assesses U.S.-Russia Relations

Zbigniew Brzezinski (file photo) RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service interviewed former U.S. national security adviser under the Carter administration Zbigniew Brzezinski on the eve of President George W. Bush's visit to Moscow to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. The Polish-born Brzezinski talked about Russia's "imperial nostalgia," Vladimir Putin as the "final gasp of the Soviet era," and what he describes as U.S. efforts to "promote geopolitical pluralism" in the former Soviet Union.

RFE/RL: What is, in your view, the status of the United States-Russia relationship?

Brzezinski: It's a mixed relationship. There are some elements of cooperation, but also there are some significant disagreements. Russia is still motivated by a nostalgia for the past, which is unrealistic and counterproductive. Russia, moreover, is maximizing its difficulties by rather stupidly re-identifying itself with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact [of non-aggression] and the Stalin-Hitler arrangements for the division of Europe.

RFE/RL: In a speech delivered in Washington in October of 2003, you stated: "I would say that what you should be ought to be seeking unambiguously is the promotion of democracy and decency in Russia, and not tactical help of a very specific and not always all that useful type -- a purchase at the cost of compromising even our own concept of what democracy is." Please clarify and elaborate on this with the benefit of events that have ensued in the intervening year and a half.
"I think we're seeing with Mr. Putin the final gasp of the Soviet era. The Soviet system is dead, and the Soviet Union has disintegrated. But the Soviet elite still dominates Moscow politically, and through Moscow it dominates Russia."

Brzezinski: I think what's happened was that in the course of the subsequent two years, unfortunately, our public statements regarding Russia have tended to fuzz over some unpleasant realities. And that is now surfacing in a way that's complicating the relationship. I think there was too much euphoria; too much of an inclination to declare that Russia was a democracy; [and] too much pretension -- such as, for example, when the current secretary of state asserted that the American-Russian relationship had never, ever been better. All of that, I think, has created ambiguity when clarity is needed.

Whither Russia?

RFE/RL: On the other hand, American strategic planners talked recently in Congressional testimony about the specter of instability in Russia, with the festering conflict in Chechnya, and about the worsening of the political, business, and investment climate there. How do you see Russia evolving before the end of Mr. Putin's term of office in 2008 and after?

Brzezinski: I think we're seeing with Mr. Putin the final gasp of the Soviet era. The Soviet system is dead, and the Soviet Union has disintegrated. But the Soviet elite still dominates Moscow politically, and through Moscow it dominates Russia.

But that elite is increasingly fading from the scene. It is also increasingly self-isolated. So I expect that over the next several years, we'll see far-reaching changes in Russia -- especially when the younger, more genuinely post-Soviet elite begins to push to the top.

RFE/RL: You're discounting the possibility, for example, of a cold war over the former Soviet sphere of influence?

Brzezinski: There can be no cold war because Russia is in no position to wage either a hot or a cold war. It's a brutal effort to wage war in Chechnya which verges on genocide; it's at the same time a testimony to the incompetence of the Russian military.

Russia's in no position to wage a cold war with America, either. Because Russia is essentially right now in a very serious social and demographic crisis. So a real cold war is not possible. Some issues are likely to continue being conflictual. In a broader sense, the American-Russian relationship is probably going to be described in less euphoric terms than has recently been the case, but the basic reality of a mixed relationship -- partially antagonistic, partially cooperative -- I think is going to endure.

Former 'Sphere Of Influence'

RFE/RL: Unlike in the rest of the world, where as you noted the United States is increasingly isolated and politically unpopular, the former Soviet sphere of influence embraces the United States. Seventy-two percent of Georgians approve of President Bush's visit on [9 April] there.... Under the circumstances that you outline, and given that this policy is bound to exacerbate tensions with Moscow, what do you think is the U.S. plan in that region, and what do you think it should be?

Brzezinski: The United States is supporting and de facto promoting geopolitical pluralism in the space of the [former] Soviet Union. That is to say, it is supporting the independence of the post-Soviet states without seeking to turn them into American satellites -- but with the objective of making them viable as independent states.

Part of the dilemma that Russia faces is that its nostalgia for an imperial status creates sustained and extensive hostility with all of its neighbors. It is impossible to mention a single neighbor of Russia with whom Russia has genuinely good relations. It is impossible to mention a single neighbor of Russia that likes Russia. And that is a problem which only the Russians can correct; it cannot be corrected for them by the Americans.

RFE/RL: Can we still speak of a Russian sphere of influence that the West respects?

Brzezinski: That depends on whoever wishes or not wishes to be part of it. If a country doesn't wish to be part of it, it has a right not to be part of it. Obviously, Russia has influence with its neighbors because it is a major entity; and proximity makes influence possible, especially if Russia is stronger and more powerful than its neighbors. But it is not powerful enough to dictate totally to them; and Russia's influence probably would be greater if Putin had had the intelligence to use the Moscow events to promote genuine reconciliation, instead of following what strikes most people as a kind of not very intelligent, nostalgic policy of rehabilitating partially Stalinism and certainly rehabilitating imperial nostalgia.

The 'Forgotten' States

RFE/RL: And the small states, the forgotten states of the region, so to speak, such as Moldova. How should they play their cards under the current strategic conditions?

Brzezinski: I think the recent meeting of the GUUAM -- that is to say, Georgian Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan -- was very clear on that. Moldova is entitled to respect for its territorial and political integrity. And Russia doesn't have a right to maintain a Mafia-controlled enclave within Moldova.

RFE/RL: President [Traian] Basescu of Romania speaks of a Washington-London-Bucharest axis and has played a part of solid ally of the United States in the war on terror. He has supported the so-called Black Sea initiative, in which Romania is a bridge between the euro-Atlantic space and the so-called Wild East -- a beacon of democracy shining toward the Caucasus and beyond. What do you think about this initiative, and should the United States be interested in that region?

Brzezinski: It's a useful initiative, but one mustn't exaggerate it. And I'm not sure that talk of some sort of an "axis" is a particularly felicitous way of talking about it.

RFE/RL: Do you think that a country with a very shaky judicial system, a country that cannot eradicate corruption, can genuinely be a solid ally of the United States?

Brzezinski: For the longer run, probably not.

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