The Bush administration's desire to promote the globalization of democratic values is fueling tension in the United States' relationship with Russia, a country that has experienced a dramatic erosion of its geopolitical influence over the past 18 months.
Following a meeting in Moscow on April 20, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian President Vladimir Putin both expressed satisfaction about the current state of bilateral relations. Despite their positive assessments, strains in the US-Russian relationship are readily evident.
Prior to meeting Putin, Rice voiced criticism of Russia's democratization record, specifically citing the fact that the Russian government maintains a stranglehold on television outlets in the country. "There should be more independent media so that people can debate and make decisions about the future of Russia, democratic Russia, together," Rice said during an interview broadcast by Ekho Moskvy radio. The secretary of state also suggested that Russia's executive branch under Putin had accumulated excessive power at the expense of Russia's other branches of government.
While critical of the Russian government, Rice emphasized that Washington and Moscow remained strategic partners, adding that the United States sought to build a "constructive, friendly relationship" with Moscow. The apparent US desire not to fully alienate Russia is rooted in geopolitical pragmatism. An antagonistic Moscow could greatly complicate a number of important international issues, including the global threat posed by radical Islam and nuclear non-proliferation.
Rice insisted insist during the Ekho Moskvy interview that the United States does not seek to replace Russia as the key power in the Caucasus and Central Asia two areas that have traditionally sat well within Russia's sphere of influence. However, recent actions indicate that Russian officials are extremely wary of American intentions.
One indicator of Russia's concern is reflected in Moscow's changing stance toward the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. OSCE election monitors were highly visible in recent elections in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. and the group's reports on election flaws played a background role in fueling revolutions in all three states. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russia now wants the OSCE to focus more on security, and it has adopted a cantankerous stance on several budgetary issues.
While US and Russian officials strive to preserve the veneer of a cooperative spirit, experts on both sides are far blunter in their criticisms, and more willing to use confrontational rhetoric. Debates during conferences on regional issues are now sometimes flavored with a touch of Cold-War era hostility. Such debates occurred in February in the Georgian capital Tbilisi during a conference called The South Caucasus in the 21st Century: Challenges and Opportunities.
During the three-day meeting, sponsored by the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, Stephen Sestanovich, a former top US diplomat during the Clinton administration who is currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, courted controversy when he suggested that the concept of the Caucasus lying within the "post-Soviet space" was outdated. Instead, he advocated that the Caucasus ought to be identified simply as part of Europe, a change that could help to subtly weaken Russia's traditional high-profile role in the region.
S. Frederick Starr, the chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, appeared to criticize Russia's stance on the region's so-called "frozen conflicts," involving Georgia's separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, along with Nagorno-Karabakh. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]."Conflict resolution failed not only due to intransigence of the sides and insincere policies of regional powers, but also because the efforts of good and tenacious people in international organizations to settle the conflicts have failed," Starr said. He went on to suggest that if Russia does not respect territorial integrity of South Caucasus states Georgia, in particular -- then the West should "open up" issues relating to the Northern Caucasus for discussion, including self-determination for Chechens.
Vyacheslav Nikonov, a pro-Putin political scientist and the president of the Politika Foundation in Moscow, staunchly defended the Russian record in the Caucasus, adding that Russia intended to remain an influential player in the Caucasus. Russia "is on the rise and its power will increase, whether you like it or not," he said. The fact that millions of ethnic Armenians, Azeris and Georgians live in Russia grants Moscow a right to take an active interest in South Caucasus affairs, Nikonov maintained.
Yevgeny Kozhokin, the director of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, suggested that the United States and Russia should pursue "big issues," such as the growing geopolitical influence of China and international terrorism, and Washington could leave "small fry" regional issues, such as the future political status of South Ossetia, for Moscow and Tbilisi to resolve exclusively.
Vladimir Socor, a senior fellow at the Washington, DC,-based Jamestown Foundation, said relying on Russia to work out its differences with Georgia on South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be a mistake. Socor assailed Russia for its failure to fulfill security commitments made during the OSCE's Istanbul summit in 1999. He said political settlements to the two conflicts would remain elusive unless new peace-keeping and negotiating frameworks were established. "Existing frameworks for negotiations are relics of another era before the expansion of the EU and NATO," Socor said "The UN mission in Abkhazia helps put an undeserved international gloss on the Russian framework designed to perpetuate secession and the occupation of Abkhazia."
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Heritage Foundation, and Editor and co-author of Eurasia in Balance: US and the Regional Power Shift (Ashgate, 2005, forthcoming).