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The Russia Guilt Complex

There is a growing chorus of voices that argues that the United States and her closest allies are principally to blame for unfortunate revival of not-so-velvet authoritarianism in Russia. I agree wholeheartedly with some of these arguments – Washington has been particularly disrespectful toward Russia since the end of the Cold War, and squandered numerous opportunities to build upon positive areas of cooperation in terms of security, anti-terrorism, nuclear proliferation and trade. In general, Washington and commentators in the U.S. media should show a greater amount of respect for Russia’s renewed great power status and its important role in global affairs (which is not the same as ignoring problems like human rights). However I am not a subscriber to the emerging “Russia Guilt Complex” put forward in the last issue of Foreign Affairs by the Nixon Center’s Dimitri K. Simes, and other similar calls to bury all values in pursuit of “critical objectives.” The guilt complex depends upon false trade-offs, which in the end will leave the U.S.-Russia partnership in worse condition than it is today. Case in point, today the Economist takes on the Simes et al. approach: “This argument has strong points, but many weak ones. Mr Simes is right to say that Russia was not a defeated adversary. But who said it was? He overlooks the main point, which is that the Soviet system (a Russian empire clothed in totalitarian ideology) had indeed been utterly defeated at home and abroad.

The Economist:

It was right and reasonable for the outside world to try to consolidate that victory in any country that showed willing. Russia objected to the world’s efforts to bring security and prosperity to those once-captive nations; this was telling, but no reason to stop.Secondly, Russian democrats and reformers indeed deserve great credit for the intellectual and political challenge that they posed to the Soviet system. Mr Gorbachev’s initial reforms allowed them to move them from the fringes of public life to the centre of it.But the Soviet collapse was the triumph of free markets, free elections, free media, free nations. These are values, institutions and habits exemplified by western Europe and north America. It would have been absurd to soft-pedal them in the hour of victory.Nobody would dispute that the West made plenty of mistakes in the 1990s—and has done so thereafter. The economic history of those years will be the subject of a future column.But it is hardly fair to criticise America both for being too soft on Russia’s political flaws in the Yeltsin years, and also for promoting NATO membership for the countries worried by just those trends. America’s democracy-promotion efforts may be self-interested, perhaps even cynically so, but they are a great deal better than the democracy-suppression efforts of the Kremlin.Hawks may quibble with this and much more besides. But they may find Mr Simes’s conclusion surprisingly agreeable. Russia is not an enemy—yet. But it is heading that way, and could become an alarming one. America should therefore continue to cooperate on terrorism, Iran and proliferation, but treat Russia like China or Kazakhstan: hard-headedly. It should use “words and deeds” (tantalisingly, Mr Simes does not elaborate) to show that America will not tolerate any attempt to recreate the Soviet Union.“Given the Kremlin’s history of poor policy choices, a clash may come whether Washington likes it or not. And should that happen, the United States must approach this rivalry with greater realism and determination than it has displayed in its half-hearted attempts at partnership”. From a quarter sometimes seen as pro-Kremlin, those are striking words.