The Moscow and St. Petersburg I traveled to this summer stand in stark contrast to the Russia depicted by the media and politicians in the United States.
The Russia I visited was one of growing prosperity and innovation, progressive education and an economic strength not based exclusively on oil and gas.
It was a Russia uniquely positioned to forge solid partnerships for the war on terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation and energy all vital issues for America.
But Russia intends to achieve its economic goals, even if that means doing so without the United States. The Bank of Russia made several announcements in 2005 that heralded the increasing role of the euro in its exchange-rate strategy. I observed in many Russian hotels that currency markers were in rubles and euros, not in dollars.
This sidestepping of America is apparent in other pivotal arenas. Russia has taken an active interest in the expanding Chinese market and in connecting its security strategy to China's expanding power.
Russia is in a unique position, geographically and politically, to meet China's rapidly growing demand for energy, natural resources and timber. And China provides Russia with a ripe market for high-tech weapons.
In a 2005 article in the Beijing Review, the Russian ambassador to China, Sergei Razov, wrote of bilateral relations with China as being "at the highest level in history," citing their first joint military maneuvers and rapidly growing trade, the volume of which exceeded $29 billion in 2005.
Razov also discussed the 10-fold increase in Chinese students in Russia over the past decade that when the number of Chinese students applying to U.S. universities has drastically decreased.
Russia's deepening relations with China have already created alarming vulnerabilities.
In 2005, Russia and China attempted to restrict access by the United States and NATO to Central Asian air bases, despite the critical role of these bases for military and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan an effort that Russia previously supported.
If the United States continues to criticize Russia, Russian-Chinese relations over the next 10 years could lead to a regrouping of world powers and possibly a new Cold War.
But if the United States moved to full engagement with Russia, it could realize considerable policy and economic gains. For a model, America need look no further than its foreign policy with China like Russia, a nuclear-armed nation with a long history of authoritarian government.
China also does not always play by America's rules. But while the State Department recently announced sanctions against Russia for the alleged selling of restricted items to Iran, the Department of the Treasury gave China only a slap on the wrist in May over its currency manipulation in flagrant disregard of U.S. law.
Last April, President George W. Bush welcomed President Hu Jintao to the United States, saying, "The United States and China are two nations divided by a vast ocean yet connected through a global economy that has created opportunity for both our peoples."
America's failure to bestow the same recognition on Russia as it has on China could end up relegating the United States not only to the other side of the ocean, but to the other side of a new kind of Iron Curtain.
Yes, Russia is a less democratic nation than it was under Boris Yeltsin. Yet forcing a political reform agenda on Vladimir Putin not only runs the risk of failure, but of alienating Russia to such an extent that possibilities for positive engagement will be lost.
A more plausible policy toward Russia would be to take more of an "agree to disagree" stance on certain issues, such as Russia's relations with other post-Soviet states, and to remain unequivocal about the emerging authoritarianism, while embracing Russia's emerging economic liberalism.
Crafting a Russian relationship around areas that are mutually advantageous would give the United States a better chance of fostering political liberalism in Russia.
America's policy of isolating Russia may not only fail, but it may also force Russia to create its own world without the United States a world that really would head in the wrong direction. S
Eugene P. Trani is president of Virginia Commonwealth University. This essay was published in the International Herald Tribune Sept., 14, 2006
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