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U.S.: Experts Call For Fresh Start In Relations With Russia

Leading foreign policy experts in Washington say the United States has an opportunity to revitalize U.S.-Russian relations, which they contend have weakened over the past decade. They made some policy suggestions for President-elect George Bush at a conference Thursday. RFE/RL correspondent K.P. Foley summarizes their views.

Washington, 12 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A panel of experts is calling on the new U.S. presidential administration to make a fresh start with Russia and stop what they contend is an erosion of bilateral ties that has developed over the past decade.

They spoke Thursday at a Washington conference sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a private policy research institute, that tends to support a conservative point of view. While not denouncing the Russia policies of President Bill Clinton, who leaves office 20 January after eight years, the panelists contended the Clinton Administration failed to engage Russia on a broad range of issues and did little more than watch as democratic and market reforms stalled.

The Clinton White House and State Department has frequently been criticized for what some commentators call a romantic view of Russia. However, senior administration officials contend the U.S. has made great progress on important issues with Russia and has provided crucial support for reforms.

Heritage panelist Fritz Ermarth said there are serious problems besetting Russia, and he says that realistically, the United States does not have great influence over what happens in Russia. But, he says it does have influence, and this influence must be employed.

Ermarth -- former director of the National Intelligence Council, a government agency that, among other things, provides information and analyses to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency -- says President-elect George W. Bush has a chance for a fresh start.

"The Bush administration comes into Washington with the opportunity to review and revise and reform, in many ways start over, our Russia policy."

He suggested that Bush and his foreign policy team manage their Russian policy in a fashion similar to the guidelines used by former President Ronald Reagan and former Secretary of State George Shultz in the second Reagan administration from 1985-89.

Ermarth said this policy was based on a four-point agenda. The agenda's main components were: strategic issues such as nuclear arms control, regional affairs, human rights concerns and bilateral matters. This four-point agenda enabled the Reagan administration to craft what Ermarth called an integrated, whole policy toward Russia.

"I see a real opportunity to put a compelling, four-part policy architecture together using the inspiration, if not all the concrete experiences of the late Reagan years."

Thomas Graham, a foreign policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, another well-known research institute, says the Bush administration will face many challenges while formulating its Russia policy. One of these issues, he says, is that Russian President Vladimir Putin's grip on the levers of power may not be as strong as Putin would like.

Graham says that Putin spent his first year in office trying to re-establish the central authority of the Kremlin. He says that despite some moves in that direction, Putin is not in charge in the Kremlin and has not, in his words, tamed the regional governors in Russia.

"He is probably of any recent Russian leader the one who understands his own country least of all."

This does not bode well for Putin, said Graham.

"Mr. Putin's inexperience complicates the problem that's going to arise out of the very severe resource problem that the Russian government faces and is going to face, even if the economy continues to grow over the next several years."

Stephen Blank, a lecturer at the U.S. Army War College, said that while the U.S. must engage Russia, it must also pursue policies that promote U.S. national interests.

Blank said those interests include the construction of a national missile defense system, regardless of objections to the concept from Russia and China, and even some U.S. allies. He said the U.S. should also work to strengthen the cohesion of the NATO alliance, and extend NATO's Partnership for Peace Program.

Blank said the U.S. also should offer support to former Soviet republics which he said are "most threatened by Russia." He named them as Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine.

He warned that civilian control of the military in Russia has regressed, and he contends that the military establishment in Russia has become thoroughly politicized. Blank places a great deal of blame for that on Russia's campaign against Chechen separatists. He called the conflict an endless war which Russia cannot win.

Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation agreed that the U.S. should put its own national security interests first in its Russia policy considerations. He also called for broad bilateral contacts at all levels of government and society. Cohen said that while U.S. influence may have waned, the U.S. can still offer important support for pro-democracy groups.