During his recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Bush expressed concern about Russia's democratic freedoms - the rule of law, freedom of the press, and a viable political opposition. But he stressed American-Russian cooperation and basic agreement on many strategic issues. U.S.-Russia relations were the subject of a recent hearing at the Europe and Emerging Threats Subcommittee of the House of Representatives.
Many American commentators point to what they see as a rollback of basic democratic freedoms in Russia and to the country's renewed imperial ambitions. Some say Washington should respond by chilling its relations with President Putin's government. But Congressman Curt Weldon, member of the House Armed Services Committee, thinks now is the time to more aggressively engage Russia. He says it is right to be concerned about some of President Putin's actions, but America needs Russia as a global partner.
"If we look at the two primary problem areas we have in the world, Iran in the Middle East and North Korea, in each of those cases I would argue that we need Russia to be a partner with us," Mr. Weldon said.
Congressman Weldon says the United States bears much of the responsibility for the mistrust between the two countries. It has neglected a number of joint initiatives in the area of security, military cooperation and economic contacts that, in his view, would help Washington influence Russian foreign policy and shape its domestic development.
"There is something wrong in our relationship when our two presidents get along well, but below that there is nothing. It is hollow," he added.
Celeste Wallander of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International studies told the congressional subcommittee that a productive engagement with Russia should embrace the opportunities of such a partnership, but look realistically at where Russia stands today in the world. In Ms. Wallander's view, President Putin's chief objective is to reestablish Russia as an influential and accepted great power.
"Russia's foreign policy strategy by 2005 is internationalist, but it is also statist, and it is certainly not liberal,” said Ms. Wallander. “While good relations with the United States are important, as a part of the Russian goal for membership in the World Trade Organization, this value of economic growth cannot trump Russian understanding of its need for strategic security in Eurasia, for example Russia's relations with Ukraine."
Russia's obsession with its great-power status, says Celeste Wallander, does not rule out cooperation with the United States in areas of security. But she says Washington needs to accept Russia's limitations. She says the promotion of democracy and market economic reforms in Russia should be seen as a work in progress in which the United States continues to have a large stake.
President Bush has been criticized for not dealing more firmly with president Putin. But Dimitri Simes, director of the Nixon Center, told the congressional subcommittee that the U.S. administration has pursued what he sees as the only possible course with Moscow.
"I think that, in the relations with Russia, the Bush administration has found an essentially right balance between interests and principles, between being pragmatic and being idealistic, between pushing the Russians as much as possible on democracy issues, but also appreciating that our leverage is limited, and sometimes, when you push too much without real leverage, you may get a lot of unintended consequences," said Mr. Simes.
Another witness, Eugene Rumer of the National Defense University, agreed that U.S. policy towards Russia has been more successful than its critics are willing to admit.
"If you look at two rounds of NATO enlargement, if you look at EU enlargement, including three Baltic nations, former Soviet-occupied nations, if you look at long-term -- by all indications -- U.S. presence in Central Asia, if you look at U.S. active security relationships in the South Caucasus, if you look at Russia's changing positions on Iran and North Korea -- all these are significant accomplishments," he noted.
Panelists testifying before the congressional subcommittee on Europe and Emerging Threats agreed that turning away from Russia is simply not an option for American foreign policy. They stressed the need for a long view in mutual relations and said the U.S. government should raise its concerns about Russia's democratic deficit and its foreign policy. But they added it should also recognize that Russia's transformation into a fully democratic, internationally integrated state is going to be a long, generational process.