In the past decade, American commentary on Russia has been sharply divided between "idealists," who deplore the rise of neo-authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin and urge a tough stance toward the Kremlin, and "realists," who argue that U.S. policy should emphasize practical cooperation rather than democratic ideals which ignore the specifics of Russian culture. This debate has acquired new urgency as the Obama administration seeks to craft its Russia policy and prepares for Barack Obama's trip to Moscow July 5. The realist approach is advocated in two reports presented as expert recommendations to Obama, from the Century Foundation and from the Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Russia (co-chaired by former senators Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel). Recently, these reports have sparked heated polemics that illustrate the pitfalls of realism--including some of its proponents' tendency to effectively side with repressive regimes against dissenters.

On June 9, the Washington Post published a critique of the two reports by Russian policy analysts Lev Gudkov, Igor Klyamkin, Georgy Satarov, and Lilia Shevtsova. While crediting the experts with some constructive ideas, Shevtsova and her co-authors chided them for confusing the interests of Russia's leadership with those of the people and serving as de facto enablers of Russia's "authoritarian traditionalism."

A vitriolic rejoinder from British journalist and scholar Anatol Lieven, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, appeared on National Interest Online under the title "Russia's Limousine Liberals." Blasting the authors' views as "bizarre" and "twisted," Lieven portrayed them as self-centered intellectuals who do not know their country and "do not really give a damn what ordinary Russians think or feel."

Yet, while Lieven accuses his opponents of "intellectual sleight of hand," he egregiously distorts their records--specifically, that of his main target, Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Thus, his caricature of Shevtsova as determined "to agree with the United States and condemn her own country on every single issue on which they have disagreed" is belied by her actual works. In the 2007 book Russia: Lost in Transition Shevtsova is often critical of U.S. policy, arguing, for instance, that the ham-fisted American approach to missile defense needlessly exacerbated tensions with Russia. In an article in The American Interest the same year, she defends democracy promotion efforts but urges the United States to reconsider unilateralism and the doctrine of preemption.

Lieven also excoriates Shevtsova for ignoring the hardships of Russians in the 1990s and the betterments that boosted Putin's popularity, such as timely payment of salaries and pensions. As proof of her callous indifference to anyone but the urban elites, he quotes a line from her 2005 book Putin's Russia: "For the intelligentsia, people who lived in large cities, and the politicized section of society, 2000 was much harder than 1999." Yet the book's previous paragraph notes that 2000 was a relatively good year for many Russians who led "simple lives," primarily because "these people had begun getting their salaries and pension payments regularly under Putin."

What provokes Lieven to such harsh criticism is his conviction that Russian liberals who insist that U.S. policy toward Russia must include a moral commitment to freedom are aiding "liberal interventionists and neocons" with their dangerous agendas. He also believes they are giving Western journalists a skewed view of Russia and its people.

The Russian liberals may be overly optimistic about their countrymen's support for democratic values. But how realistic are the "realists"?

The Hart-Hagel report is chock-full of meaningless platitudes: recognize Russia's "legitimate interests" in ex-Soviet territories but without allowing Russian dominance; remind Russian leaders of their commitments on human rights "while respecting Russia's sovereignty, history, and traditions and recognizing that Russian society will evolve at its own pace."

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.

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