Is the U.S. rethinking approach to Russia?

by Peter Lavelle

HAS THE United States changed its stance regarding its policy towards Russia? Has the lecturing come to an end and has the application of “double-standards” run its course? Reading what Thomas Graham, member of the National Security Council, Special Assistant to the U.S. President and Senior Director for Russian Affairs, said recently, one might think so.

Mr. Graham’s remarks to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a place where “neo-cons” feel very much at home, sound very much out of place with his audience’s political tastes and ideological convictions. Working for an administration renowned for neoconservative rhetoric, Mr. Graham comes across as refreshingly realistic — specifically when it comes to Russia.

Talking to the AEI, Mr. Graham said: “The [U.S.-Russia] relationship has had its ups and downs, but, contrary to the prevailing view in Russian and American commentary, I would argue that the trend line has been positive.” He followed up with the observation: “As a consequence, the publics in both countries are now focussed more on the problems in U.S.-Russian relations than on the opportunities.” This is a remarkable comment given the avalanche of negative commentary fed to Western audiences by such newspapers as the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal — and further disseminated by other dailies.

How to remedy this situation? Mr. Graham says: “We need to remember that building such a partnership is a long-term commitment. Our vision and our policies are aimed not only at this but also at future generations of Russian leaders and citizens.

“To move toward and generate public support for that vision, we need to demonstrate to sceptical publics in both countries that there is genuine substance to U.S.-Russian relations that brings tangible benefits now.”

The U.S. supports democratic change in the world, though Mr. Graham states: “We also need to be clear that our efforts are not intended to harm Russia’s relations with these states. Russia needs to have good relations with them, and all these states will be better off if they have good relations with Russia. Indeed, it is hard to imagine durable security and economic structures along Russia’s borders without Russia’s active involvement … to this end, as we build relations with these countries in their own right, we are prepared to sit down with our Russian colleagues — and with colleagues from these regions — to think through how we might do this, and the Russians have indicated they welcome such a discussion.”

The U.S. now appears to be interested in finding and stressing commonalities with at least some of its partners in the world. Mr. Graham’s comment appears to demonstrate this change in thinking, “The U.S. also appreciates that, while the principles of democracy are universal, the forms in which they manifest themselves vary greatly from country to country based on history, culture, tradition, and other factors. But, in the end, all of us have to strive to meet the same fundamental international standards.”

In what surely is a major change of opinion and an affront to the neo-cons that have driven the policy decisions of the administration of President George W. Bush, Mr. Graham claims: “If we are to regain credibility with the Russian public, we need to demonstrate that we appreciate the complexity of the challenges Russia faces.”

These are not just words. Mr. Graham shows what he is talking about. “We need to be clear that our support for the rule of law and the sanctity of private property — issues raised by the Yukos affair — does not mean we support the socio-economic injustices that grew out of the flawed and often corrupt privatisation processes of the 1990s or condone the often corrupting role of vast accumulations of wealth in the Russian political system.”

Mr. Graham also is blunt in understanding the nature of Russia’s mass media: “Freedom of the press concerns editorial independence and pluralism of opinion, not support for one set of oligarchs over others. In regard to Chechnya, we must be clear that our legitimate concerns about serious human rights abuses by federal and pro-Moscow Chechen forces do not in any way diminish our commitment to work with Russia against terrorism and the appalling abuses that terrorists have inflicted on the Russian people, including yesterday [October 13] in Nalchik.” There is no doubt that Mr. Graham has an informed opinion on this account.

Mr. Graham concluded his comments thus: “Russia will need to deal with all aspects of the problems it faces if it is to consolidate a genuinely democratic society.

“That is an enormous undertaking, and we will not necessarily agree with the policy choices that are made, nor can we impose our views on Russia.”

Doesn’t this sound like what President Vladimir Putin has been telling the U.S. for the past few years? By no stretch of the imagination did Mr. Graham concede to the Kremlin a complete “free ticket” to what it desires.

But he did say the U.S. should be a patient partner as Russia deals with issues it faces. — RIA Novosti

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