Since the end of the Cold War, the US and Europe have repeatedly described their relationship with Russia as a "strategic partnership." Despite a series of ringing declarations, it was never clear what that term actually meant. Western schemes for partnering with Russia repeatedly failed because they were based on a flawed premise, namely that Russia was in the process of becoming a "Western" nation committed to the principles of liberalism and democracy.
Recent events, above all last summer's war in Georgia, demonstrated the shortcomings of this approach. Russian leaders continue to see their country as a traditional power whose foreign policy is determined by narrow calculations of national interest rather than a commitment to shared values. Nonetheless, the growing estrangement between Moscow and the West is damaging to both, and the need for a genuine partnership is stronger than ever. To succeed, though, a partnership with Moscow must recognize the limits of Western power to remake Russia, and to engage Moscow on the basis of shared interests rather than shared values.
Previous attempts at building a strategic partnership failed because Western leaders assumed Russia would eventually come to see itself as part of the West. Thus Western leaders argued that NATO expansion was in Russia's interest, since Russia was presumed to value NATO's commitment to democracy and collective security too.
Russia's elite never accepted this view. Instead, they believed NATO expansion took advantage of Russian weakness to ring the country with hostile military forces. Democracy promotion in the former USSR, culminating in Ukraine and Georgia's so-called "colored revolutions," was likewise seen as a scheme to install anti-Russian governments around Russia's borders - particularly when Georgia and Ukraine were promised they too would join NATO.
Nonetheless, Western leaders kept promoting the idea of a strategic partnership with Russia, and remained puzzled by Russia's truculence. Forums linking Russia and NATO (including the Permanent Joint Council and the NATO-Russia Council) failed to give Moscow a real opportunity to shape NATO decision making. Agreements giving Russia equal standing with the West fell into abeyance: the US scrapped the ABM Treaty in 2002 and the West never ratified the adapted Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.
The war in Georgia was a reminder of how dangerous the estrangement between Russia and the West had gotten. On arms control, energy, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, and a range of other issues, the West and Russia need each other.
If assimilating Russia into the West is not possible, the US and Europe need to fall back on some version of a strategic partnership, but one that is much more limited in its ambitions. Russian President Medvedev's suggestion for a "Helsinki Plus" treaty is one option, but the US and its allies should not be shy about offering alternatives. Medvedev's proposal contains some of the major principles a strategic partnership with Russia will have to enshrine, including the indivisibility of security and non-interference in other countries' internal affairs.
A genuine partnership will have to accept that Russia remains apart from the West, but nonetheless shares a range of common interests. At the most basic level, Western governments will have to accept that their leverage over Russian internal politics is limited, and that Russian influence cannot (and should not) be excluded from the former Soviet space.
Whether any attempt to build a real strategic partnership succeeds will depend greatly on Moscow as well, but even if they fail, negotiations will do much to clarify the motivations and assumptions of all sides. Russia, increasingly isolated by its bluster and saber-rattling, has the most to lose anyway. The West can afford to be patient.
Today the US and Europe have an opportunity - maybe their last opportunity - to rectify Russia's post-Cold War omission from a Euro-Atlantic community both unwilling to accept a flawed Russia and unable to erase those flaws. To do so, they will have to take a leap of faith into believing that, despite the disappointments of recent years, a real, if limited, strategic partnership between Russia and the West remains attainable.
Jeffrey Mankoff is associate director of International Security Studies at Yale University and adjunct fellow for Russian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Related materials from the Atlantic Commuinity:
- Fabian Martin Lieschke: How to Extend NATO's MAP to Ukraine and Georgia
- Tobias Wolny: Time for a Middle Road In Dealing With Russia
- Constanze Stelzenmüller: Germany's Russia Question