(This is Part II in a series of posts from Moscow)
A look at two more key themes emerging from the comments of a wide range of Russian experts and ordinary folks I’ve heard from this week:
Growing Indifference to Economic Relationship
There is no doubt that Russia has been struck every bit as hard by the global financial crisis as the US has. The Russian stock market has tanked, and companies are cutting back jobs and wages to a degree not seen here since the crash of 1998, although average working Muscovites still say that the crash a decade ago was far more sudden, and for that reason scarier. In part, the latest crash has reminded Russians that they are not insulated from the global economy, and that participation in a global rescue strategy would be very much in their interests. At the same time, the crisis has fueled resentment, and growing indifference to the perceived unfairness of US-led western economic institutions, which continue to exclude Russia, despite its huge share of the global energy market. In fact, as a natural resource supplier, Russia is no longer particularly desirous of accession to western clubs like the WTO (which would not impact energy trade), and most experts I spoke with said the window of opportunity had passed to curry favor or gain leverage with Moscow through serious steps toward WTO accession.
That said, multinational and US companies operating in Russia still strongly support WTO accession, and there’s no doubt that progress on that front would be welcome. Some called it nice to have, but not necessary, or “too little and too late, but not altogether unwelcome.” Likewise, if the US were to at long last drop the Cold War era (1974) “Jackson Vanick” Amendment, which imposed restrictions on US-USSR trade as punishment for Soviet persecution of Jews seeking immigration to Israel, it would be considered a “necessary but not sufficient” positive step to restoring trust and goodwill in the US-Russia commercial relationship. Keeping this measure on the books in the US is increasingly absurd, especially since Russia just signed a visa-free travel agreement with Israel, and is merely a reflection of successive US administrations’ unwillingness to invest even minimal political capital in the relationship with Russia.
“Existential Threats” to Russia’s Security
By far the biggest obstacles to an improved US-Russia relationship at this moment are 1) the Bush Administration’s continuing pursuit of (and Obama’s ambiguity about) missile defense in Eastern Europe, and 2) the prospect of NATO expansion to include Georgia, and especially Ukraine. On missile defense, the Russian perspective ranges from outright fury that the United States would try to undermine the strategic balance that has held for the past six decades, to confusion that the US would pursue development of a system that can barely do what it is allegedly designed to do, but which will require Russian military planners to develop counter-measures that will make Western Europe much less safe. The analogy to President Reagan’s pursuit of SDI in the 1980′s is not lost on Russians, some of whom believe Bush’s missile defense system is no different from Star Wars in that we know it won’t work, but our stubborn pursuit of the system will create a bargaining chip the US can trade for Russian concessions. Not shockingly, the Russians are determined not to be “played for fools” again.
On NATO expansion, the view is quite simple: Ukraine’s accession to NATO would be an existential threat to Russia, and is absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances. This is a view shared even by the most west-leaning liberals in Russia. When pressed on their inability to accept the US vision of NATO as a multilateral security mechanism that has evolved from its Cold War origins and might work in partnership with Russia, my Russian interlocutors simply said that no compromise would be possible, and that NATO expansion had to stop. At least for now, it appears there is not sufficient trust in US motives or competence for Russians to believe that positioning US military hardware (be it missile defense sites or NATO troops) in Ukraine (whose border is 400 km from Moscow—closer than Cuba is to Washington, DC) would be anything other than a forward staging area for a future attack on Russia. The bottom line is that Russians believe the US is pursuing fundamentally incompatible goals by keeping NATO expansion and missile defense on the table, while calling for further nuclear arms reductions and cooperation with Russia.