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The Real Russia

And realist illusions.

12:00 AM, Jul 1, 2009 • By CATHY YOUNG
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The Century Foundation report by Thomas Graham, a senior director at Kissinger Associates and former Bush Administration official, offers more of the same. Graham asserts that Russia's "great-power aspiration" dictates its goals of "maintaining itself as the dominant influence in the former-Soviet space" and "constraining the United States"--but the Obama administration can "harness" these ambitions by somehow persuading the Kremlin it can enhance Russia's "power and prestige" by cooperating with the United States. He also thinks it's important for Obama to develop a personal rapport with Dmitry Medvedev; apparently, the lessons of Bush-Putin eye-gazing have not been learned.

The realists are correct to point out that Russia has legitimate interests. But Russian liberals are correct to point out that those interests may not be well-served by the Putin (and now, Putin-Medvedev) regime, with its "great-power" posturing, its crude bullying toward neighbors, and its failure to modernize the infrastructure or create a favorable investment climate at home.

Indeed, Lieven's own arguments show the flaws in the realist view. He asserts that Russia badly needs a "strong liberal movement" but that prospects for such a movement are hampered by the lack of popular support for liberal ideas. Yet he ignores the fact that anti-liberal attitudes have been stoked by the state-controlled Russian media under the regime he justifies as the lesser of possible evils in Russia.

There is, too, the moral aspect of too much realism. Lieven finds something "a bit nauseating" in the allegedly knee-jerk pro-Western sympathies of Russian liberals. But that seems a much more fitting description for the actions of a Western pundit who, in the heat of debate, brands his Russian opponents enemies of their country--in a country where such a label poses real risks, not of prosecution but of "unofficial" harassment and even violence. (A Russian translation of Lieven's article was promptly posted online.)

Lieven does make an important point: in Eastern Europe and some former Soviet republics, the nationalist impulse facilitated democratic development and westernization because it was linked to liberation from Russia and embrace of the West. Lieven argues that democracy in Russia, too, needs a nationalist foundation, and that may be true. However, he also insists that such a positive nationalism must be rooted not only in a sense of Russia as a "great power," but in self-definition through rivalry with the West. To think that this kind of ideology can be a benign or democratizing force--indeed, that it will not almost inevitably slide into hostility to liberal institutions, imperialism toward former satellites, and worship of state power--is the opposite of realism.

Obama's policy toward Russia is still a work in progress. His Moscow trip will show whether he is willing to make concessions that validate Russia's claims to a "sphere of influence" in exchange for an arms control deal, or to raise inconvenient questions of human rights. His top Russia adviser, Michael McFaul, a senior director at the National Security Council, is a strong believer in both constructive engagement and democracy promotion. Obama will undoubtedly listen to other voices as well. But if he follows a faux realism built on illusions about Russian authoritarianism, the results will be bad for Russia, U.S.-Russian relations, and the world.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.