The first thing Russia must understand is that the United States wants reform to succeed there. We want, in other words, a stable, democratic, economically successful, and secure Russia. This is one major reason why we insist that there be no Yalta II. Besides further destabilizing an already unstable area, Russian imperial assertiveness would be a terrible distraction from the enormous task of reconstruction that Russia must complete over the next several generations, if it is finally to achieve its long-sought place as a great power in the modern world. Indeed, one of the best things we could do right now would be to persuade Russian leaders that any possible future their country may have as a great power is entirely dependent on their forswearing, for the foreseeable future, the imperial assertiveness traditionally associated with great-power status in Europe. Russia is a basket case, and it will become even more of one if it does not devote its attention to economic reform and democratic consolidation. Moreover, failure to make progress on these fronts, particularly the economic one, will only heighten the possibility of a Vladimir Zhirinovsky coming to power: at which point Russia would again become an adversary whose containment would be a principal goal of U.S. policy.
Thus the United States ought to make clear to Russia—and with programs, not merely rhetoric— that it is prepared to stay the course in support of Russian economic and political reform, and that the payoff for reformist success will be the incorporation of Russia into a general European security system. But we ought to make it equally clear that our support for economic and political reform does not constitute even a tacit acceptance of any neo-imperialist tendencies within the current Russian reform coalition. The notion of an extensive Russian sphere of influence in central Europe is a holdover from Stalin and has no place in the future of a democratic, prosperous, and secure Russia.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.