Joe Biden: After Putin

biden032408.jpgU.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del) has a column on Russia in today’s Wall Street Journal:

In six weeks, Dmitry Medvedev will take over Russia’s presidency. His ascension comes at a critical moment. Relations between the United States and Russia are at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War. Regardless of how much independence Mr. Medvedev has from his predecessor and presumptive prime minister, Vladimir Putin, the U.S. needs to use the time before he takes office to develop a new approach for managing relations with Moscow. Whatever the American strategy has been, it clearly isn’t working.

Buoyed by an oil and gas windfall, Russia’s leaders have been able to gloss over long-term problems at home and revert to a Cold War, zero-sum mentality in their dealings abroad. By suppressing dissent, fueling suspicion of the West, and bullying smaller neighbors, the Putin administration has managed to undermine Moscow’s prestige and bring Russophobia back into fashion. A recent campaign against outside investors in Russia’s energy sector is just the latest chapter in this sad spectacle.Ever since President Bush infamously gazed into Mr. Putin’s soul in 2001, Washington has used photo opportunities as a proxy for a serious Russia policy. The administration has airbrushed Russian belligerence and rebuffed some sensible Kremlin proposals, such as legally-binding extensions to arms control treaties. There has been little clarity on what the U.S. and Russia expect of each other. The resulting ambiguity has been a source of mistrust. Breaking this cycle of dysfunction will require Washington to partner with European allies and enumerate a clear agenda for the future.Our top priority should be nuclear nonproliferation and arms control, including a common approach to Iran and the security of Russia’s own weapons and nuclear materials.In some key ways, cooperation is faltering. Two crucial agreements — the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) — face serious trouble. In December, Mr. Putin signed a law suspending compliance with the CFE, threatening an important bulwark of European security. The Start treaty is set to expire in 2009, along with its warhead limits and critical verification provisions.Losing the transparency and stability these treaties provide would be a monumental failure for the U.S. and Russia. Messrs. Bush and Putin largely abdicated these responsibilities. Their successors will have to act immediately to revitalize both accords.The second priority for the West should be to protect the young states of Eastern Europe. The Kremlin invokes the amorphous concept of “sovereign democracy” to explain why Westerners should stay out of Russia’s affairs. However, it ignores its own dogma when strong-arming other “sovereign democracies” in Russia’s neighborhood.The Kremlin has tried to force the collapse of democratically elected governments in Estonia and Georgia, and punished the independence of other neighbors by cutting energy deliveries. Russia also snapped up Serbia’s state oil monopoly as payback for opposing a United Nations-backed deal to grant Kosovo independence. Any successful strategy for engaging Russia must ensure that the region’s young states will remain both sovereign and democratic in the true sense of the words. A coordinated energy security strategy would be a good place to start.Finally, the West should encourage more effective, accountable governance in Russia itself. This is not a matter of outside meddling. It is a question of national security.Russia is the world’s largest energy exporter, and the only state with enough nuclear weapons and delivery capability to wipe us out. It is also facing endemic corruption, a demographic collapse, and a brewing insurgency in the north Caucasus. The Kremlin’s use of “managed democracy” has failed to address these and other major challenges. Whether in the form of loose nukes or environmental catastrophe, Russia’s domestic failings have consequences beyond its borders. It is legitimate for the West to be concerned about Russia’s internal affairs. We should encourage responsible Russians to move toward a political system that is better equipped to address Russia’s many problems.President Medvedev is unlikely to dramatically deviate from the Kremlin’s current course. He is a veteran of Mr. Putin’s political machine and was chairman of the energy giant Gazprom.But he has expressed skepticism of Russia’s turn toward authoritarianism by criticizing the government’s treatment of political opponents and questioning the merits of “sovereign democracy.” As an economist, he may understand the costs of the Kremlin’s recent bad behavior. He could be someone the West can work with more effectively than his predecessor.Regardless, it is time to redefine our relationship with Russia. Neither side will benefit from more Potemkin diplomacy. Americans — and Russians — deserve better.Mr. Biden, a Democrat, is a U.S. senator from Delaware.