Rethink our Russian relationship

As an American with more than average interest and experience in Russia, it is a mystery to me why, unlike virtually every other country on earth, U.S. policy has tended to be so dependent on the personal relationship between the respective leaders.

This was especially true of Presidents Clinton, with the late Boris Yeltsin, and George W. Bush, with then-President Vladimir Putin (“I looked the man in the eye.”). This mystery of Russian relations is not totally confined to U.S. leaders: Remember Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous report to President George H.W. Bush on Mikhail Gorbachev as “a man we can do business with.” A humorist might call it the vodka syndrome, except Clinton was never known as a drinker and, of course, the second President Bush had sworn off alcohol.

This is a cause for reflection, when the question is raised as to how the United States might go about organizing its Russian relationship if Vladimir Putin were to be driven to the sidelines by an emerging, though putative, Russian Spring. Recent weeks have witnessed virtually unprecedented (for Russia) mass rallies in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities of what journalists have described as emerging middle-class Russians.

Those of us who have a history of frequenting Russia and keeping in touch with developments there are increasingly asked about what this means, whether it will continue or go away, and who is behind it. None of these questions is authoritatively answerable, at least for the time being. Like much of the uprisings of 2011 in the Middle East and North Africa, the Russian movement includes a number of factions and profiles. Together with middle-class protesters who seem, at least for now, not to have a cohesive ideology, there are Russian nationalist and aging communists, disgruntled pensioners and groups flying the banners of disparate causes.

At a distance they seem united, for now, by an attitude toward Putin that ranges from mild distrust to outright antipathy, even hatred. And again, like the Arab Spring, no single leader or small coterie of leaders has emerged to champion the uprising and give it direction. You can’t beat something with nothing, as the old saying goes. And the Arab Spring has given way to faction fighting, sectarian struggles, and citizen- versus-security-forces clashes. To be charitable, the hard work of democracy has begun … and without a Jefferson, Madison or Hamilton among them.

Those Russophiles among us, driven much less by dreamy nostalgia for Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky than by the certain realization that the United States and Russia have many more interests in common than we have differences, choose to believe that the incipient movement toward democracy embraces demands for multiple party elections; media freedom including protection from violence of reporters who uncover corruption; transparency in government operations; an end to cronyism; an independent and honest judicial system; and many of the other basic qualities and institutions normally characterizing democratic societies.

Even during the worst Cold War days, and certainly during the Gorbachev era of glasnost and perestroika, everyday Russians would tell Westerners: “We simply want an ordinary life; we want to live like everyone else.” That could be this movement’s anthem.

But if the Russophobes among us could let up for a time (and there are more of those in foreign policy circles than we would like to imagine), we might have a chance to institute a far-reaching bilateral policy emphasizing our mutual interests, minimizing our differences and seeking Russian support where it would be welcome and meaningful. That includes dealing with Iran and its nuclear potential; quarantining North Korea; managing the five Muslim republics on Russia’s southern border; isolating and crushing terrorism; countering proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; stabilizing world energy distribution systems; and a host of similarly important problems.

This agenda, including lending moral support for the nominally democratic movement in the Russian streets, should operate regardless of whether Vladimir Putin is reelected Russia’s president. Great powers, it has been said even before the arch-realist Henry Kissinger came along, do not have permanent friendships — they have permanent interests. In the great scheme of things, it matters less how Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ Democrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration Trump’s first year in office was the year of the woman MORE (or for that matter, even Newt Gingrich) gets along with Putin or his successor and much more on whether we can identify and pursue, over several successive American administrations, those real and important permanent and mutual interests.

It is manifestly in the interest of the United States to do so. Years from now it will finally come to our understanding that our relationship with Russia is one of our most important.

Hart is president of Hart International, Ltd. and chairman of the American Security Project. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1975 until 1987.