When George met Pooty

As I write this, I have before me the “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security Between Nato and the Russian Federation”, and a very optimistic document it is too. It speaks of “historic transformation”, and of a “lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area”. It waxes eloquent about the “fundamentally new relationship between Nato and Russia”, lauds both parties’ intention to build “a strong, stable and enduring partnership”, and urges them to “pursue as many opportunities for joint action as possible”.

It is not, however, the document which George Bush and his new best friend Vladimir Putin have signed in St Petersburg this weekend. Nor is it the document that they and other leaders will sign at next week’s joint Russia-Nato summit in Rome. On the contrary – the “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Co-operation and Security between Nato and the Russian Federation” was drawn up in 1997, when Bill Clinton was president of the United States and Boris Yeltsin was president of Russia. When it was signed (five years ago, almost to the day) there was much optimism about Russian Western relations, and much talk about the “real” end of the Cold War – just as there is this weekend.

Then came the Kosovo conflict, and a wave of anti-Americanism in Russia. Then came the second Chechen war, and a wave of Western criticism of Russia. Then came disputes over missile defence; Russia’s financial crisis; revelations of misused Western aid money. At one low point, the Russian government kicked Nato’s representatives out of Moscow. At another low point, Boris Yeltsin marched out of a Western security conference in Istanbul, having stayed only a few hours.

What really sabotaged the the apparently beautiful relationship between America and Russia, and between Clinton and Yeltsin, was not one event, but rather the West’s unrealistic expectations about the economic and political transformation of Russia. Despite all the talk of “historic transformation”, Russia had not become a liberal Western democracy in 1997, nor had its economy become capitalist, in the Western understanding of the term. Russia had not completely abandoned its belief in its own exceptionalism, or ceased to hanker after “great power” status either. As a result, Russia’s relationships with Western institutions were plagued by disputes and misunderstandings. The Russian elite refused, almost on principle, to abide by the rules of the new clubs it had joined, from the IMF’s strictures on economic reform to the Council of Europe’s human rights standards.

Obviously, Putin is not Yeltsin, Bush is not Clinton, and 2002 is certainly not 1997. With American troops all over Central Asia, Russian intelligence officers cooperating with the American army in Afghanistan, and the two sides talking, at least, about Iran and Iraq, Russian-Western security and military co-operation now far exceed anything that was even imagined five years ago. The arms treaty signed in Moscow this week in some senses only recognises the status quo (both countries have quietly been offering to dismantle their too-expensive weapons for some time), but is nevertheless still probably the biggest arms control achievement this a decade. Against all expectations, Bush, a Christian evangelist, and Putin, a former KGB officer, also seem to have rapidly developed one of those instantly close relationships peculiar to American and Russian leaders. Roosevelt called Stalin “Uncle Joe” – and Bush apparently calls his Russian counterpart “Pooty-Poot”. It is hard, though, to imagine Putin referring to the American president as “Gyorgy” behind his back.

These are important developments, made all the more welcome for being unforseen. Yet although it is de rigueur to feel optimistic about the new warmth between Russia and the West, I’d like to add a word of caution to the latest round of “at-last-the-Cold-War-is-over” celebrations too. A permanently “normal” relationship between Russia and the United States requires more than a friendship between the two countries’ leaders: after all, Clinton and Yeltsin were best buddies too. Healthy co-operation between Russia and Nato also requires more than a few signed pieces of paper, however eloquently phrased they may be.

For signs of real change, in fact, don’t listen to the pleasantries Bush exchanges with Putin as they amble through the galleries of the Hermitage in St Petersburg: look, instead, at Russia’s internal transformation. Russia and the United States – like Russia and Nato – will truly become partners only if Russian politics become more democratic and Russian markets become freer. When Russia has a middle class; when Russia is governed by the rule of law; when most Russians no longer regard Western institutions as espionage rings in disguise; then we can talk about a “historic transformation” and the “real” end of the Cold War. Until then – just remember what happened last time.