For several years Russia has had bad press in the international media.
Since Vladimir Putin rose to power, both he and the Russian state have been accused of drifting back to Soviet ways. Yet even in its current diminished state, Russia retains great potential for the future. It is therefore worth asking where it is truly headed.
Before answering the question, two important yet seldom mentioned factors must be taken into consideration.
The first is that the fall and dissolution of the Soviet Union was primarily an internal Russian development. The Russian people and government, acting in concert, managed within a few years to eliminate one of the greatest tyrannies in history. What is more, they did it peacefully, without bloodshed. The foundation of present-day Russia is a major turn towards freedom by the entire nation.
The second factor in a sense works against the first. It is the fact that the great majority of Russians currently occupying positions of responsibility or power have spent their formative years under the Soviet system. Those born after the accession to power of Mikhail Gorbachev are at best in their early twenties, and have had little opportunity to influence the direction of their country.
In other words, Russians have done a great job of freeing themselves, but have very little experience in handling their own freedom. Authoritarianism is the only political approach most of them know.
This raises a dilemma for the United States. To counter the authoritarian tendencies still at work in Russia we can present a hard front, a kind of Cold War Lite. Or we could seek areas of collaboration and partnership where there are common interests, thereby reinforcing the positive forces let loose by the fall of communism.
There are several areas where our interests and those of Russia overlap.
The first is the global fight against terrorism. Russia has had its share of spectacular and bloody attacks. Their intelligence capabilities are still strong, particularly in areas where Islamic radicalism is active. They assisted in our initial operations in Afghanistan in 2002. There is a natural match here.
The second area is nuclear non-proliferation. Russia remains a major nuclear power, but just as the US it does not wish to see an uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons. In this field a policy Russia supports will carry weight, while one without it will fail.
Next is energy. Russian territory probably holds the largest still undiscovered oil and gas fields left in the world. In that respect it could help the US in becoming less dependent on the Middle East by providing alternative sources of supply.
Last is technical and scientific cooperation. Russian science and engineering were always excellent, and the scientific establishment has been revived under Putin. There is huge potential for collaboration, particularly to create the energy-efficient infrastructure that both countries badly need.
The major point of contention over the last decade has been the attempted US military expansion into Eastern Europe and Central Asia, both former Russian spheres of influence. There are good reasons to ask whether this expansion is desirable or even feasible. Under current conditions it is certainly not affordable. Cooperation with Russia may provide much better results at a far lower cost.
The US must ask itself if it will be more secure with Russia as an enemy than with it as a partner. The second choice seems to offer much greater opportunities.
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