What Has Moscow Done?

Rebuilding U.S.-Russian Relations

Putin with Dmitry Medvedev, March 2008

This past summer's war in Georgia -- and its aftermath -- delivered a higher-voltage shock to U.S.-Russian relations than any event since the end of the Cold War. It made Russia an unexpected flashpoint in the U.S. presidential campaign and probably won Russia a place at the top of the next administration's agenda. Yet this is hardly the first time in the last two decades that Washington has buzzed with discussion of ominous events in Russia. Before long, the buzzing has usually subsided. Will this crisis prove different? Has Washington's thinking about Russia really changed, and how much?

At first glance, the change seems fundamental. Five years ago, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, said that the main difficulty in U.S.-Russian relations was a "values gap." The two sides were cooperating effectively on practical problems, he argued, but were diverging on issues such as the rule of law and the strengthening of democratic institutions. No U.S. official would make such a statement today -- or would have even six months ago. Well before Russian tanks rolled into Georgia in August, the list of issues separating Washington from Moscow had grown long, and, more important, these issues extended well beyond the values gap. Although great powers are widely thought to have stopped viewing security as the core problem in their dealings with one another, that is what most troubles U.S.-Russian relations. Things were bad enough when the U.S. government used to say that then Russian President Vladimir Putin was undermining Russian democracy. Once Putin, now prime minister but apparently still the country's leader, started saying that the United States was undermining Russia's nuclear deterrent, he took tensions to an entirely new level.

Against this backdrop, Russia's invasion of a small neighbor might have seemed to be final confirmation of the view that Russia has become, in the words of the British economist Robert Skidelsky, "the world's foremost revisionist power." And yet,

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