Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
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, for all the recent references to the Sudetenland and the crushing of the Prague Spring, Western governments have made clear that such parallels will not guide their response. Government officials and pundits alike have been coupling their denunciations of Moscow with assurances that they want to work with it in advancing common interests, whether on nuclear proliferation, terrorism, energy security, drug trafficking, or climate change. The more these issues are invoked, the less one should expect U.S. policy toward Russia to change. Harry Truman, it might be recalled, did not usually speak of his determination to work with Joseph Stalin.
For two decades, the idea that the United States needs Russia for practical reasons has led Washington, even in moments of shock and confusion over Russia's actions, to want to keep relations with Russia from becoming any worse than necessary. Although U.S. policymakers have considered Moscow a high-maintenance partner with whom getting to yes is extremely frustrating and sometimes almost hopeless, they have never been ready to give up on the effort. Even Russia's war with Georgia has not changed this outlook, and for the foreseeable future probably nothing will.
What the war has done, however, is subject the high-stakes and now disappointing U.S.-Russian relationship to a top-to-bottom reassessment—its first real reconsideration since the Cold War. Suddenly, saying that Washington has to cooperate with Moscow when possible and push back emphatically when necessary no longer seems a fully satisfactory formula. Determining the right balance between cooperating and pushing back—between selective engagement and selective containment—has become the main task of U.S. policy toward Russia. This effort will surely last well into the next U.S. administration, providing a key challenge for the new president and his advisers as they refashion the United States' role in the world.
Whenever U.S. foreign policy faces a major failure, so-called realist commentators come forward to suggest a way out, usually by recalibrating ends and means and rethinking national priorities. Long before the war in Georgia, the souring of U.S.-Russian relations had been the subject of many such analyses. (Examples include Nikolas Gvosdev's February 2008 paper "Parting With Illusions: Developing a Realistic Approach to Relations With Russia," published by the Cato Institute; Robert Blackwill's January/February 2008 National Interest article, "The Three Rs: Rivalry, Russia, 'Ran"; and Dimitri Simes' November/December 2007 Foreign Affairs piece, "Losing Russia.") These realists' argument, which has gained a more respectful hearing since the war, is that Washington has let secondary interests prevent accommodation on issues of overriding importance to U.S. security. If Washington wants Moscow's help on things that really matter, the reasoning goes, then it should back off on policies that provoke Moscow unnecessarily.
For these realists, most of the U.S. moves that have irked Moscow in the past few years—regularly hectoring Moscow about democracy, recklessly encouraging Georgia and Ukraine to seek membership in NATO, attempting to install ballistic missile defenses in eastern Europe, challenging Russia's energy dominance in Central Asia and the Caucasus, recognizing Kosovo's independence—are not worth the bad blood, and now the bloodshed, that they have generated with Russia. Washington would better serve U.S. interests by negotiating a series of quid pro quos that focused on getting from Russia the things that the United States truly needs. The details of such proposed understandings vary, of course, but in the most frequently mentioned one, Washington would take care not to encroach on Russia's hoped-for sphere of influence in its neighborhood in exchange for Russia's help in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
This "let's make a deal" approach to diplomacy has a tempting simplicity to it. And (because this is the role realism usually plays in U.S. foreign policy debates) it will surely force U.S. decision-makers to think harder about the ends they seek, by what means they should pursue them, and at what cost. Even so, it is not likely to be the strategy that the next U.S. administration adopts. Diplomats are widely thought to be negotiating such deals all the time, but it is in fact very rare that any large problem is solved because representatives of two great powers trade completely unrelated assets. The "grand bargains" favored by amateur diplomats are almost never consummated.
The specific deals that some realists propose rest, moreover, on unexamined assumptions about both the flexibility and the leverage of Russian policy. Moscow is no more likely to support a drastic increase in U.S. pressure against Iran, for example, than it did against Iraq in the lead-up to the 2003 war. (At the time, some analysts thought a mini "grand bargain" might bring the United States and Russia together on this issue, but neither side was interested.) And the suggestion that Russian leaders could get Iran to end its quest for nuclear weapons raises doubts about whether this sort of policy thinking should be called "realism" at all. Some realists claim that Moscow has enormous influence over Tehran, but they rarely explain how. In reality, the United States has far more leverage—military, economic, and diplomatic—with which to influence Iranian policy.
Important as these reasons are, they are not the most significant grounds for questioning the realist prescription for U.S.-Russian relations. Although realists claim that good relations between Washington and Moscow are impossible if one side annoys the other too much, not long ago Putin himself presided over just such good but somewhat fractious relations. As he awaited a visit from his friend U.S. President George W. Bush in the middle of 2002, Putin could look back over a three-year stretch during which the United States had bombed Serbia and occupied Kosovo, accused Russia of war crimes in Chechnya, abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, established a military presence in Central Asia, begun to train and equip Georgia's armed forces, and completed the largest-ever expansion of NATO, which included three former Soviet states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Bush administration officials naturally gushed that U.S.-Russian relations had never been better. What is more, Putin agreed. Some of the U.S. actions that might have seemed to be problems for Russia were nothing of the sort, he said; after all, strengthening the ability of Russia's neighbors to deal with terrorism strengthened Russia's security, too. Yes, the two sides did not see eye to eye on some issues, but these would not threaten their deepening strategic partnership. After an earlier meeting with Putin, Bush himself had captured this outlook in his customary homey language: "You probably don't agree with your mother on every issue. You still love her, though, don't you?"
Now that U.S.-Russian relations have sunk to a new low, it is essential to recall—and understand—their previous high. Why did Putin say things in 2002 that he would never dream of saying in 2008? Was it, as realists might say, weakness? Maybe. But if the Russian economy was less robust six years ago than it is now, it was already on the upswing. And in any event, in the 1990s then Russian President Boris Yeltsin objected far more vocally than Putin did to U.S. policies he disliked, even though during his tenure Russia was far weaker than it was in 2002.
Was Putin expecting a greater payoff from Washington than he actually received, and did he then change course when he did not get it? There is not as much to this explanation as Russian officials and sympathetic Western analysts like to allege. Within a year of the attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush had offered Putin a new strategic arms treaty (which Putin had said he needed for political reasons), shifted U.S. policy on Chechnya from condemnation of Russia to understanding, recognized Russia as a market economy (an important step in easing bilateral trade disputes), supported Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, agreed to have Russia chair the G-8 (the group of highly industrialized states) for the first time, initiated a multibillion-dollar international version of the Nunn-Lugar program (a U.S. effort launched in 1992 to help dismantle weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union), and upgraded Russia's ties to NATO so that Russia's representatives could participate on a more equal footing in deliberations on European security.
As payoffs go, this was not bad, and at the time both sides emphasized that it represented more than U.S. President Bill Clinton had ever offered Yeltsin. But what really undergirded the U.S.-Russian relationship in its post-9/11 heyday was not any transactional reward. It was the two sides' shared conviction that the two countries saw major goals and major problems in broadly compatible terms—and that, more than ever before, they could deal with each other as equals. Washington and Moscow resolved their disagreements not by exchanging payoffs but by choosing not to see differences as expressions of a deeper conflict. Russian arms sales to China did not block cooperation, nor did the U.S. State Department's human rights report. Henry Kissinger has called this kind of understanding between great powers a "moral consensus." Although the term may seem a little grand, it is a useful reminder that enduring strategic cooperation involves more than trading my quids for your quos.
The U.S.-Russian "moral consensus" of 2002 is now a distant memory, and realists are not wrong to emphasize the disagreements that have marked the relationship's downward path. Yet what changed the relationship far more than any disagreements themselves was a shift in the way Russian leaders understood them. Many events played a part in this transformation—the Iraq war, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and soaring energy prices, among others. From them, Putin and his colleagues seem to have drawn very different conclusions from those of 2002—namely, that Russia's relations with the United States (and the West in general) were inherently unequal and conflictual and that Russia would better serve its interests if it followed its own course.
As officials in the next U.S. administration examine the individual pieces of a U.S.-Russian relationship gone bad, they will have many reasons to consider specific changes in policy. On issues ranging from the military balance to democracy promotion to Russia's relations with its neighbors, new U.S. policymakers will review what is working and what is not and try to fashion a new and more productive relationship. The most significant obstacle they will face, however, is not the complexity of the individual issues in dispute—many of those are, actually, exceedingly simple. It is the fact that Russia's leaders have gone a long way toward reconceiving the relationship. In their view, common interests and strategic compatibility are no longer at its core.
The impact of Russia's new strategic outlook will be particularly evident when the next U.S. administration reviews U.S. arms control policy. The East-West treaties on nuclear and conventional weapons negotiated at the end of the Cold War have caused a more massive and more dramatic reshaping of military forces than is generally recognized. Since 1990, with little fanfare and virtually no opposition on either side, the number of Russian nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles—which make up the largest part of Russia's nuclear force—has been cut by almost 70 percent. Also with no controversy, the largest part of the United States' strategic nuclear force—weapons deployed on submarines—has been cut by almost 50 percent. Cuts in conventional forces have been even more dramatic: the number of U.S. tanks in Europe has dropped from over 5,000 to 130; Germany has eliminated more than 5,000 tanks of its own; Russia, over 4,000; and the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine, together almost 8,000 tanks. With all this dismantling going on, the U.S.-Russian military balance gradually became the quietest corner of the relationship.
Now, however, arms control is back at center stage. One reason is the calendar: the two treaties on U.S.-Russian strategic arms reductions will expire during the next U.S. president's term. But far more important is Moscow's altered view of what is at stake. The former chief of the Russian general staff, Yuri Baluyevsky, declared earlier this year that U.S. nuclear policies reflect a "drive for strategic domination." Ignoring the ongoing decline in military forces across Europe, Putin has charged that other states are taking advantage of Russia's peaceful nature to wage an "arms race" (and on this basis, in December 2007 he suspended Russia's compliance with the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe). Russian officials also insist that the U.S. missile defense system planned for deployment in eastern Europe after 2012 is, despite Washington's denials, designed to neutralize Russia's strategic deterrent. To thwart this, they say, Russia must deploy nuclear forces that restore it to a position of rough equality with the United States. "National security," Putin and his successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, have taken to saying, "is not based on promises."
Many U.S. foreign policy specialists look at the return of arms control with a mixture of boredom and regret. Most stopped viewing Russia as an interesting security problem years ago. In the U.S. military, Russian issues are no longer where the promotions are. When civilian experts bother with the issue of strategic arms reductions, it is usually not because they think that the U.S.-Russian strategic balance matters but because they want to revive attention to some related issue, such as "loose" nuclear weapons and materials or the need for the United States and Russia to strengthen nonproliferation efforts by making large cuts in their own arsenals. It is telling that the most significant arms control idea of recent years, advanced by the Cold War veterans Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz, has been nuclear abolition. Mere nuclear parity apparently bores them, too.
Hostility to old-style arms control and inattention to the growing mismatch between U.S. and Russian thinking on national security clearly led the Bush administration to mishandle these issues with Moscow. Merely dismissing Moscow's charges that the U.S. missile defense plans threaten Russia's security has not stopped the Russians from objecting—or from winning the sympathy of some U.S. allies. Washington proposed allowing Russian military monitors at the U.S. missile defense sites in the Czech Republic and Poland, but the Czechs and the Poles opposed this plan, giving Moscow one more reason to complain.
To keep military issues from becoming a continuing source of U.S.-Russian discord, the next U.S. president will want to adopt a different approach. He will surely drop his predecessor's resistance to formal and legally binding arms control agreements. Yet both Washington and Moscow will further benefit by preserving some elements of the Bush administration's outlook—above all, the recognition that the treaties that work best are those that allow each side maximum flexibility in implementation. If both sides can also agree that their military forces do not really threaten each other, they will not have to sweat every detail over limiting them.
On this basis, arms control could once more become the easy part of the U.S.-Russian agenda. Washington and Moscow would face no real obstacles to the quick negotiation of a new strategic arms treaty that preserved the framework of existing treaties while making further (although probably small) cuts. The current impasse over conventional forces might also be resolved, which could result in bringing more states into the treaty, lowering the caps on major weapons systems, and easing the restrictions on deployments within a country's own boundaries (the last a feature that the Russians have long and loudly denounced as "colonial"). On missile defense, an understanding could be easily reached that offered Russia concrete and binding commitments that U.S. deployment plans would not be fully implemented if the threat from Iran did not grow; for its part, Moscow would not try to block them if the threat did grow.
This should not turn out to be a completely fanciful forecast. Putin quietly laid the groundwork for such an agreement on missile defense in the statement that he and Bush issued in the Black Sea port of Sochi last spring. In it, Putin declared that the conditions Washington had offered to place on the deployment and operation of its radars and interceptors in eastern Europe would, if fully and sincerely put into practice, "assuage" Russia's concerns. Although this language will hardly keep Putin from trying to get still better terms from a new U.S. administration, his approach does suggest that Russia's leaders do not necessarily believe the charges they level against Washington. Resolving outstanding disagreements on nuclear and other security issues would not remove all the contentious issues in U.S.-Russian relations, much less revive the consensus of 2002. But it would achieve what arms control advocates claimed to want in the latter years of the Cold War: a measure of predictability and mutual confidence in the relationship. And for now, that would be progress enough.
Why, then, is it so hard to imagine such a new round of agreements? Many of the major players in Russian domestic politics have benefited from the new atmosphere that Moscow's angry zero-sum rhetoric has created: the military leaders whose budget has grown by almost 500 percent since 2000, the political leaders who have made suspicion of the outside world a kind of ersatz regime ideology, the bureaucrats and businesspeople who say that reviving the defense industry will require continued infusions of state funds. None of these groups will change course except very reluctantly. The balance of power between the United States and Russia may matter to them, but the balance of power within Russian politics matters even more. Until Russia's domestic situation changes, it may be a long time before military issues again become the quiet corner of U.S.-Russian relations.
The next U.S. president will inevitably review a second issue that has been part of the growing contentiousness of U.S.-Russian relations: democratic reform. Like arms control, this issue played a large role in the international transformation that followed the Cold War. At that time, governments across eastern Europe, Moscow included, saw the embrace of Western ideology and institutions as the path to international acceptance and even self-respect. Few questioned the idea that multilateral forums should define democratic norms and practices, such as the criteria for judging whether elections were free and fair. There was simply no other way for a government to show that it had broken with the past.
Both Bush and Putin have fundamentally altered the role of this issue in U.S.-Russian relations. Bush made it all too easy to portray his "freedom agenda" as a hypocritical tool for advancing narrow U.S. interests. And Putin built his popularity in part on the idea that foreigners have no right to judge Russia's political system. His slogan "sovereign democracy" offered a nationalist cover for arbitrary and centralized rule. Western criticism may have strengthened Putin's appeal and helped him tar his domestic opponents as disloyal and subversive.
No matter how much the next U.S. president deplores Putin's success, he cannot ignore it. Making criticism of Russian democracy a strong theme of U.S. foreign policy no longer enhances respect for either democracy or the United States in Russia. In its waning years, the Bush administration has itself retreated to intermittent and perfunctory treatment of the issue, usually through statements by low-ranking officials. A new president who hopes for a fresh start in relations with Moscow will get advice from many directions to avoid tough ideological rhetoric. From his own diplomats and analysts, he will hear that Medvedev, whatever the limitations on his power, has been a thoughtful and consistent advocate of the rule of law and other liberal reforms—and has on occasion (gently) criticized Putin's record. From members of Russia's democratic opposition, he will hear that it is not the job of Washington—or any other foreign government—to advance democracy in their country. (All they ask is that Americans not undercut them by suggesting—or, worse, believing—that Russia is a democracy.) And from European governments, he will hear that the success of democracy promotion depends on de-Americanizing the brand.
The next U.S. administration, then, will have good reasons to make the issue of democracy a less contentious part of U.S.-Russian relations. There is no surprise in this: the old approach was not working. But will treating Russia more like, say, Kazakhstan—as a nondemocracy ready for practical cooperation—actually improve U.S.-Russian relations? Although removing an irritant ought to help matters, it is worth noting that it was not simply U.S. policy that made the issue difficult. From Putin on down, Russian leaders have actually continued to put heavy emphasis on their ideological estrangement from the West even as Americans and Europeans have started to pay less attention to democracy. The reason is simple. Confrontation on this issue has paid enormous political dividends. Russians who think it can keep doing so will not want to drop it just because a new U.S. administration is tempted to give it a rest.
When Russian tanks rolled across a neighbor's borders this past summer, they forced new choices on U.S. policymakers: how and how much to support a small Western nation with no chance of resisting a Russian invasion. Yet even if the choices were new, the policy behind them was not. From the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, it was the policy of the United States and its Western allies to give Russia's neighbors, like other postcommunist states, a chance to integrate themselves into the Western world. In the 1990s, states of the former Soviet Union—unlike Hungary and Poland, or even Bulgaria and Romania—were not considered good candidates for the ultimate prize: full membership in the European Union and NATO. But they enjoyed many other forms of support from the West: sponsorship of oil and gas pipelines that provided access to international markets, the encouragement of foreign direct investment, mediation efforts to resolve separatist disputes, technical advice to speed accession to the World Trade Organization, training and equipment to combat drug trafficking and nuclear smuggling, cooperation on intelligence and counterterrorism, and funding for nongovernmental election-monitoring groups. All these were the same tools that the United States employed in its relations with Russia, and their goal was also the same: to encourage the emergence of somewhat modern-looking, somewhat European-looking political and economic systems from the post-Soviet rubble.
At first, this U.S. policy did not threaten U.S.-Russian relations. But then, something unexpected happened: Russia's neighbors began to succeed. In the past five years, the economic growth of many former Soviet states has outstripped Russia's own. While Russia became less democratic, several of its neighbors made important political breakthroughs. All of them began to seek ties with the West that would bring them out of Moscow's shadow, and two—Georgia and Ukraine—have sought to lay claim to membership in the European Union and NATO.
In part because U.S. policy had not really changed over time, Washington probably underestimated the significance of encouraging such aspirations. It surely underrated the single-mindedness of Russia's opposition. With its own economy reviving, Moscow sought to block Western pipeline projects and to close off the West's military access to air bases in Central Asia. It accused Western nongovernmental organizations of trying to destabilize Russia's neighbors. And in April, Putin labeled the further enlargement of NATO "a direct threat to the security of our country."
In all this, the United States and Europe misjudged their ability to help Russia's neighbors slip into the Western orbit without a full-blown international crisis. Now that there has been a test of strength, and Russian strength has prevailed, many of the tools of Western policy are severely damaged. Those NATO members that had endorsed eventual membership for Georgia or Ukraine are now divided on the issue. Those former Soviet states that had viewed closer cooperation with NATO (even without membership in the alliance) as a critical lifeline to the outside world now wonder whether this is still a good idea. Energy producers in Central Asia that were considering new pipelines outside the Russian network may see such projects as too risky. Western mediation efforts are on hold along Russia's entire periphery; in Georgia, they are dead.
Yet whatever else Putin has accomplished in his pummeling of Georgia, he has failed at the most important thing. Even as Russian leaders have begun to speak openly about their desire for a sphere of influence, their actions have made Russia's acquisition of such a sphere less, not more, acceptable to the United States and Europe. It is now necessary to consider whether Russia's invasion marks the beginning of a concerted drive by Moscow to restore its influence over other post-Soviet states. In the past, such a revival might have seemed undesirable in the West for sentimental reasons. Today, the reasons are more serious. There can be no doubt that a Russia that dominated an industrial powerhouse such as Ukraine, an energy storehouse such as Kazakhstan, and the other pieces of the old Soviet Union as well would change the national security calculations of virtually all the world's leading states.
Because the stakes are high, simple prudence will oblige the next U.S. administration to move cautiously. Whatever Washington embarks on now, it must be able to carry through, and that rules out overreaching. To have broader options down the road, U.S. policymakers must offer Georgia, in the short term, effective humanitarian relief; then, support for economic stabilization and reconstruction; and, after that, help in restoring the country's armed forces. As such steps begin to succeed, the question of Georgia's membership in NATO will arise again. Georgia deserves a place in the Western alliance, but nothing will do more harm to Georgia's security than to raise the issue before NATO is ready with an answer.
Rebuilding Georgia—and rebuilding a policy that gives post-Soviet states a place in the Western world—must be the first order of business for the next U.S. administration. There is no other way to deal seriously with the wreckage created by Russian aggression. But in making this effort, the United States and its European allies will have to wrestle with a seeming paradox: in the past, the United States was able to do more for Russia's neighbors when its own relations with Moscow were good (and the neighbors' relations with Moscow were at least civil). For the foreseeable future, U.S.-Russian relations will not be good, and that will impose a serious burden on U.S. policy. There is no way to break cleanly out of this box, but to do so at all, the United States needs to regain the diplomatic initiative. It needs ideas and proposals that can blunt Russia's recent strategy while offering Moscow a different path to international influence.
As it happens, the Russians themselves may have put forward the most readily usable idea of this kind. Before the war against Georgia, in his most substantive foray into foreign policy to date, President Medvedev called for a new conference on European security, explicitly harking back to the diplomacy of the mid-1970s, out of which the Helsinki Final Act emerged. To be sure, his goals seemed a little too much like those of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who hoped that a conference on "security and cooperation" would bring Western recognition of the division of Europe. For his part, Medvedev wants recognition of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and other arrangements that link Moscow to a number of post-Soviet states. And like Brezhnev, who lived to see Helsinki become a banner for opponents of the Soviet regime, Medvedev might discover that such a forum, whatever its short-term propaganda value, would give other governments a chance to put Russia's conduct in the spotlight and promote principles that would make the realization of its would-be imperium harder to achieve.
With Georgia still bleeding from defeat, the idea of exploring proposals whose clear aim is to consolidate Russia's gains, devalue and constrain NATO, and close off avenues to the outside world for Russia's neighbors may seem untimely, even defeatist. And yet the United States and its allies should not forget that they have permanent advantages in diplomatic enterprises of this kind. It is not easy to imagine a European security conference, now or in the future, in which Russia would not be isolated by its own behavior. Would anyone but Russia oppose the principle that all states are free to join alliances of their own choosing? Which states could Russia count on to object to a reaffirmation of Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity? Who would support Russia's idea that having waged war against Georgia, its own forces should now assume the mantle of peacekeepers? Who would agree with Putin's view, expressed openly to Bush, that "Ukraine isn't even a state"?
Policymakers in Moscow claim that Russia simply wants to sit at the high table of global diplomacy, to be a rule maker and norm setter for the international order. They seem to believe that a European security conference, even a European security treaty, would strengthen Russia's sphere of influence. They want to show that when they speak, they get a hearing. Such aims and expectations may produce only stalemate. Yet the process would not be a waste of time if it did nothing more than demonstrate that Russia's ideas and conduct are at odds with the opinions of all the other participants. The next U.S. administration should therefore look carefully at Russia's proposals, consult with its friends and allies, hold exploratory conversations, seek clarifications, bracket ideas it does not like, and so forth. Then it should accept Medvedev's idea with pleasure.
"That's one of the tragedies of this life—that the men who are most in need of a beating up are always enormous," says one of the characters in the 1942 Preston Sturges film The Palm Beach Story. The same is true of the new predicament of U.S. foreign policy. Russia seems to be on an increasingly confrontational course, powered by a bristlier conception of its interests than at any time since the end of the Cold War, by domestic political arrangements that appear to feed on international tension, and by an enhanced ability to stand its ground. Neither Russia's power nor Russia's aims should be exaggerated. Its new strength has a narrow, even precarious base, and its new goals may be reconsidered if the cost of pursuing them gets too high. But in the wake of the war in Georgia, a more disturbing outcome seems likely to prevail. Russia's power may actually keep growing, and carry the country's ambitions with it.
As the United States' involvement in Iraq begins to wind down, U.S. policymakers and U.S. commentators alike have started to wonder about the array of problems that Washington will have to deal with next. Will it wrestle with new and deferred difficulties against a backdrop of largely cooperative ties with other major powers, or are such relations turning more conflictual? If conflict becomes the new norm, how hard will it be to manage it in ways that serve U.S. interests? Sooner than expected, Russia has given Americans a feel for the answers.