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Reeling In Russia

By Lincoln A. Mitchell

PostGlobal asks: Nearly 20 years after becoming a democratic regime, Russia still faces many challenges. Domestically, this includes ensuring civil rights and civil liberties such as freedom of the press, freedom of enterprise and the freedom of religion. While internationally it has reasserted itself as a major player, it has been shunned by both Western Europe and America.

Will Russia be forced to acquiesce to the American status quo both domestically and internationally or will it be able to pursue its own goals?

Russia is not, at this time, a democracy, nor is it likely to become one anytime soon. The restriction on individual, associational and media freedoms, the close relationships between business and the government and the weakness of the rule of law are just some of the things that preclude Russia from being called a democracy. Moreover, it is inaccurate to continue to view Russia as a country in transition. The regime seems quite stable; with little real movement towards democracy. Russia is a largely consolidated illiberal semi-authoritarian regime.

While the ideological divisions between the U.S. and Russia are not what they were during the Cold War, the regimes are sufficiently different, with sufficiently different foreign policy goals, to make real cooperation between the two countries on a range of economic issues unlikely.

The new semi-authoritarian Russia has clearly reasserted itself as a major player in global politics, particularly but not exclusively in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. The war between Russia and Georgia should have been a reminder to the U.S., but it was in fact more like a wake up call, that Russia seeks to once again position itself as a major player in global politics.

Russia, through its war with Georgia, opposition to the U.S. on the question of independence of Kosovo, cooperation with countries like Iran and Venezuela which are hostile to the U.S., has made it clear that it does not want to work within the rules, structures and conventions which have been laid out for them, largely by the U.S. For example, while NATO expansion and democracy assistance in the former Soviet Union have been popular components of U.S. foreign policy, for years, Russia has viewed these projects quite differently, seeing them as western encroachment and threats to their security. Similarly, Russia has sought to establish its own sphere of influence where the U.S. and Europe should not be allowed to exercise influence in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and most of the former Soviet Union. The war in Georgia and Russian policy towards Ukraine have made it clear that this sphere of influence would preclude true independence or sovereignty for those countries. The question for the west is what, if anything, are we going to do about it.

U.S. policy, if it can be called that, towards Russia over the last eight years has been hindered by underestimating Russia's strength while overestimating Russia's ability and willingness to work constructively and cooperatively with the U.S. For this reason, notions that the U.S. can make an agreement with Russia so that Russia would be able to assert its influence, (read: undermine sovereignty), in places like the Caucasus, in exchange for cooperation on bigger issues such as Iran, are somewhat wrongheaded and overly simple. It is, therefore, essential that U.S. policy towards Russia be grounded in a more accurate assessment of Russia's power and intentions. It is also essential, although more difficult, to recognize both the limits of American power in the post post-Cold War period, and the absolute necessity of cooperation with our European allies if we are to craft an effective Russia policy.

Russia, in recent months, has made the extent to which it will go to pursue their goals in its "near abroad" apparent. Equally apparent has been the inability of the U.S., or the west more broadly to stop them. The challenge for both the U.S. and Europe is to craft a policy towards Russia grounded in a recognition of political realities and aiming towards mutual, cohesive goals. A new Cold War is neither a wise or plausible option, but meaningful cooperation between the U.S. and Russia is equally unlikely.

Instead the U.S. must recognize that Russia is a powerful and often unfriendly country. We then must determine on which issues we are flexible and on which we are not and craft policy accordingly. This used to be called diplomacy; perhaps we should go back to that.

Lincoln Mitchell is the Arnold A. Saltzman Assistant Professor in the Practice of International Politics at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and the author of the forthcoming book Uncertain Democracy: US Foreign Policy and Georgia's Rose Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press).

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Comments (18)

kohsar240 Author Profile Page:


True, Russia wants to monopolize oil production and delivery. As such, it is very hard for Russia to remain indifference to developments such as Georgia, a tiny country, to undermine it with the help of its former enemies. How would US react if it was in the same situation? Another route is through Iran. US seems to prevent that route as well. SO, it is the US that has problems with the rest of the world. This is why we have to be critical of the US policy in which AIPAC plays a big part. Many major US foreign policy is counterproductive and most of it has to do with Israel lobby group AIPAC. It is through Israeli lobby group which has vilified Muslims in the US.

kohsar240 Author Profile Page:


You are wrong to say I blame Jews as an ethnic or religious group. When did AIPAC = Jews? Here is reposted comments.

By a long shot Russia is not US and never will be, if nothing else, at least in values. Even Europeans are not close enough to American value system. True, domestically US is the best country on earth. But foreign policy wise, it is the worst performer. It is one thing if a pharma company lobbies Washington on some regulations but is mightily different if US foreign policy is influenced by Jewish or any other lobby group. Unfortunately US foreign policy has always been undermined in the worst interest of the world by AIPAC, Oil and Military complexes. Now, we have to ask, why Ukraine is important to the US and Europe, to weaken Russia. Why is Georgia important to this group, to weaken Russia. Georgia as a transit route for oil is a cover to encircle Russia. The whole point is that US foreign policy towards Russia, the Middle East has been a disaster. It is only so that AIPAC has an interest in the region. If there was an Israel in south America, south America would in flames right now as Middle East is.

RandomGuy Author Profile Page:

WestTexan and Amb1973,

Glad to see you two having a conversation.. Im with Amb1973 on this however.

Hindsight is crystal. What the US and Nato did to Russia just in the past few years, is nothing short of provocation. missle shield is Poland?? Come On!

Putin is a dictator and the Russian democrazy is a sham. But, that's internal affairs! Nothing to do with Georgia!

The US should have facilitated peace between Russia and Georgia, and not armed the Georgians to the teeth.

Lets talk about hindsight in a few years when Russia plonks missiles in Venezuela, Bolivia and maybe even Mexico

International diplomacy requires give and take - of respect, not goodies in return for sovereignity and national self interest.

WestTexan2008 Author Profile Page:

I don't disagree with your last post, but it really doesn't address the topic - rather it just says, "America did bad in the past." Hindsight being 20-20, what would you do now to address the Russians current grab for regional and global hegemony? Unfortunately, there will be a test.

amb1973 Author Profile Page:

Ah WestTeaxan, I am not particularly enamored with Putin. He gives every impression of being a dangerous autocrat, but to presume he is the reincarnation of Stalin. My point is about glass houses and stones, pots and kettles.

The major conflicts the west are fighting are rooted in the previous actions by US governments.
Don't like Iran? Maybe it would have been better not to help put a dictator in power and then throw the Shah under the bus because of the oil shocks. Don't like Sadaam? Again it would be better if the US had not assisted the baathists to take control and then spend 10 years feeding them weapons to fight Iran. Don't like Bin Laden? It might have been better not to arm and train Islamic fundamentalists just because they fought the USSR and then ignore Afghanistan as it became a festering sore.

Some of us wish the west would learn from history.
The world has seen 50+ years of this us-them unilateral approach to complicated international relations. It is always little nations that get consumed in proxy-wars between major powers.

I believe supporting Georgia is a fantastic desire, but it should be done in a manner that serves their long term interests not the wests short term need for easy access to oil. Stoking Georgia's nationalistic ambitions in a region where ethnic conflicts have been entrenched for thousands of years does not serve the interests of Georgians. Maybe it would be better to give them economic and development assistance rather than encouraging them to spend 80% GDP on the millitary to act as a buffer state.

amb1973 Author Profile Page:

America's interest in post-cold war Russia has, as with all American actions, been motivated by self interest. Do you really believe the US cares about the welfare of Russian scientists? Maybe it is seen as a cheap way of keeping them from spreading the expertize to less stable parts of the globe.

In case you hadn't noticed oil prices are still high, just not absurdly over-inflated. Maybe in 30 years when this cheap energy source appears, all these oil economies might have a problem. At that time the US will have a problem - because maybe China, Russia, India and the Middle East will call in their loans. That is when I will be afraid.

WestTexan2008 Author Profile Page:

Please use logic rather than ad hominem attacks and name calling. I am neither Bush nor Cheney; I'll assume that you are not Putin.

If the US has engaged in 'a resource war' as you put it, then they are pretty dang bad it - having spent hundreds of billions and not gotten any oil. Of course, Russia's soiree into Georgia not it another client province or two and managed to frighten its smaller neighbors - but nobody ever has to fear the Bear. It also gave its military a 'tune-up war' to see BTW, Russia does not care that Azerbaijan pumps oil - they do care that it gets delivered to Europe through a country other than Russia.

Unfortunately, Russian interference in Azerbaijan and several other states continues to complicate unraveling the mess of the former USSR. Ideally the people of the various territories should do it themselves - Putin keeps forgetting that he is neither the czar or the Party Secretary - and messing up the process.

ttraub Author Profile Page:

the first commenter kohsar240 somehow manages to blame it all on the Jews. What a great start to the discussion; glad to see the Post attracts such intelligent and thoughtful participants to its forums.

Russia today is a weak, unproductive country which is fortunate to have immense oil and mineral resources. Were it not for these, the Russian economy might have collapsed.

The anti-American commentators here notwithstanding, the U.S. since the end of the Reagan era has attempted to prop up the post-Yeltsin government of Russia, including subsidies to their nuclear scientists to keep them at home, and hundreds of millions of dollars to their space program to keep missile and rocket scientists well employed and maintain the pretense of a Russian-American alliance in space.

Now the Russians have the buffer of high oil prices they have become a little arrogant and are aspiring to relive the glory days of Soviet imperialism. However, the recent precipitous drop in oil prices has exposed Russia's great weakness. Cheap oil (and, eventually, a cheap replacement for oil) spells doom for the one-trick pony that is the Russian economy, not to mention the economies of the middle east and Venezuela.

kohsar240 Author Profile Page:

By a long shot Russia is not US and never will be, if nothing else, at least in values. Even Europeans are not close enough to American value system. True, domestically US is the best country on earth. But foreign policy wise, it is the worst performer. It is one thing if a pharma company lobbies Washington on some regulations but is mightily different if US foreign policy is influenced by Jewish or any other lobby group. Unfortunately US foreign policy has always been undermined in the worst interest of the world by AIPAC, Oil and Military complexes. Now, we have to ask, why Ukraine is important to the US and Europe, to weaken Russia. Why is Georgia important to this group, to weaken Russia. Georgia as a transit route for oil is a cover to encircle Russia. The whole point is that US foreign policy towards Russia, the Middle East has been a disaster. It is only so that AIPAC has an interest in the region. If there was an Israel in south America, south America would in flames right now as Middle East is.

argo Author Profile Page:

Every time some "authority" laments the state of international affairs in which Russia is seen as emerging out of the wrecks of the Soviet empire with newly acquired strength, I noticed how much better balance and objectivity of views is present in the comments to the "expert" opinion.
This has been evident here, again.

It gives me hope for the capacity of rational thought of my peers, over the disgust with the slanted, unreasonable and obtuse views of the so-called learned among us.
But to see my peers raise to the occasion and defend Russia, in spite of its current regime's failures with democracy--at least according to our interpretation of the concept--because we are all keenly aware of our shortcomings, America's blundered approach to foreign policy during the last ten years, that really elevates my aforementioned hope for our capacity for rational thought. For there is not a chance of rational thought and objectivity unless the microscope is first used to dissect ones own.

amb1973 Author Profile Page:

Are you George Bush or Dick Cheney perhaps?
I have an idea. Russia should reboot the Warsaw Pact and expand it to include Mexico and Canada. I'm sure a missile 'defense shield' just across the Tex-Mex border would be well received.

Strangely, I have only seen one nation engaging in resource wars in the past 30 years. Its also odd that the USA is so concerned about preserving a Georgian government that violently suppresses the media and opposition political parties. A govt that will call for peace talks, and then 3 hours later start firing rockets into a civilian center during the Olympic opening ceremony. Perhaps it is their oil pipeline?

Its also strange that this democratic zeal has not extended to reforming Azerbaijan who actually hold the oil resource.

I understand now, its Freedom of access to oil, not freedom for the locals.

WestTexan2008 Author Profile Page:

It is interesting to note the similarities between current Russia and the Germany of 1933-36. Both have 'elected' leaders who quickly consolidated power with the acquiescence of the population. Both have a strong alliance between business and government (with government truly calling the shots), both moved quickly to rebuild a crumbling military and use military might to restore national pride, and both have engineered conflicts with local nations to 'protect our minorities there' after having upset the ethnic balance in those countries in the first place.

Russia is riding on its current surge in oil income - an asset that they are using up quickly. Germany used the large cash surpluses of Austria and Czechoslovakia to forestall its growing rearmament debt. We know where Germany's attempt at power-grab led; where will Russia's current power-grab lead?

RandomGuy Author Profile Page:

I like the way you ended your opinion much better than the way you started it. 'Reel in Russia'? How hegemonistic and condescending?? The title says it all..

now read the comments here and you will notice the stark difference between the west (read America and it's European poodles)centric perspective, which the likes of Mr. Mitchell propound vs the global objective perspective that most intelligent peopel around the world espouse.

Make no mistake, the times of America dictating what is right and what is wrong are over. Every major (and some minor) nation is striving for a seat at the international table on it's own terms, not the terms of the west. And as nations prosper, their confidence grows. Some assert themselves quietly (like India and South East Asia), while others will belligerently (like Russia and Iran).

So, stop trying to 'reel in' other cultures and nations and try to understand why they would have a problem with the west trying to impose it's values on them.

James10 Author Profile Page:

I think you've come up with a new definition of democracy. Last I heard democracy had something to do with elections and rule of the majority. Somewhere along the line the definition was modified to include a representative government to make sure the US was counted as a democracy.

When 70% of the American people think we should get out butts out of Iraq and we stay there is that because we're a "democracy". At the moment the US seems to have a bit of authoritarian character to it.

Dare we compare Putin's popularity in Russia to George Bush's popularity in the US? The Russians seems to pretty happy with the authoritarian nature of Medvedev and Putin. If Russia is authoritarian it's what the Russian people voted for. If you vote for authoritarian it's not democracy.

You think that if the Russian people better understood that the US doesn't want Russia friendly with Venezuela they might have voted differently?

Military Actions:

Russia >>> Georgia
US >>> Afghanistan
US >>> Iraq
US >>> Syria
US >>> Pakistan

I see what you mean, those dang Russians are dang belligerent.

amb1973 Author Profile Page:

This is all a direct result of victors of the cold war imposing a humiliating peace on the vanquished. After WWII the allies rehabilitated Japan and Germany and created solid partners. With Russia the west imposed/encouraged the most radical of free-market reforms, particularly after the IMF intervention while the nation's natural resources were pillaged by a cabal of mafia/oligarchs and western corporations. For the majority of Russians the standard of living was far below anything they had experienced since WWII. The right to vote is secondary to the right to eat. How can anyone be surprised that a authoritarian regime returned - the Russian people adore him.

The problem with the current approach to Russia is that US is looking to establish a relationship on unequal terms, and to do it in about 5 minutes.

In terms of the Caucasus, it is good to encourage Georgian democracy, but the west should be wary of politicians such as Saakashvili who rise to power principally by demagoguing Russia and stoking nationalist sentiment. Be careful in the Caucasus, the locals are barking mad - I am married to a native Armenian and have the scars to show for it.

yeolds Author Profile Page:

Commenting on the closeness of business and government in Russia as something horrendous at the very time that the USA is blowing billions [or is it trillions?] of $ on "SAVING" Wall street, plus no bid contracts to Halliburton and the other members of the military industrial complex, while doing nothing for the little people is rather ironic.

The USA with ample help from UK has released the most damaging financial fiasco since the 1930-s endangering all the world's citizens and nations via toxic financial products, endless wars, depleted uranium etc and then have the audicity to say that Russia is bad, a country who did not export toxic finance, did not use depleted uranium and did not attack frar off lands [as UK.NATO/USA did in the last few years.

If the author of the above article has nothing good to say about other nations, then the author should lock himself in a dark room and study the various "democratic" actions of USA, such as torture, black site camps, snooping on citizens, etc the write a defence for how these USA Government actions reenforce "DEMOCRACY".

judeclemente21 Author Profile Page:

Russia is a coming force, there is no question about that. Putin is a scary character who will make mince meat out of our next president. Russia is quickly nationlizing their oil sector, and holds more natural gas reserves than any other nation. This is why I worry when Russia and Iran and Venezuela meet to discuss an OPEC-like scenario for natural gas - which is becoming more and more of a global commodity (the main problem with the Pickens Plan). We desperately need to avoid dealings with Russia, good luck Europe you need more natural gas than anybdy, because they are simply an erratic threat. Our only realy option to supply power in the amounts we need is coal. Clean Coal Technology should be our highest priority. Other sources have serious limitations that even their biggest advocates admit.

nivbri21 Author Profile Page:

The problem here is the view that the US and EU are always right and Russia is always wrong. Why does Kosovo need to be independent? Why does NATO have to exist and include Georgia and Ukrain? Why should Russia install the spectacularly successful western financial systems that the US and UK have? Why should Russia follow all the mandates of the west? Because they were all so successful when Yeltsin did? The US doesn't like Putin or Medvedev so they must be undemocratic dictators. Georgia must have complete control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia why?

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