Russia is a difficult country to deal with, but deal with it America must.
The Obama administration has an opportunity to salvage the troubled relationship. But Washington's going to need a new approach. Drop the schoolmarmish lectures about democracy and forget about grand intellectual strategies: What's needed here is some principled pragmatism.
Rather than ignoring Russia until disputes get ugly, the United States could be looking for new pathways to engagement. Laid step by step through areas of common ground (take cooperation on global health, space, and renegotiated arms treaties for starters), these pathways could then give us more room to maneuver when we negotiate our real conflicts.
At the moment, the Russian bear is wounded. The crash in world commodity prices has created acute financial pressures for which the Kremlin had not prepared.
Russia then cut European natural gas supplies to bully Ukraine into paying higher prices, ostensibly demonstrating that it's still the biggest kid on the bloc. Bullies are usually insecure and Russia is no exception.
Worsening economic troubles are stoking fears that societal discontent is growing. Protests with the faintest whiff of political opposition have been shut down by riot police.
A pending law that broadens the definition of treason confirms Moscow's anxiety.
Injured animals are dangerous, and need to be approached carefully.
Russia will remain a strong country determined to protect its sovereignty and interests. It expects the US to do the same. Harping on Russia's lost superpower status and political instability while extolling the benefits of democracy will get us nowhere. It would be more productive to view Moscow as a partner with whom we share some areas of common ground. While not ignoring tricky topics such as NATO expansion, focusing on common interests whenever possible – because they are of genuine interest to both sides, not because we self-righteously believe Russia should follow our lead – would already change the tone of our relationship.
We may wince at Russia's bullying tones, but from Moscow's perspective, America's belief that it deserves to be the world's only superpower is offensive and arrogant. Humility would benefit both sides – and open the door for cooperation and problem-solving based on mutual respect. In this way, Russia is not so very different from other countries with which we have troubled relationships. Building a record of cooperation would make it that much easier to engage constructively when faced with the next crisis or conflict.
Such a record could include:
•Healthcare. Russia's population is both graying and shrinking – and it's vulnerable to potential epidemics such as multiple-drug-resistant tuberculosis and Avian flu. The US is well-equipped to help improve the capacity of Russia's healthcare system.
•Space. This is critical since the US will depend on Russian spacecraft to reach the International Space Station from 2010 to 2014, when the shuttles are decommissioned.
•Shared expertise on similar domestic challenges, such as migration. A deeper exchange of ideas and professional contacts would signal respect while yielding valuable insights.
Integrating European partners into areas of joint concern would also help. Knee-jerk anti-Americanism is running at an all-time high these days. Nongovernmental organizations are afraid that receiving American grants is akin to inviting the tax police in for an audit.
European countries, on the other hand, are not blamed by Putin for the global economic crisis, and are not seen as harboring hostile aspirations.
Involving other countries in programs we care about neutralizes the irritation and suspicion that Russians feel when Americans self-importantly march into Moscow, proclaiming they are ready to "teach" the Russians everything they need to know.
Leading by example will also help. Barack Obama's groundbreaking election has not been overlooked by Russians limited to artificial elections, rubber-stamp legislatures, and a compliant official media.
Soviet citizens once learned English with clandestine Beatles tapes and longed for Montana-brand jeans. Today, Russians absorb American (and global) culture through the Web, despite Moscow's attempts to control information.
In the end, countries cannot democratize others. The desire to have greater freedom of expression or association must come from within, and the institutions that develop to nurture and protect these desires must be home grown. The best we can do is to openly show what democracy looks like, warts and all.
Increasing opportunities for students and professionals to visit the US thus remains one of the best means of sharing and spreading our values. Cross-national networks of people and organizations have a strong incentive to resist the chills of isolationism or nationalism. These are the ties that have provided enduring warmth in even the grimmest of political seasons.
We need not endorse the semi-authoritarian regime to search for a common language and common ground.
We may hope for a different Russia in the future, but US policy must be predicated on improving relations now.