In October 2014, the Council posted an article titled “Needs Work: A Troubled U.S.-Russia Relationship,” in which we noted somberly that “if there is one point of agreement between pundits in Moscow and Washington these days, it is that U.S.-Russia relations are at a post-Cold War nadir.”
Although some countries are more important on specific issues, none, not even China or any ally, plays on a greater range of U.S. foreign and security interests than Russia. Russia is indispensable to our interests in strategic stability and nonproliferation; it is important to our goals in Europe, the broader Middle East, Northeast Asia, and the Arctic, in energy security and climate change. Along with other powers, it has a central role to play in combating international terrorism, transnational crime, and similar threats. We can cooperate, or we can work at cross-purposes, but we cannot ignore one another. As a general rule, we will be better off if we can find a way to cooperate with Russia at an acceptable cost.
Construct the Missing Framework
U.S.-Russian relations are now a laundry list of issues and grievances outside a strategic framework that places both countries in the broader flow of global developments, identifies common opportunities and threats, relates issues to one another, and sets priorities. Any effort to create sustainable constructive relations must begin with the construction of that missing framework. That task cannot be left to the bureaucracies in both countries. They cannot think boldly, creatively, or holistically about relations as each agency or department pursues goals on a narrow set of issues within its purview. It is the task for a group of senior officials or former officials, working directly under the auspices of the two presidents, charged to move beyond day-to-day and tactical considerations to a broader vision of how each country could advance its own long-term interests by helping the other advance its strategic goals.
Thomas E. Graham is a Senior Director at Kissinger Associates.
This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York.
The U.S.–Russia relationship matters for two reasons. First, the United States can more successfully address many global challenges if it has Russia at its side. The potential payoff is worth the continued effort to bridge the differences between the two states. Second, Russia is undergoing considerable social change that has the potential to affect its role in the international system. The United States has an interest in being engaged with Russia at this time of change, to better understand its domestic dynamics and to capably respond to them in ways that increase the odds of deepening and sustaining the relationship.
The United States should engage with Russia in the same way it engages with other partners that do not fully share Americans’ international outlook or domestic practices—no more, no less. The U.S. administration should keep expectations modest while continuing to demonstrate an interest in cooperation even on the most challenging of issues. We certainly should not treat every one of Moscow’s disagreements with Washington as evidence of some kind of uniquely Russian opposition to the existing world order. But for the United States to continue extending a hand, the Russian government ought to dispense with its use of anti-Americanism (and anti-Westernism) for domestic purposes. It also should accept that what happens inside Russia unavoidably affects its standing internationally—the same way it does the United States or any other country.
Cory Welt is Associate Director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.
This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York.
The U.S.–Russia relationship matters for many reasons, both immediately and over the long term. Most pressing, the United States has a very important national security interest in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon—and Russia’s cooperation is key in maintaining united international pressure on Iran to negotiate as well as limiting or shutting off the supply of advanced conventional weapons to Tehran. Moscow’s assistance is also valuable in conducting the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Strategically, America’s relationship with Russia can play a significant role in defining the twenty-first century international system and in sustaining U.S. global leadership. As China has grown in influence, it has increasingly challenged some aspects of the U.S.-led international system. However, Beijing is unlikely to be in a position to rewrite international rules without considerable backing. As the second-largest world power dissatisfied with elements of the current system, Russia can either support this effort or not. For Americans who see China as America’s principal foreign policy priority, effectively managing U.S.-Russia relations is a critical building block in dealing successfully with Beijing in the decades to come.
The first priority for Washington and Moscow in repairing their fraying relations must be to stop and reverse the sharp deterioration in tone. Improving the tone of the U.S.–Russia relationship was the first step in the Obama administration’s reset policy and—until 2011—was in some ways its most significant accomplishment. President Obama’s recent comments about Mr. Putin’s body language are not helpful; nor is officially encouraged anti-American sentiment in Russia.
To improve relations significantly, however, both sides will need to do much better than avoiding gratuitous mutual criticism. To succeed, the two governments must define a shared vision for their relationship that advances each nation’s individual national interests, they must make achieving that vision a priority in a manner that shapes decisions on some other issues, including on issues that may be politically painful for each, and they must explain their policy approaches convincingly to their citizens and to skeptical elites. Thus far, the U.S. and Russian governments have failed at the first of these tasks and have applied limited effort at best to the last two. Most damaging has been the mutual failure to make clear why the U.S.-Russia relationship matters to both countries.
This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Russia is essential to completing our mission in Afghanistan. Given sharp increases in the pace, number, and intensity of global challenges requiring collective action, Russia and the United States have the unique ability to act around the globe. Without our cooperation, organizations tasked with addressing these issues do not function effectively.
We have shared aspirations to address global challenges such as nonproliferation and terrorism. China, India, and Brazil hold no such aspirations. Europe seems uncertain.
Russia and the United States alone occupy Euro-Atlantic and Asia-Pacific security spaces and are central players in the Arctic, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Russia has a voice in organizations where the United States is not represented—the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).
We have solid experience upon which to build to a new stage.
It is a cardinal principle of dialogue that it is most important to talk when a relationship is threatened. We need to talk about the relationship at ALL levels.
Cancellation of the Moscow summit does not mean a U.S.–Russia crisis. Although the dynamics of the bilateral relationship have changed over the past four years, there are issues—including nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism, regional challenges, and trade and investment links—where cooperation serves the interests of both countries. At the same time, in a relationship as varied and complex as that between the United States and Russia, there will be differences on some questions. The trick is to not let differences on issues such as Syria dominate the relationship but to manage those differences so that cooperation is possible where U.S. and Russian interests coincide. Washington and Moscow should move on the areas where cooperation makes sense, such as reducing their overly large nuclear weapons levels and strengthening commercial links, to add some more positives to the relationship.
February 6, 2014
Russia Depends on the Russians
The relationship between the U.S. and Russia lacks a secure mooring and is therefore subject to upheaval and uncertainty. Both sides are to blame for this.
The Obama administration’s “reset” policy is strategically vacuous. For their part, not a few in Congress seem to be focused on reacting to authoritarian trends in Russia and on fostering democracy as an antidote. The reality, however, is that we can affect Russia’s political future at the margins at best. What happens in Russia depends on the Russians. What we should do, instead, is to define concrete foreign policy issues on which there is a convergence of interests and try to foster bilateral cooperation on them, to the extent possible, with realistic expectations, and in a manner consistent with American interests.
As for the Putin government, on the one hand, it wants Russia to be treated as a great power but, on the other, ascribes many of its difficulties to Western (especially American) machinations. (In fact, the real problem facing Moscow is that Russia seems to matter less and less to the United States.) The result has been the rise within Russia of an anti-Western nationalism.
Until Washington and Moscow stop this destructive, ideologically-driven pattern of behavior, the bilateral relationship will continue to be characterized by instability, unpredictability, polemics, and blame-games. That, in turn, will limit the achievements possible, even in areas where there is some (though in truth very little) cooperation, Syria being a case in point.
But if the two sides can find a few specific areas of cooperation that are modest to start with but on which cooperation would produce demonstrable mutual benefits, the relationship can (slowly) become more predictable and productive. Grand gestures such as summits and catchwords won’t make a difference. Any improvement that occurs in US-Russia relations will require quiet, persistent, and prolonged diplomacy.
Three Questions Should Guide Our Russia Policy
Scholars and policymakers are inclined to believe that the countries or regions or problems that preoccupy them professionally are of supreme, even urgent, importance. American experts on Russia are no exception in this regard. The reality, though, is that U.S.-Russian relations will never have, for Americans or Russians, the salience that the U.S.-Soviet relationship did. To refuse to accept this fact is to invite delusion or wishful thinking. It’s also true that a positive transformation of what is today a rocky U.S.–Russian relationship will not occur during what remains of Barack Obama’s presidency: domestic politics in Russia and the United States and the divergent worldviews of the two governments conspire to rule that out. What is feasible, however, is an improvement over the current state of affairs.
The United States should attempt to stabilize its relationship with Russia and to place it on a better footing because neither the Russians nor we stand to gain from its continued deterioration. But unless efforts are made to prevent that outcome, it is all but assured to occur. To allow that would be foolish.
Whatever one may think of Vladimir Putin, his policies and pronouncements have more support in Russian society than is often assumed or asserted in American discourse about Russia. Yes, he is less popular in Russia than he was in his first term as president, and it is true that some of his antics are becoming tiresome to many Russians. But he remains the most prominent, powerful, and popular leader in Russia; and there is no sign that his position is in jeopardy. We either deal with him or we make the choice to write Russia off until someone more to our liking takes the helm.
But Russia can’t be written off given that it: i) is a nuclear power, still retains substantial and powerful conventional forces, and trails only the United States as an exporter of weaponry; ii) is a major energy producer, one that supplies many countries in whose future the United States has a stake; iii) still wields significant, even if diminished, influence in many “post-Soviet states” (Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Armenia, and the Central Asian five) in which the United States has interests of various sorts; iv) has formed a multifaceted “strategic partnership” with China, the state that is considered most likely to become America’s peer competitor; v) can either help or hinder progress in hotspots such as Iran, the Korean peninsula, Syria, and Afghanistan; vi) is too important to ignore simply by virtue of its massive size and its strategic Eurasian location.
What Can Be Done to Improve the Relationship?
While this will be hard for any American president to sell to Congress and to the various interest groups engaged with matters Russian, we have to learn to delink our larger relationship with Russia from our views about the nature of the political order that Putin has built. The latter is not to most Americans’ liking; but it would be foolish to insist, in effect, that a change of regime in Moscow is necessary before we can develop a relationship with Russia that advances our interests. That amounts to putting our Russia policy on indefinite hold and is irresponsible.
The United States has dealt extensively with many countries whose politics and values we find distasteful (consider China under Mao, or even China today; or think of Saudi Arabia)—and will continue to do so. Nothing is to be gained by making Russia an exception to this pragmatic practice or by insisting on standards on human rights and democracy that the current Russian leadership will never meet. Reconfiguring the internal order of countries should not be a priority for our foreign policy. Instead, we should focus on finding areas of cooperation (to the extent that they exist) with important states and on reducing the chances of confrontation on issues where we have divergent interests.
Three questions should guide our Russia policy: What are America’s important national interests? In what ways, and to what extent, does (or could) Russia affect them? What, realistically, can be done to find common ground or to avoid conflict with Russia once we have reasoned, sober answers to the first two questions?
When it comes to U.S.–Russian relations, there are several issues that we should focus on, using these three questions as a frame of reference: arms control, nuclear proliferation, climate change, terrorism, stability—i.e., the absence of war—on the Korean peninsula, violent conflicts in countries that matter to us and to Russia, and the trajectory of post-American Afghanistan. Each will be easier to manage if we can work cooperatively with Russia; each will be harder to manage if we cannot.
The point is not that a Russian–U.S. partnership will ensure that the problems related to these issues are resolved; it’s that they can be addressed more effectively if our relationship with Russia is less volatile and more predictable.
A starting point for getting to a better place with Russia’s current government would be to convene a midlevel U.S.–Russian working group on the bilateral relationship. It should be charged with setting aside differences over human rights and democracy and trying, despite the disagreements over such matters, to identify areas where American and Russian interests do (or might) overlap and developing an agenda for cooperative action, with modest steps to start the process. The group should not include senior policymakers at the initial stage: they should be involved only after progress is made in the dialogue and concrete areas of convergence are identified.
This enterprise should not commence with fanfare and highfalutin proclamations heralding a new beginning. That risks arousing expectations that cannot be met under current conditions and breeding cynicism or despair when setbacks occur. Catchy monikers—such as “reset”—should also be avoided; they, too, generate unrealistic hopes and reduce something that is complex to marketing clichés. Quiet, realistic pragmatism is what’s needed. The president should be candid with the American public about the differences that still divide Russia and the United States and explain why the U.S.–Russia relationship is nevertheless important and worth improving.
Rajan Menon is Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York.
February 6, 2014
My inclination in 2007 was, for both political and security reasons, to think it was a mistake for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to award the 2014 Winter Games to Russia. However, the political reasons were undermined by the earlier decision to award the 2008 summer games to China, which is a much more repressive country than Russia. The security concerns were still relevant, but they were not insurmountable. One can certainly argue that Sochi was not the best Russian city for the games because of its temperate climate, but in Russia decisions about which city to put forth are made at the center under Vladimir Putin, with scant input from localities. If the IOC bought into it, so be it.
Putin has given extraordinarily high priority to the Olympics and depicted the IOC’s decision to hold the games in Sochi as a triumph for Russia and, implicitly, for himself. Far more than other national leaders in host countries in the post-1945 era, Putin has used the Sochi games as a vehicle to cement a lofty position for himself on the international scene. This dynamic can be seen in the way Putin greeted the arrival of the Olympic flame in Moscow in early November 2013, as recorded by the BBC: ”When the Olympic flame first arrived in Moscow, [Putin] was at the centre of an elaborate ceremony on Red Square. With rousing music playing, he strode out of the Kremlin gates on live television and marched up a long red carpet to receive the flame personally. He then stood there, torch in hand as the national anthem played.”
All the symbolic measures surrounding the Olympics—sending an Olympic torch into space for a spacewalk and sending another torch to a Russian icebreaker moving through to the North Pole—have been linked to the glorification of Russia as a world power and, implicitly, to the exaltation of Putin as the supreme leader of this great power. This sort of gloss is distasteful, yet it is important to remember that the Chinese authorities engaged in their own disingenuous manipulations when hosting the games in 2008, depicting them as a tribute to the Communist system in China.
Abhorrent though the Russian government’s campaign against gays and lesbians has been, calls for a boycott of the Olympics over the vicious homophobia in Russia never seemed persuasive. The Summer Games were held in China in 2008 despite much worse human rights problems there than in Russia, and it would have seemed hypocritical to have boycotted the Sochi games. Moreover, despite the IOC’s strictures, some athletes are bound to use the games to criticize the anti-gay campaign—or at least I hope they do. But even if a boycott would have been inappropriate, it is good that numerous Western leaders are staying away from the opening ceremony on February 7th. That will send a message to the Russian authorities—and to other undemocratic regimes—without penalizing athletes who have trained hard for many years.
On U.S.-Russia Relations:
“Why does the U.S.–Russia relationship matter at this time?” This would be a good question to ask Vladimir Putin. From his perspective, it was more important to engage in grandstanding than to seek a constructive relationship with the United States. Putin was evidently hoping that a trade could be arranged for Viktor Bout (a notorious criminal who has caused mayhem and misery in large parts of the world, apparently in collusion with the Russian security services), and when the Obama administration turned down any such exchange, Putin responded with pique. Obama’s decision to cancel his September 2013 meeting with Putin was justified under the circumstances.
For the time being, U.S.–Russia relations will be at their lowest point since the spring of 1999 (during the war with Kosovo). The much-ballyhooed “reset” may have achieved a few modest results early on, but it has turned out to be a colossal failure. Nonetheless, over time the United States and Russia do have important reasons to try to establish a better relationship. The two sides share an interest in preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for Islamic terrorists. They also share an interest in preserving stability in South Asia and East Asia. Both countries stand to benefit from cooperation on environmental issues, questions of public health, efforts to combat human trafficking and illegal arms dealing, and counterterrorism.
At the same time it would be wrong to gloss over the major issues that divide the two sides. The internal clampdown in Russia over the past year-and-a-half is bound to cause friction and to inhibit cooperation. The Russian government has been unwilling to take a firm stance on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and seems perfectly willing to accept a nuclear-armed Iran (even if, on balance, the Russian authorities would prefer that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons). The Russian authorities have done all they can to prop up the Assad regime in Syria and to prevent any effective international action regarding the civil war in that country. Russia continues to behave in a domineering manner toward its neighbors, such as Georgia and the Baltic countries. On all of these issues, if the United States can obtain concrete favorable action by Russia, it will certainly bolster U.S. interests and put relations back on a sounder footing.
After the dismal experience with the reset, the best step will be to avoid such gimmicks in the future. Far too much of the reset was public relations rather than substance. The two sides should candidly acknowledge the many issues on which they disagree as well as those on which they agree.
The steady emergence of the United States as one of the world’s largest energy producers (and eventually one of the largest energy exporters) will give U.S. officials a valuable source of leverage they have not had in the past. Because the Russian economy remains so heavily dependent on extractive industries, especially oil and natural gas, the United States should begin as soon as possible (which probably will not be before 2017) to export energy to European countries that currently import almost all of their needs from Russia. By edging in on these markets, U.S. officials over the longer term will have greater leeway to push for Russian concessions on a range of issues.
So long as Putin is president of Russia, it is hard to see how the bilateral relationship can change fundamentally. Both sides deserve blame for this dismal situation, but it is too late now to undo past mistakes and to foster amity and close cooperation, at least while Putin is around. Instead, the United States should use what leverage it can wield to seek Russian concessions on issues of importance to U.S. interests. Over the longer term, there may be an opportunity to forge a genuine partnership and genuine friendship with Russia—something the United States failed to do in the 1990s—but at this point the best that can be done is to minimize damage and preserve the significant areas of cooperation that still exist.
There is no time when the U.S.-Russia relationship does not matter. Now is particularly important because negative attitudes on both sides, amplified by the media, are hardening. It can then be difficult to “soften” them again—and to get the dialogue, or, more precisely, the many dialogues, at many levels involving many different people and national institutions, moving in directions and developing patterns of behavior and interaction that have a chance to be mutually productive. This is particularly so when the United States and Russia are impacting on one another’s “turf” and “concerns” more than they have for a number of years; as each seeks to define a set of roles consonant both with its ambitions and with radical shifts in global politics, economics, and culture; and where each needs to understand what is possible and what not possible in matching their national interests to one another—and how to tell the difference and to seek areas of accommodation.
What can/should be done by both sides to get it “fixed”?
“Fixed” begs the question, implying an ideal and unchanging state of being. Like history’s other major powers, the U.S. and Russia will be rivals, while, one hopes, also partnering (or at least tolerating) where possible; and seeking in their mutual self-interest to reduce risks of unbridled tensions and to build the “global commons.” Step one is a mutual “time out” in hostile rhetoric and caviling at each other’s domestic politics, followed by again showing respect for one another; depersonalizing the relationship (actually, the relationships)—no more “Putin this” or “Obama that,” media shorthand without meaning in interactions between modern states. “Time out,” as well, on summits that have little productive value, and more interactions at more levels and with new faces and a younger generation; disaggregating aspects of relations (geographically and functionally)—no search for an unneeded and not possible “grand bargain”—while making room for third parties and consigning “zero sum” to the “ash heap of history;” and finally getting over the long-dead Cold War and its mental and psychological strictures.
Robert Hunter is a former Ambassador to NATO and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
Almost 60 years ago, President Eisenhower called on scientists “to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma” by launching Atoms for Peace. Albeit reluctantly, the Soviets followed suit with their own Peaceful Atom program. American and Soviet scientists helped bring the benefits of the atom to millions of people around the world. But the fearful dilemma has only changed; it has not been solved. It can only be solved by close cooperation between Moscow and Washington.
Twenty-five years ago President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev directed their nuclear scientists to work together at each other’s nuclear test sites to develop verification techniques for the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. As much of a shock as it was for me (director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory at the time) to host Soviet scientists at the Nevada test site, this presidential directive not only facilitated ratification of the treaty, but it also allowed us to develop professional and personal relations that resulted in remarkable cooperation to reduce the nuclear dangers brought about by the chaos of the Soviet Union’s breakup.
At a recent Moscow conference, scientists from both countries reviewed the stunning accomplishments of that cooperation and lamented its dramatic decline during the past decade. Yet, our job is not done—we must focus more intensely on the common threats of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation, deal with strategic stability issues in a new multipolar world, and, if nuclear power is to expand globally, cooperate on how it can be done safely and securely. We need presidential leadership in Moscow and Washington to overcome the political and bureaucratic obstacles that keep us from getting on with the job.
With thousands of nuclear warheads, some of the world’s largest oil and natural gas reserves, territory spanning one-seventh of the globe’s land mass, nearly 150 million people, and a UN Security Council veto, Russia is surely one of the countries in which developments could most directly affect the lives and liberties of Americans, citizens of other countries, and U.S. interests abroad. Research and history show Russia is not incorrigibly anti-American, nor is its population antidemocratic. Much of its international behavior is driven by domestic politics and efforts by its leadership to retain power. In this context, engagement is much more promising than isolation, even under Putin. We share joint interests in many key spheres, including trade and security, and should not let our differences (which we should express frankly) interfere. For the longer run, trade and exchanges of officials, scholars, and students are vital to shaping a positive U.S.-Russia relationship.
Politicians on both sides have convinced themselves the relationship doesn’t matter all that much. For years, the expert community has been drawing up lists of reasons why a productive and cooperative U.S.-Russia relationship matters to both countries’ security and prosperity—but these arguments don’t seem to have fallen on fertile ground.
Politicians should stop trying to “fix” the U.S.-Russia relationship. The current climate, plus the personalities of the two presidents, do not bode well for pursuing new “resets.” What’s more important right now is to ring-fence those areas where things are working to create habits of cooperation or to build a foundation for a better relationship at a future date. We don’t need U.S. congressmen or Russian bureaucrats throwing monkey wrenches that mess up productive technical cooperation or promising economic relationships.
Many Americans, and some Russians living in the United States, say that the root cause of current problems in U.S.–Russian relations is that anti-U.S. rhetoric and actions that displease the United States play well in Russian domestic politics, so there is nothing that the United States can do to improve the relationship until President Putin decides that he has more to lose than gain by such tactics. Saying that the problem is all internal to Russia lets the United States off the hook too easily. Domestic politics also push U.S. policies on key issues, including missile defense, human rights, and Iran’s nuclear program, in directions that impede U.S.-Russian cooperation. Some U.S. politicians score points with their constituents by exaggerating problems in the relationship and inflaming anti-Russian sentiments. Some domestic policy issues on which Russia is being criticized by the West, such as intolerance toward homosexuals, are equally controversial in the United States, although the forms of legal discrimination are different.
Even the opposing positions taken by Russia and the United States on the Snowden case are really the extreme ends of a policy dilemma that both countries face between empowering governments to collect private information and keep secrets in the name of national security versus empowering citizens to know what their governments are doing and to keep personal information private. Americans cannot agree about how to balance these two objectives, and Russians probably cannot either, so staking out extreme positions and demonizing the other side is not an appropriate response. Acknowledging the ways in which domestic politics shape U.S. relations with Russia will not make the policy disagreements go away, but it is a step toward managing them in a more constructive fashion.
Nancy W. Gallagher is Associate Director for Research at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.
The “pause” in U.S.–Russia relations at the highest level, following President Obama’s decision to cancel his meeting with President Putin in the margins of the G20 summit, raised serious questions far beyond the U.S.–Russia relationship. Bypassing each other goes against global trends—demographic patterns, the food/water/energy nexus, the diffusion of state-centric power, and emergence of individual empowerment. The U.S.–Russia relationship will really matter when it becomes less about each other and more about working together toward addressing common challenges.
The inability in Moscow and Washington to make progress on arms control and missile defense, on trade and human rights, or even on Syria, adds to a long list of vexing issues between the United States and Russia, including periodic crises like the Magnitsky case or the Snowden affair. Because, however, there is a larger strategic context, the two nations should not allow the relationship to drift or become irrelevant. The key question remains whether the United States and Russia will approach the future together or separately.
It has never been beneficial to isolate or marginalize Russia. Ignoring Moscow has had limited and short-lived benefits. Similarly, Russia may turn toward Eurasia or the Asia-Pacific for alternatives, but it will not escape the importance of Euro-Atlantic relations for its own long-term modernization plans.
For the past 20 years, the Washington–Moscow relationship has been cyclical, but currently it seems to be in a downward spiral. No one seems to have learned from one cycle to the next and one may wonder how many times the relationship will have to “reset.” The relationship has become essentially asymmetrical, hostage of a narrowly defined security agenda dominated by nuclear weapons and arms control negotiations, which makes it impossible to develop a strategic partnership befitting today’s global trends.
What can and should both countries do to “fix” the relationship?
At this particular juncture, an honest diagnosis of the U.S.–Russia pathologies would point to a limited ability to address common concerns jointly. In the short term, the dynamic between Washington and Moscow may become purely transactional, without much trust and with little hope of closing the value gap. This should not be seen as negative.
The prognosis for a cooperative way forward is unclear at best. What is very clear, however, is that if engagement between the United States and Russia leads to one side prevailing over the other, the two sides will disengage. This type of partnership with Russia is unsustainable.
The prescription is not a matter of quick fixes. First, the two sides need a long-term strategy, in an attempt to remain engaged without prejudging the outcome. A long-term strategy would serve as a guidepost in managing expectations, hedging against political improvisation and unhelpful decisions, and mitigating the risks of disengagement. A long-term strategy could also help identify compromises between the requirements of expedient solutions typical in a transactional relationship, without losing sight of the ultimate search for a normative framework to be ushered in due course by potential transformational leadership. Moreover, in managing time, a strategy could offer short-term goals and long-term objectives, and thus allow for pragmatic decisions based on interests, while retaining a value-based, long-term perspective.
Second, for the relationship to develop in the long run, there would have to be a conscious political choice by the top leadership on both sides toward engagement, and a readiness to address disagreements within national constituencies. The biggest challenge will not be the lack of common interests or the absence of an inspiring vision. The biggest challenge has been and will remain the lack of mutual intentions, mutual respect, and shared political will on the part of respective leadership to work with their own internal opposition towards genuine cooperation.
It is unclear at this stage whether the United States and Russia can develop a relationship of mutual respect without an expectation on either side to win over the other on the merit of its own position.
The U.S.–Russia relationship matters at this time because in the contemporary international constellation it always matters. For Russia it matters because the United States is the world’s leading power. For the United States it matters less but it matters nonetheless, because Russia is too big to dominate, too proud to ignore, and too dangerous to fight.
Now that “the reset” has yielded to “the pause,” both governments should take advantage of the time-out to inquire into and share the lessons of this latest pendulum swing in the relationship. A key problem that must be addressed this time around is the domestic political environment in each country. Not only do entrenched mindsets and powerful players work against enduring cooperation. More fundamentally, they keep policymakers in Moscow and Washington from making realistic allowances for political realities in the other place.
It should be intuitively obvious to any observer of international affairs that the U.S.-Russia relationship matters for both countries, and for the world. The fact that such a question even gets asked is revealing, however. It seems to result from an implicit comparison with the centrality of the U.S.-Soviet relationship, which of course, in relative terms, was far more important for both countries, and for the world. But that comparison is misleading; Russia is not the Soviet Union and bipolarity has been over for almost twenty-five years. So compared to any other bilateral relationship that exists in the world today, the U.S.–Russia dyad is remarkably important: there isn’t a single global issue that isn’t affected by it. But the fact that the question is being asked demonstrates the extent to which the Cold War legacy haunts this bilateral relationship.
To “fix” the relationship, both sides need to recognize that it is broken, and that some serious effort needs to be made in order to repair it. The two governments have yet to undertake such an effort. For all its myriad successes, the “reset” of 2009 to 2011 was fundamentally about the “deliverables” produced by the relationship, and not about addressing the long-standing problems within the relationship. There are three primary problems or pathologies that plague bilateral ties. The most corrosive of these problems remains the fact that elements within both countries’ national security establishments continue to view each other as adversaries, almost twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War. These attitudes are most overtly manifest in the persistence of mutually assured destruction as the paradigm that defines the nuclear relationship. A second pathology is the yawning gap between Washington’s expectations about Russia’s post-Soviet political development and Russian realities, which have refused to conform to those expectations. Finally, U.S.–Russia rivalry in post-Soviet Eurasia also represents a continuing handicap on bilateral ties. Addressing these pathologies would involve good-faith engagement to find common ground, overcome misperceptions, and rethink assumptions. It would not produce “deliverables” fit for presidential summits. But without such an effort, the two governments will end up, once again, taking steps that force them to cancel summits, as President Obama did earlier this month.
The U.S.-Russia relationship will always be a critical component of U.S. foreign relations. Unfortunately, neither the United States nor the European Union has been particularly effective over the past decade in recalibrating its views of Russia from a net consumer of foreign assistance to an economic and geopolitical co-equal among G8 nations. The relationship going forward must be based on principles of parity and mutual interest, without an assumption that Russia, which increasingly sees itself as neither western nor Asian, will emulate a U.S. or EU political model.
Current textbook accounts of U.S.-Soviet relations in the 20th century are notably limited and largely unchanged since the time of the Cold War, which contributes to a persistent perception of the relationship in both countries in “zero-sum” terms. As was the case in Germany and Japan, new and increasingly nuanced historical narratives are required to enable younger generations in both countries to comprehend past sacrifices and contributions of Russians and Americans in order to envision a common, cooperative future.
The U.S.-Russia dialogue is still defined by the symbolism of high-level meetings, rather than the substance of a rich exchange of entrepreneurial, scientific, cultural, social ideas across regions and municipalities. Educational and research exchanges have decreased significantly over the past eight years, as have joint research projects with American universities.
A recently inaugurated university-based U.S.-Russia Innovation (Biomedical) Corridor between Maryland and Nizhnij Novogorod provides an example of the untapped potential for scientific, educational, and entrepreneurial cooperation at the region-to-region level, in this case genome-based cancer treatments. Three more university-based economic clusters in the areas of new materials, “clean” engineering, and climate change research are proposed for 2013 to 2014.
Region-to-region collaboration is of clear benefit to U.S. and Russian partners. It tends to draw on younger-generation researchers and entrepreneurs for implementation, stimulates local economic development (including small and medium enterprises), and is relatively protected from the vicissitudes in relations among central authorities in either country.
Blaming Cold War thinking for the frictions in U.S.-Russia relations unfortunately distracts us from honestly facing and fixing the reasons why we seem unable to cooperate on truly important global security challenges.
A fundamental source of the friction is something only Russia itself can solve: its insecurity and resentment in the face of a rapidly changing world. Russian insecurity is rooted primarily in its underperforming economy, long-suffering but restive society, and increasingly clumsy political system. As long as Russia’s political leadership rejects political and real economic modernization in order to cling to power, Russia will remain less prosperous and secure than it can and should be.
While the United States can do little about Russia’s internal political drama, it can do much to create opportunities for Russian social and economic integration through trade, investment, and education. And to the extent that uncertainty and mistrust about America’s global security presence and policies feed Russia’s (misguided) fears that it is the target of U.S. schemes, focused diplomacy on even the toughest issues—most notably change in the Middle East and security in post-2014 Afghanistan—has to build a cooperative modus vivendi for the challenges ahead. Mutual reaffirmation to follow international law and utilize international institutions—even when doing so means compromise and policy adjustment—is in America’s interests because an insecure and destructive Russia is not.
The Cold War is not coming back, but that is no reason to pat ourselves on the back and ignore the need to invest in the American-Russian relationship. Looking backward risks tripping on the obstacles before us: it’s time to see those obstacles more clearly and adjust our path.
Celeste A. Wallanderis Associate Professor at the School of International Service, American University and Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The U.S.–Russia relationship matters greatly now, for a multitude of reasons. A growing number of the most pressing problems facing the world today can only be addressed effectively through multilateral channels, and solutions to these problems will be more robust and lasting if both the United States and Russia cooperate to help craft them. Solutions to critical global challenges such as developing new technologies (and safeguards) for expanded nuclear power generation and addressing the threat of climate change are prominent examples. Achieving a lasting peace in Syria, and the Middle East more generally, will require U.S.–Russia cooperation of a different sort, but the need is just as urgent. Leaving Russia “out of the equation” will hinder progress toward addressing much of the international agenda, as well as weaken the international interface of Russia with the West, to the detriment of Russia’s internal development. In an era when the forces of globalization have transformed information flows and international interactions, Russia’s integration into the world economy and polity cannot be reversed.
Both the United States and Russia need to get past the Cold War mentality that persists in some quarters in both countries. That mentality, supported by outdated ideological bias and further advanced, on occasion, by commercial interests, is itself a continuing threat to world peace.
Focus on problems both sides want to solve
The U.S.–Russia dialogue needs to broaden and change fundamentally in tone. Participants should include representatives from official institutions, the private/commercial sectors, and civil society on both sides. The more “demand driven” this dialogue is, the better. Discussions should focus on addressing challenges and problems that both sides want to solve, including problems of a global nature where U.S.–Russian cooperation could make a positive difference. In a narrow but practical sense, academic exchanges would fit this agenda, as would “sister city” and other twinning arrangements involving civil society. Work to strengthen the Russian and international financial systems is another area where past cooperation, undertaken quietly and away from the inhibiting glare of publicity, has produced extraordinarily positive results, helping to build mutual trust and respect that has carried over into other areas of dialogue. Efforts to promote Russian and international economic growth, to help diversify the raw-materials-centered Russian economy, and to address common problems that are too complex for either country to address alone, would also be beneficial. Development of critically needed alternative sources of energy and long-term solutions to climate change are examples of global challenges from this last category.
Efforts reflecting ideological agendas, or one country’s attempts to tackle problems and shortcomings it perceives in the other, are unlikely to advance mutual understanding and deepen mutual respect. Such efforts are more likely to be perceived as meddling. In this context, cooperation to promote broad-based economic growth is more likely to produce positive results than efforts aimed head-on at “democracy building.”
Russia is among a handful of influential global actors on almost every issue of vital national interest to the United States, from strategic nuclear stability and nonproliferation, to countering terrorism, responding to pandemic threats, and sustaining global economic growth based on free trade and energy security. Russia may seem to be a difficult partner at times, yet it is far from America’s adversary or enemy today. Tough talk and tit-for-tat posturing of the kind both sides have demonstrated in recent months are nothing compared to the potentially catastrophic results of real confrontation, which veterans of the Cold War worked tirelessly to avoid.
On the contrary, a broad range of mutual interests shared by Moscow and Washington has underpinned decades of successful joint initiatives in space, scientific research, cultural exchange, and conflict resolution, while the potential for U.S.-Russia cooperation in the future should be even greater.
Recognize Russia’s distinct national interests
Managing U.S.-Russia ties will never be easy or intuitive for either side. Although many vital interests are shared, there are important areas of divergence, and the current imbalance of political, diplomatic, and economic power, favoring the United States, inclines Russians toward particular sensitivity over any perception of bullying, undue meddling, or disrespect from Washington.
Successful engagement with Russia demands recognition of Russia’s distinct and legitimate national interests, even when they do not appear compatible with those of the United States. While Americans may hope for accelerated progress toward liberal democracy and the rule of law in Russia, only the Russian people can decide the priorities and pace of their domestic development. Respect for Russia’s independent interests and developmental course, with sustained attention and patience for official engagement, plus investment in the building blocks of the relationship such as trade promotion, ease of travel, and cultural exchange, offer the best chance to produce big bilateral accomplishments over time.
Objectively, more so than ever, U.S. and Russian interests converge on the most pressing global challenges, including weapons proliferation, terrorism, environmental degradation, pandemics, regional instability, failing and failed states. Absent active collaboration, it is impractical to fashion effective responses to these challenges. Although more cooperation is ongoing in a number of these areas than is widely appreciated, domestic political considerations are having an unfortunate chilling effect, which could lead both states to assume very counterproductive positions.
Perhaps the two greatest dangers are that (1) the Russian leadership will conclude there is little reason to engage with the United States as it cannot deliver on issues that are of importance to Russia, a perception undoubtedly reinforced by the cancellation of the summit and an interpretation of this as evidence of President Obama’s weakened political position; and (2) the temptation on the part of the United States to attempt to punish Russia for perceived transgressions. The most disconcerting aspect of the situation is that leading voices in government in both countries today appear to be essentially content with the status quo stalemate, albeit for different reasons, and are disinclined to invest the political capital needed to promote greater cooperation.
Convene an “agenda-free” summit
In charting a course forward, it is useful to recall that even during the bleakest moments of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to set aside their ideological and political differences to cooperate meaningfully and in a sustained fashion in a number of areas, most notably nuclear nonproliferation. It would be tragic—and very dangerous—were such cooperation to diminish in the post-Cold War period. As such, it is worth considering the value added of reviving the high-level biannual nonproliferation meetings that covered the entire range of proliferation concerns held by either party. More generally, it would be desirable to expand the number of bilateral and multilateral working groups at the Track 1, Track 1.5, and Track 2 levels that conduct business largely below the radar screen of politicians and the media. It also is highly desirable to facilitate more exchanges among different groups of students and professionals in both countries, including educators, military personnel, agricultural experts, etc., and to promote collaborative educational activities such as joint graduate degree programs.
To the extent that one sought to return to the summit process, it might make more sense to convene an “agenda-free” summit at which the U.S. and Russian leadership could discuss global affairs in a broad and largely unstructured way (perhaps the closest model is the December 1989 Bush-Gorbachev summit at Malta). Such a discussion of shared and divergent threat perceptions should lead to the recognition that on many, if not most, issues the two parties desire similar outcomes but differ mainly on the means to obtain them.
A major obstacle to improved relations that must be recognized if it is to be overcome is the persistence of very different perceptions the two countries have of one another. Both talk about the need for collaboration, but the U.S. tends to view Russia as a potential ally only when it is prepared to promote U.S. priorities, and typically is disparaging of Russian power, is insensitive to the legitimacy of Russian interests, and discounts the domestic support Putin enjoys for pursuing precisely those policies that are anathema to the United States. For its part, while Russia may see the U.S. as in decline, it is hypersensitive to its own vulnerabilities and takes umbrage at the various “slights” that it incurs, although these are invisible to most U.S. policymakers.
One possible way to minimize the negative influence of domestic politics on U.S.–Russian cooperation is to embed collaboration whenever possible in more multilateral fora. Examples where this already is ongoing, but could be expanded and intensified, are in areas such as nonproliferation and disarmament (P-5 consultations on disarmament are a good example, although they are not without a downside); counter-terrorism, nuclear security, nonproliferation education, environmental remediation, etc.
Very importantly, civil society must make the case loudly and clearly, that both sides need one another and acceptance of the status quo is unacceptable.
Any realistic hope of managing a negotiated peaceful end to the Syrian civil war, or preventing Iran getting a nuclear bomb, or maximizing the chance for relative stability in Afghanistan, or keeping global energy markets stable, will require successful cooperation with Putin’s Russia. Beyond those issues, there are in addition counterterrorism and moving toward a more stable global nuclear order. In sum, Russia matters only if one is seriously concerned about protecting and advancing America’s national interests.
The easiest course for leaders of both countries is to blame the other; certainly that sells best in the domestic politics of each. And about Putin’s Russia, there is certainly lots not to like.
But if American and Russian leaders will focus first on their own national interests, they will conclude that poking each other in the eye or insisting on unrealistic demands are unhelpful. Finding a path to the limited cooperation essential for dealing with the challenges that matter most will require both to think more clearly about how the world looks through the other’s eyes, and to compromise in ways that will be uncomfortable, especially in the domestic politics in each country.
February 6, 2014
It is truly unfortunate that there are a number of American commentators who seem to be almost hoping that Sochi will fail. It is our responsibility as common members of the international community, and as nations who all want our Olympic athletes to succeed, to work together to make the Sochi Olympics a success.
Because the Games are so important to both President Putin and the Russian state, I believe that all possible precautions will be taken to try to ensure that the Olympics are a safe experience for everyone, and that disasters are avoided.
While there are a number of human rights, environmental, and corruption-related problems in Russia right now that are associated with the Games, we need to realize that these are ongoing issues to be resolved over the long run, and that they are not specific only to the Games themselves—nor are they specific only to Russia.
On the U.S.-Russia Relationship:
The U.S.–Russia relationship matters because the interests of the two nations intersect:
- Both will interact for the foreseeable future in the north as the Arctic ice cap recedes, and in Central Asia as the aftereffects of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan unfold.
- Both retain veto power in the UN Security Council.
- Both contend with immense nuclear stockpiles, and the difficulties of crafting sensible plans for nuclear security.
- Both face economic challenges through the G-20 and the WTO.
Two steps by the United States could help further the achievement of common interests:
- First, relations with Russia should be depoliticized at home. Exaggerating the importance of problems in the relationship for domestic political gain hinders their resolution.
- Second, Washington should recognize that the economic interests of competing domestic political factions drive much of Russia’s foreign policy, including in the security sphere. Finding ways to satisfy those export and foreign investment interests may lead to creative problem solving.
There are two basic answers to your first question. First, the continuous alert coupling of Russian and American deterrent forces constitutes what is by far the largest physical threat to both societies and to the rest of the world as well. That operational configuration is not tolerably safe, and can only be rendered more so by coordinated action requiring mutual agreement. Second, the internal transformation of Russia, which began with the dissolution of the Soviet system, has not yet run its course. The outside world including, especially, the United States, has a much greater stake in the ultimate outcome than is currently realized and a much greater role to play than is currently understood.
As for what to do, the security agenda has natural priority. The immediate imperative requires the United States and NATO to convey credible reassurance regarding the inherent threat their advanced tactical air capability poses to Russia. Until that is accomplished, nothing else is likely to be effective.
The relationship with Russia is a matter of continuing importance. For all its weaknesses, Russia remains a major power. It is, among other things, a member of the UN Security Council, possessor of the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, a leading producer of energy, and an important neighbor of China. Russia has the capacity to help or to hinder the United States in the pursuit of many of its most important foreign policy goals: nuclear arms reductions; nuclear nonproliferation; European security; the fight against terrorism; stability in the Middle East (including the Iranian nuclear program and the Syrian civil war). It is a relationship that needs to be cultivated over the long term, not something to be attended to only as the occasion demands. It has to be assessed in light of the general strategy—easier said than done, of course, but nevertheless the right approach.
What can and should both countries do to “fix” the relationship?
I don’t know that the relationship can be “fixed.” I prefer a gardening metaphor to a handyman’s. It’s a relationship that needs to be tended and cultivated. It is now going through a difficult period and the difficulties are embedded, to simplify grossly, in two different narratives. The Putin narrative is one of resentment, of Russia exploited in the past and threatened in the present by the West. To many Americans (and Russians too), Russia is a country that has lost its way, to the point where one can ask whether the Cold War is over. Though misleading in important respects, these narratives exercise a powerful influence and make it difficult to identify a “quick fix.” This is a long-term project. Max Weber’s description of politics as “the slow drilling of hard boards” seems to fit here.
David Holloway is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History and a senior fellow of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
At the most basic level, these are still the two countries with the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, and overtly hostile relations between them are therefore not particularly good for anyone. In a more pragmatic sense, there are many ways that Russia can help (or hinder) U.S. foreign policy interests, and vice versa. Both countries are interested in how events unfold in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the trajectory of international terrorism, and the long-term rise of China. And of course both countries continue to be interested in developments in Europe, even if not quite to the same extent as during the Cold War. In many (but of course not all) of these cases, cooperation between the United States and Russia can help both countries achieve important goals. Finally, the UnitedStates has long been seen as a friend of the Russian people by certain segments of the Russian population, especially those with more liberal political outlooks; some of these people may be the leaders of Russia in the future. What the United States does today vis-à-vis Russia and the way it treats its own citizens may affect how those citizens feel about the United States in the future.
What can and should both countries do to “fix” the relationship?
Clearly, dialogue between the two countries is important if relations are going to improve. But it may be time to think about the difference between getting things fixed in the short term and in the long term. Clearly, both sides face temptations to use their relationship to play to their own domestic audiences, and President Putin has undoubtedly made antagonizing the West a part of his strategy for maintaining support at home. In the short term, in the aftermath of the public decision to cancel the summit, the United States may find it can best advance its foreign goals by quietly re-establishing contact with the Russians at lower levels. (And to be clear, I think tying the future of U.S.-Russian relations to the fate of Edward Snowden would be a mistake.) But in the longer term, the United Statesmay want to consider ways to convince Putin that there are consequences to “playing the American card” so often for domestic consumption, especially in terms of using it to demonize his opponents at home as somehow un-Russian. Taking a firmer stance with the regime now might end up paying dividends down the road, although this will of course be tricky in practice.
I’m sure that the other responders to this question will come up with a list of reasons why Russia matters. I am sure that I will pretty much agree with that list. In the best of all possible worlds, is there anyone (to repeat the obvious) who wouldn’t like Russian cooperation in reducing nuclear weapons or regulating regional conflicts?
Let me focus instead on a broader issue: whether in today’s crisis-ridden world the U.S.-Russia relationship is still among the top priorities for U.S. policymakers, based on a calculation of whether the result of sustained engagement will be worth the time and effort.
At present, the United States thinks Russia is unhelpful and Russia thinks the United States is weak. America has always had a narrow definition of what is “helpful”—the Russians are right to complain that on past occasions this has really meant doing what the United States wants them to do. But America then (in the 1990s) is not America now. Now America really, really, doesn’t know what to do in several crisis areas, particularly in Syria and the Middle East, and really, really doesn’t want to get involved in yet another far-off war, so asking the Russians to follow our lead when we don’t know where we are going is not likely to produce great results.
Russia, for its part, has pursued anti-Americanism at home, criticized American domestic and foreign policy, taken cynical advantage of America’s missteps and intelligence overreach, and looked for international friends in all the wrong places. It took the cancellation of a summit, thus denying President Putin the international legitimacy he craves, and of course renewed talk about military intervention in Syria, to elicit a greater willingness to be helpful in investigating chemical weapons use. But, despite the happy talk at the recent “2 plus 2” meeting, the Russians let it be known that recent talks on missile defense were at an impasse.
Does this sound like we have grounds for much optimism about where the relationship is headed?
Add to this the fact that the two leaders don’t like each other very much, and are increasingly constrained by domestic groups that don’t want the relationship to get better, and it is clear that no amount of sober analysis by a group of experts about why Russia matters, or about shared interests and the virtue of realpolitik, will fundamentally change the present dynamic of the relationship.
Marshall Shulman once wrote that progress in U.S.-Russian (then U.S.-Soviet) relations required success in three separate negotiations: one between political groups in the United States; the second between elites in Russia; and a third negotiation between the two countries. Of the three negotiations, he said, the bilateral talks were by far the least difficult. He was right then, and I think he would say the same about the current situation. These dynamics have to change before anything is going to get done.
And, finally, then, as now, a sustainable U.S. foreign policy toward Russia has to care about what happens to Russians and how Russian citizens are treated by their own state. This is not a made-up concern, and it is not going to be wished away by the realists’ magic wand. All of us have a part to play in getting the message across to the Russian elite that it is impossible to benefit from an international system based on the rule of law and international norms if you neither respect the law nor agree to live by international norms. We see examples every day that the defense of property rights (so critical to Russia’s modernization) is not possible without guaranteeing the rights of the people who own that property.
It is debatable whether American policymakers have lost the right to lecture anyone on either of these points, but that does not mean these principles have lost their validity. We—all of us who support what Carnegie Corporation and countless others are trying to do in Russia—have to continue to engage at home and with counterparts in Russia on all fronts. Eventually, policymakers will have no choice but to do the same.
For the first time in a long time, the American airwaves are filled with talk about Russia and its relations with the United States. Opinions are many and varied, ranging from endorsement of President Obama’s cancellation of the summit with President Putin, to concerns about Obama’s decision; from attempts to rationalize Putin’s move to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, to outright outrage about him snubbing the U.S. But whatever the view or the tone, experts, analysts, and officials are talking about Russia, and that is a good thing. That’s the silver lining in the summit’s cancellation.
But, it would be even better if more and louder voices in the United States would use this latest chapter in the U.S.-Russia saga to talk about the importance and the potential of this relationship.
The prevailing media discourse highlights the negatives. The Snowden affair is the final straw, many say, in a relationship that is going nowhere… at a zero, bankrupt, with nothing to talk about. Underpinning these views is a list of disagreements that are identified, explained, and deemed insurmountable.
By now, the American people have heard loud and clear what divides the two countries. But what about what unites them? What about mutual interests and concerns? Shouldn’t those be the focus of some discussions?
Let us stretch our imaginations for the sake of expanding the current conversations.
Nuclear arms reductions are considered at a standstill after the pivotal New START Treaty that was negotiated and confirmed during Obama’s first term. Perhaps this is the case. But both sides are eager to further reduce their Cold War nuclear legacy arsenals as neither country has the finances or the appetite to maintain weapons that cannot be used at their present numbers. If the stumbling block is the U.S. plan to develop a limited missile defense against a nuclear attack from Iran, or another foe, reaching a negotiated agreement on further nuclear cuts and a mutually acceptable defense system is not unimaginable. What is missing is not a common objective, but trust, confidence, and political will.
Regarding Iran, the two countries again share a goal in not seeing Iran acquire nuclear weapons. The Russians have strong economic interests in Iran, including in its civilian nuclear industry, and no desire for a nuclear-armed state in their neighborhood. Russia has put aside significant reservations to support the UN-led sanctions against Iran. The United States and Russia agree on the desired outcome. They differ on how to get to it. So, here too, if there is political will, trust, and confidence, finding a mutually acceptable approach to stifling Iran’s nuclear weaponization program is not unattainable.
Syria is highlighted as the latest and deepest source of frustration and division. And clearly, it is. Russia’s support for Bashar al Assad, along with U.S. insistence that the regime’s stepping down must be part of any negotiated settlement, have contributed to the human fiasco facing the Syrian people. Perhaps the situation is now beyond repair, given the spread and the depth of sectarian conflict in the country. But again, the United States. and Russia share ultimate goals—to contain the conflict, restore stability, and prevent Syria from falling into the hands of extremists. What’s missing is not a common vision, but again, trust, confidence, and political will to move toward it.
In each of these, and other cases that are mentioned as divisive, including terrorism, post-NATO Afghanistan, North Korea’s nuclear program, cyber security, energy security, and others, common ground can be found if the search is driven by understanding of mutual positions, respect for national concerns, objective assessments of reality, and, yes, trust, confidence, and political will.
So what is stopping this relationship from moving off an old and flawed pattern of two steps backward for each step forward?
Partly it is due to different worldviews, expectations, and aspirations. But, these are based more on perceptions than reality, and can be overcome through negotiations and engagements, as suggested above. A bigger obstacle is divergent political systems and values. And here, both countries need to alter their respective views of each other.
The United States must accept that Russia is not likely to become a Western-style liberal democracy in the immediate future. It is a socially conservative country, molded through a long history of authoritarian rule—a sentiment that the present Russian leadership is taking advantage of by introducing policies deemed regressive by the world’s democracies. Many of President Putin’s policies are supported by the majority of the Russian population, including his decision concerning Snowden. For the United States to wish that shared values are the basis of a relationship with Russia is as unrealistic as it is impractical. And in this respect, Russia is treated as a special case, as few other countries are held to the same standards.
On the other hand, for Russia to dismiss the impact of domestic policies that are shrinking civil liberties and narrowing the space of political activism in the country is as inaccurate as it is risky. As demonstrated by the global reaction to the anti-gay legislation, the world is watching Russia’s trends with deep concern. For Russia to aspire to great power status, particularly given the modest size of its population and unpredictable economy, it should be moving toward universal progressive values, not away from them. It should recognize that the United States is a guidepost for civil liberties that Russia should embrace rather than negate.
Narrowing the gaps and developing trust, confidence, and political will has to come from the top.
President Obama was initially right not to make Edward Snowden a pawn on a chessboard that advances to a queen. Yet, he did exactly that by canceling the summit. President Putin was initially right to ignore Snowden and deny him a chance to drive a wedge between the two countries. Yet, he did exactly that by granting Snowden temporary asylum. The actions of both presidents suggest exasperation with each other. Both have put effort and political capital into the relationship and neither got what he hoped for.
Starting from the presidents and going down to their advisors, the media, and the public, each country needs to accept certain realities about the other, move to narrow the gaps, and focus on what unites them rather than on what divides them. Only then can there be the kind of a paradigm shift that will enable this pivotal relationship to advance global stability rather than deepen insecurity. It is time to get this relationship right before global problems become really insurmountable.
Improved perceptions of one another can alter the predominant ways in which U.S.-Russian relations are now perceived, and through this help change the relations themselves. There are two opposing approaches to this. Proponents of the first approach heavily rely on propaganda campaigns, believing that massive advertising will eventually work. Their opponents insist that the image of their country will change only when the country itself becomes different: “Change yourself, and your image will follow suit.”
Both ideas hold some truth, but do not embrace the entire reality. Propaganda and advertising do work, but there are strict limits as to their efficiency. There are also limits to how much individuals can change themselves and their country, while history, moreover, demonstrates that even a cardinal change of a country may be insufficient for its image to improve. Are there any other ways to solve the problem of improving the existing negative perceptions?
The well-known fact that U.S.-Russian relations knew periods of ups and downs, that we were close friends and “probable enemies” in various historical eras, must be considered alongside another, less obvious idea. One may challenge the common sense notion that the “Other’s” behavior predetermines our attitude to it. Indeed, those periods of enmity or friendship did not coincide with a change in the foreign policy of the other country or even in its internal development but instead rather closely followed the twists and turns of the domestic politics and public debates at home. One may cite the Vietnam War (which the United States was waging against the Soviet Union’s ally), which did not preclude détente, as contrasted with the Iraqi war (against a regime which evoked no sympathy in Russia), which seemingly boosted Russia’s anti-American policies. A constructivist explanation of the difference between these two periods points to the fact that the Iraqi war was started at a moment when Russia was searching for its new identity, and such a search shaped its attitude toward the United States. Conversely, America’s attitude to the Russian empire in the last third of the 19th century changed for the worse not so much because of a change of Russian policies, but as a result of a deep self-reevaluation undertaken by the United States after the Civil War.
When we look at the current U.S.-Russian relations through the same prism, we see that the problems in bilateral relations have at least two sources belonging to the realms of internal agendas rather than to foreign policy.
Linking the elimination of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Magnitsky Act in the same piece of legislation (however justifiable or not both decisions were) contained a message to that part of the American public that believes in an unchangeable Russia. The Dima Yakovlev Law, besides its goal to “punish” the United States, was also a part of the policy of portraying Russian opposition as puppets of the U.S. State Department and alienating it by targeting it with anti-American propaganda. The Snowden affair was another interplay of home and international concerns for both sides.
How would such a change of perspective influence policymaking? Those politicians genuinely interested in improving bilateral relations should pay more attention to their home agenda and engage those sides of the Other’s image that will be both relevant to the internal discussions and positive toward the partner. The image of the other country is used and is amended in the course of the discussions on the home fronts (as a part of political and cultural adjustments of the society to new challenges). We need to know each other much better than we do now, and the most important knowledge is about the long-term agenda and mechanisms for setting the agenda in the other country.
Can Russia, for example, contribute anything important to the discussions on health care or gun control? Can the U.S. image be instrumental in solving problems of corruption or reforming Russian science and education? Certainly, any image of this kind is ambiguous; the proponents of health reform in the United States may say that “even in Russia there is mandatory medical insurance,” while the critics of the reform would cite cases of the low quality of Russian medicine. Still the major argument for the positive image of Russia is its ability to change itself and overcome even the hardest challenges it faces.
There are certainly powerful actors interested in maintaining the image of the other side as an adversary, and using that image to demonize the other country. However, I dare to say that the spectrum of negative images is relatively narrow, and the repetition of the old ones does not provide an image of the changing country. A positive image will be the image of a dynamic and changing nation that may face problems, make retreats, but nevertheless keeps moving forward. To create better relations, it is essential to improve the image of one country in the eyes of the other’s public.
This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Carnegie Moscow Center.