The United States and Russia “reset” relations last year. But how do Russian politics influence the relationship? In a Q&A, Lilia Shevtsova analyzes the current state of Russia’s democracy, U.S.-Russia ties, and how the West can develop an effective long-term relationship with Moscow. 

Shevtsova argues that while Russians want political change, Russia’s leaders do not. To change Moscow’s behavior, the West must hold Russia’s elite accountable and provide incentives to help encourage true democratic behavior in Russia.

What is the state of Russia's democracy?

Russia has a strange type of political regime. On the surface, it has all of the democratic institutions, but in reality this façade, this makeup, conceals authoritarian, oligarchic, and bureaucratic trends. Behind the liberal mantra of Russian political leaders, and especially President Medvedev, we can see how the repressive regime is evolving with elements of a police state.

Like with all hybrid regimes, Russia is moving in both directions simultaneously. On the one hand, there is liberal rhetoric and even cooptation of liberals in official structures. On the other hand, Russian political leaders are expanding the functions of law enforcement organs, including the FSB—the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB—and using repression in many cases, for instance, to crush rallies in defense of the constitution. The situation has become much worse and when Russia reset its relationship with the West it could have created the wrong impression.

What reforms should Russia take to liberalize its political system? 

Any reform is possible, but only once society is ready. It seems to me that more than 30 percent of Russians would love and are ready to live in the system that we call liberal democracy. There are no insurmountable obstacles for Russia to move toward reform, transformation, and liberal democracy. But the political elite is not ready or able and has no drive or stamina, and in fact would like this personified power to continue so to preserve its position and its corporate vested interests.

To get rid of a system based on a monopoly of power and introduce political pluralism, political competition, and political struggle, there should be pressure from below, but at the same time, there should be an understanding within the political media and intellectual circles that without change Russia is moving toward disaster. When will these two factors come together? It’s too early to say, but Russians are already unsatisfied with the current situation.

How do Russians view the U.S.-Russia reset?

The reset has been welcomed in Russian society. Two years ago, only 47 percent viewed the United States in a positive, benevolent way, but now, more than 60 percent view the United States positively.

At the same time, when we look at Russian liberals, they’re pretty unsatisfied with the reset because they view the reset as a temporary normalization of the relationship, which does not deal with the deep, normative roots of the mistrust. And even the Russian political leadership—including Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin—are unsatisfied with the reset because they were expecting more concessions from the United States. So all this says that the reset will not be a sustainable phenomenon without continuation, without more trust, and without more engagement.

There are a lot of people who believe the reset is simply a tactical adjustment—a policy that meets tactical interests on both sides. This reset is a positive phenomenon, but we shouldn’t exaggerate the meaning of the reset as a policy that could bring benevolent engagement and will solve all problems.

Besides, the reset is based on three pillars that are pretty vulnerable. It is based on the pillar of common interests and the two countries have interests that are common only up to a certain point. It is based on a pillar of the de-linking foreign policy from domestic development. And if we de-link foreign policy from domestic development, we can’t understand what is going on within the country and the domestic repercussions. And besides, we cannot have dual-track engagement with the Russian civil society under the control of the Kremlin.

Are Western countries properly engaging with Russia? 

The West, of course, can pursue its own tactical and strategic interests with respect to Russia. I cannot speak on behalf of the United States, but what Russian society and Russian liberals expect from the West is a common strategy toward Russia that would be based not only on tactical maneuvering and a situational agenda, but on long-term interests in Russia and long-term engagement. Russian liberals would welcome the mechanism of conditionality, which would tie the way the Russian political and economic elite do its business in the Western countries, including the United States, to the way the Russian elite behave at home. And thirdly, Russian society would welcome and appreciate Western assistance in transforming the newly independent states that could set a good example for Russia. 

The current Western policy toward Russia is based on the principles of the status quo. The West, in general, is oriented toward the status quo; the West has opted for the status quo. And Western society apparently is tired of these grand designs, breakthroughs, etc. And so it creates a benevolent environment for the Russian status quo and for the preservation of the Russian system. For the time being, Western diplomacy does not create incentives for liberalization in Russia, and that's very regrettable.

How can the West help Russia become more democratic? 

There are several principles that, if the West followed, it could create at least an environment conducive for future Russian transformation. The first principle is practice what you preach. If the West again serves as a role model for the Russian population, it would be great. If the West successfully copes with its own domestic problems it would help Russia. Second, do no harm. If the Western politicians and the Western elite think twice about the repercussions of what they are doing with respect to Russia, it will also help. And third, any kind of engagement on the level of society would be welcome.

How can the West develop an effective long-term relationship with Russia?

It seems to me that the West should not be complacent in watching the modernization mantra in Russia or believe what Medvedev and Putin are saying. This mantra conceals a degraded infrastructure, demoralized society, and a growing divide between the authorities and the population. So the West should be prepared for a very restless and very frustrated Russia that will in several years maybe, arrive again at a fork and choose its own direction and trajectory. So it seems to me that the West will have to think about the consequences of the reset and look for another paradigm for engaging a restless Russia that will be looking for a new future.