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Myths and Realities of the U.S.-Russian Relationship

David Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova perpetuate a myth of their own:

We are back to an original truth: We can gauge how a regime is likely to treat its neighbors by noting how it treats its own people.

How a government treats its own people is not a particularly reliable guide to its treatment of its neighbors and other countries in general. Regimes that oppress their own people are not necessarily aggressive and hostile to their neighbors. Governments that generally respect the rights of their citizens are not less likely to engage in hostilities with other states, and in the recent past they have tended to be more likely to start wars. How the Russian government treats its domestic political opposition is not proof that Western interests are “imperiled.” Linking internal and external regime behavior is how advocates of democracy promotion try to justify their preoccupation with interfering in other countries’ internal affairs in terms of U.S. interests.

Regarding U.S.-Russian relations, Kramer and Shevtsova’s “mythbusting” gets some important things very wrong. For example, they write:

The West’s efforts to avoid antagonizing the Kremlin by downplaying human rights concerns during the 2000–08 period, when Russia’s political situation badly deteriorated, did not prevent a sharp cooling in its relations with Moscow, nor the lowest point in relations with the Russia-Georgian war of August 2008. The Kremlin sees the lack of critical reaction to Russia’s authoritarianism as acquiescence and a sign of weakness, even as a green light to engage in more such behavior.

There are several things wrong with this. If we think back to how the U.S. acted between 2000 and 2008, there was remarkably little effort to “avoid antagonizing the Kremlin.” This was a period when the Vice Presidentlectured the Russians on their political system while in Lithuania, which followed a new round of NATO expansion into post-Soviet space, public agitation in favor of anti-Russian nationalist leaders in neighboring countries, and an ongoing push to bring even more former Soviet republics into NATO. There was a brief moment after 9/11 when the U.S. minimized criticism of Russian authoritarianism because of Russian support for the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia, but that ended quickly enough.

It’s just not true that the Bush administration tried to avoid antagonizing the Kremlin on human rights and other issues. It sometimes seemed as if they were going out of their way to antagonize Russia on internal and international matters, and if the goal was to sour relations with Moscow they were usually successful. The political deterioration in Russia they mention definitely happened, which just drives home how useless the Bush administration’s confrontational hectoring was in affecting Russia’s political system. Kramer and Shevtsova’s description of the U.S. 2000-2008 approach to Russia’s internal and external behavior is thoroughly wrong. It also doesn’t debunk the “myth” that “criticism of Russia reflects Russophobia and/or a desire to return to the Cold War.” In fact, criticism of Russia often does reflect one or both of those things. That doesn’t mean that any and all criticism of Russian policy is driven by nothing but Russophobia and a desire for stoking U.S.-Russian rivalry, but it tends to contribute to both. Many of the other attempts at “mythbusting” the authors try are no more persuasive.

Nikolas Gvosdev’s assessment of the U.S.-Russian relationship makes much more sense:

Something else that both American and Russian observers have noted is that despite all the heated rhetoric both sides toss around, no one in Washington or Moscow is particularly eager to disrupt the profitable ties that have sprouted up in recent years. This gives hope that the U.S.-Russia relationship is finally starting to acquire the necessary ballast to keep the inevitable disagreements between Moscow and Washington from throwing the entire endeavor off-kilter. The message seems to be that the presidents don’t have to be friends themselves in order for both countries to maintain beneficial relations.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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