With the May 23 meeting in Russia between Presidents Bush and Putin only two weeks away, a leading British expert on Russia says prospects are better than ever for increased cooperation between the United States and Russia. Anatole Lieven, a visiting fellow at Washington's Carnegie Endowment, addressed a public policy forum May 8.
Mr. Lieven regards President Putin as a pragmatic politician determined to connect Russia with Europe. He says the former KGB official has abandoned all claims of Russia retaining its former superpower status. Instead, he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Mr. Putin is reaching out to the West cooperating in the war on terror and approving the stationing of American troops in what was once Soviet Central Asia.
Mr. Lieven, an author and former newspaper correspondent in Moscow, says Russia has dropped its opposition to the three Baltic states becoming part of NATO. But, he says, as part of its strategy of promoting itself by playing Western Europe off against the United States, the elite in Russia are beginning to favor an even larger NATO expansion.
"The argument is, of course, that the more one enlarges NATO, certainly by bringing in countries like Romania and Bulgaria which unfortunately by no means are fully comparable to central Europe in terms of successful economic reform or democratization - the more one expands NATO in this way and the more one tends to dilute it, and to weaken its ability to act in common," he said.
Mr. Lieven says Russia is making progress in building democratic institutions, although the transformation away from totalitarianism is far from complete.
"If one looks at the world in general, one would certainly have to say that Russia under Putin, while undoubtedly it is nowhere near the top end of the scale as far as democracy is concerned, it certainly isn't anywhere near the bottom of the scale either," he said. "You know, in a world which includes Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and various other charming figures."
Mr. Lieven says western pronouncements on Russian reform should be a better mix of encouragement and criticism.
"We have to develop a new balance between cooperation and criticism," he said. "And I would say we need to move more towards the model we pursue in relations with allies, partners, countries with which we wish to cooperate."
Mr. Lieven concedes that Vladimir Putin is an unlikely leader, a bureaucrat thrust into power by former president Boris Yeltsin. He is, says Mr. Lieven, unable to exercise the absolute power of former Soviet leaders and must gain the favor of Russia's new economic elite the industrial barrons who control much of Russia's mineral wealth.