The future of the United States’ relationship with Russia is uncertain, said Elliott School of International Affairs professor Hope Harrison, who recently returned from a trip to the country.
Harrison traveled to Berlin and Moscow last month on a five-day “Senior Study Tour” to discuss the current state of American and German relations with Russia. Other participants on the trip, sponsored by The Marshall Fund – a nonpartisan institute that promotes good relations between the U.S. and Europe – included members of the U.S. Congress, German officials and German and American journalists.
Harrison said that, since the meetings were off the record, she could not reveal by name who had traveled with her.
Harrison and group members spent three days in Moscow, where they met with government leaders, representatives from the German and American embassies and members of NGOs that operate in Russia.
She said that overall the picture was “depressing.”
The global economic crisis has hit Russia hard, she said, and is expected to get worse. Unemployment is at about 8 percent, but is expected to increase to between 10 and 13 percent.
Harrison said it was difficult to tell how Russia’s government will handle the sour economy.
“We heard a lot of different views. Some said that Putin will be able to crack down on the crisis. Others said that he will lose complete control,” Harrison said.
Although there have been recent protests in the country concerning the economy, Harrison said that there was little evidence of people’s opposition to government power. She said she talked to a social scientist who had surveyed the Russian people and he offered some significant findings.
“According to him, the biggest surprise was how conservative people are,” Harrison said. “They do not seem to realize how different things could be. There is rising xenophobia and tribalism [in Russia]. Survival is the goal, not democracy.”
Harrison said that she was concerned with the tenuous ceasefire between Russia and Georgia. She said that it was not stable and that there are predictions of renewed conflict in the spring.
During her meetings, Harrison said that Russian officials were at times hostile; several leaders blamed the Georgian war and the economic crisis on former Vice President Dick Cheney. She said that members of the Duma, Russia’s legislative body, were particularly aggressive, and claimed that the U.S. forced its agenda on other countries.
Still, Harrison said that senior Russian and U.S. officials have agreed on a set of issues to discuss, including Afghanistan, arms control and Russian-NATO relations.
She also said that the Obama administration will adopt a less idealistic Russian policy. “Obama will be more focused on real politics than democracy and internal development,” she said.