Defining Russia’s Rational Interests

soviet050409.jpgThere’s a new think piece in the National Interest by former Senator Gary Hart and Dmitri K. Simes of Nixon Center about the new efforts to improve the U.S.-Russia relationship.  As may be expected, Hart and Simes put forward a realist argument, landing squarely in that old school of thought that is currently ascending in Washington (Obama even has Kissinger lurking in the shadows to advise on Russia).  When reading Simes, I usually find some compelling and clear arguments as well as numerous points of dispute.  For example, I found the discussion of defining Russia’s interests very interesting in this article, culminating with the following observation:  “U.S. policy makers need to accept that when we ask Russia for help in dealing with Iran, or on other tough issues, we are in fact asking Moscow to adjust its own natural foreign-policy inclinations and to accommodate U.S. priorities.


In other words, Simes and Hart argue that any given country’s stated”interests” are not up for debate, and should be accepted as is.  It’sthe classic assumption which has weakened therealism approach, that the leadership in the Kremlin is defining these interests with unitary rationalism, directed toward the fulfillment of the national interest – nevermind the expediency for domestic politics, clan infighting, or ambitions for personal power and/or wealth, which may sometimes pose conflicts between national and partisan interests. 

For example, we are told that “Moscow wants to prevent the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan” while at the same time the Kremlin is rushing to deliver the first tranchesof a bribe to Bishkek to close down a critical airbase.  That’scompletely inconsistent with the rational assumption of nationalinterest.

Despite the predictable points of disagreement for me, the article is well written with some good ideas (such as ditching Jackson-Vanik) and other arguments worthy of debate.

There is nothing unusual about that; throughout history, countrieshave accommodated one another in some areas to harvest the fruits of abetter relationship in others that matter more. And unless the UnitedStates can compel Russian action on issues of interest to us, somethingno one seems to argue is possible, mutual accommodation is the onlypath available to win Moscow’s cooperation. We cannot realisticallyexpect Russia to change its perspectives without getting anything inreturn.

Let us be clear: this does not mean America should makeany unilateral concessions to Russia or any concessions at all thatwould damage essential U.S. interests or principles. Nor should theUnited States hesitate to draw clear red lines to defend our keyinterests, such as protecting Russia’s neighbors from unprovokedaggression. Still, to demonstrate America’s seriousness about resettingthe U.S.-Russia relationship, the administration and Congress shouldconsider some of the problematic but easily fixable issues that we canget off the table quickly as gestures of good faith. An obvious firststep is to work together to graduate Russia from that troublesomeJackson-Vanik amendment promptly and unconditionally. Three successiveU.S. administrations have promised to free Russia from theserestrictions. Delivering at long last would be a cost-free message tothe Russian government that Washington is a serious potential partner.

Eventhe best American strategy is unlikely to produce breakthroughs or thesudden transformation of our current near rivalry into a beautifulfriendship. But pretending to cooperate with Russia, as we have donefor almost two decades, is not a responsible course in the currenttroubled world. Especially if the help we need from Moscow on America’snational-security priorities is not make-believe, but real.