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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Syria and its chemical weapons have emerged as a temporary opportunity for cooperation between the United States and Russia. The problem of Afghanistan drug trafficking may be another, a more lasting one. There are more issues where cooperation is problematic to say the least. Most importantly there’s no basis—such as trust or solid mutual interest—for sustainable relations between Russia and America. When trust is missing in a relationship, one way to avoid tensions is to reduce relations to a minimum. But even if the two parties try to pass over difficult and divisive issues, unexpected developments—another Snowden or another Magnitsky—can undermine the seeming calm. There may be no return to the confrontation of the Cold War—the world is just too different today and the disparity of power between the United States and Russia too broad—but the inability of the two nations to come to terms and a reluctance to understand each other is at times reminiscent of the Cold War period.
Almost half of the Russians share a negative perception of the United States, up from 27 percent just two years ago. This sharp decline is the result of the anti-American line pursued by the national television networks, which persistently portray the United States as a force for evil: Russian nongovernment “agents” recruited by Americans undertake to weaken Russian statehood; Russian orphans are maimed by their adoptive American families; alien American culture is imposed on Russia in order to undermine its traditional values.
In the course of post-Soviet development, tides of anti-Americanism rose several times, but then a more reconciled tone would set in. This time there’s more to the current trend than merely an anti-American slant on TV. After all, the coverage of Russia in the American media can hardly be described as a model of objectivity. But in Russia, the intense anti-American rhetoric has not subsided for over two years now. And this rhetoric is accompanied by anti-American moves and policies, such as the harassment of the American ambassador, the eviction of USAID, or a ban on American adoption of Russian orphans, to mention just a few. Most importantly, anti-Americanism has become a major element of Russia’s quest for a national identity.
Although two decades have passed since the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union, up until recently Russia remained uncertain over the nature of her new statehood. The Kremlin, and Putin in particular, were evasive on what post-communist Russia stood for. Russia was no longer communist or totalitarian, but she failed to produce a reasonably consensual narrative of what the Soviet past was about. She did not fully embrace the principles of a market economy or liberal democracy, but neither did she reject them. Nor did she decide whether or not she was essentially “European.”
Uncertainty and evasiveness were convenient because they helped muffle societal divisions. But in late 2011, public acquiescence was broken by the Moscow protests, and the Kremlin felt the urge to consolidate the majority against the Moscow troublemakers. This called for more clarity on values and principles, and a new identity. Over the past two years, this identity has gained explicitly anti-Western and antiliberal shape. The Pussy Riot trial, the “anti-gay” legislation, the overt and self-righteous xenophobia, or the detention of Greenpeace members are but a few examples of overt rejection of Western values. These and other antiliberal, antisecular, antimodern developments are driven by the political shifts inside Russia, but today Russia’s foreign policy stance, and relations with the United States in particular, are largely shaped by her domestic policy agenda.
The identity currently in the making may be not too solid—there’s too much “against” about it and too little “for”—but for the moment it resonates well with the broad public mindset. As long as Russia’s quest for identity takes the anti-Western and anti-American path, this will preclude constructive or reliable relations with the United States. America can hardly make a difference in this process, especially since the United States itself is currently facing soul-searching questions regarding its own role in the world.
This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationshipproject produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York in partnership with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The U.S.-Russia relationship still matters in today’s world, but in a way that is very different from historical patterns. The importance of the bilateral relationship does not look the same from the perspective of Washington and Moscow. America remains a significant “other” for Russia, though Russia has ceased to be one for the United States.
Vladimir Putin’s return to office and concerns over maintaining stability in the country in the spring of 2012 brought about a situation where domestic political considerations began to increasingly affect Russia’s foreign policy course. Today, that course is characterized by a combination of several conflicting narratives, which coexist in a general space of rhetoric on national identity, domestic and international security, and civilizational divisions. A relatively new and ascending narrative includes a mystical belief in Russia’s destiny to be a bulwark of traditional conservative values and moral principles rooted in Christianity. It is accompanied by anti-Western rhetoric and continuing securitization of the relationship with the United States. The Kremlin strives to preserve Russia’s constructed identity with the help of its great power status in light of what the Kremlin perceives to be attempts to establish American domination behind the rhetoric of universal values. Russia’s leaders are obsessed with preserving the great power image and with resisting the liberal West led by the United States at any cost. The United States is portrayed as a power attempting to meddle into Russia’s domestic affairs. In sum, for the Kremlin, the United States is an imagined important actor in both cumbersome domestic politics and international system that is increasingly viewed in “civilizational” terms.
The current American vision of Russia is much more down-to-earth. It emphasizes concrete security issues, where the two countries’ interests overlap, in spite of the differences in political systems. When the Obama administration made strategic stability the centerpiece of its Russia policy, it effectively reduced the bilateral relationship to the Cold War-era issue. The rest of the agenda is about securing Russia’s assistance in solving the problems that are important from Washington’s point of view.
Making U.S.-Russia relations hostage of Russia’s domestic politics and reducing them to the old-fashioned interactions in the fields of arms control and selected regional flashpoints are equally counterproductive. This should be fixed.
Russia’s national interest demands a de-ideologization of the Kremlin’s view of the world. Political realism must be freed from the chains of outdated dogmas and from Russia’s ambitions to oppose the imaginary and abstract “West” led by the United States.
U.S. national interests demand strategic vision and long-term foreign policy planning. Limiting cooperation with Russia to addressing a “crisis of the day” is short-sighted. The role of Russia in U.S.-China relations in the 21st century must be seriously discussed. Under certain circumstances, the Kremlin may try to position Russia as a “swing state” in relations between the U.S. and China, a role that neither India nor any other great power can effectively claim. Russia may either choose to expand common ground with the United States, or try to balance its global leadership by cooperating with China. This range of choices is important for the United States on many policy levels. The United States is watching China closely and cautiously; part of this caution will be keeping an eye on Chinese relations with the rest of the world. Not losing sight of Russia will be a priority for the United States.
The U.S.-Russia relationship matters at this time because both countries face, in very different ways, the unprecedented challenge of adjusting their policies to a rapidly changing environment, which is increasingly shaped by other actors and where global governance is in shambles. “Fixing” this relationship requires creating a moment that will set the tone for the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship, as was done at the Obama-Xi summit in June 2013. An informal summit creating a positive, mutually agreed public narrative of a new type of relationship would help to overcome many difficulties arising from strikingly different visions of each other and the world. The expert community, not the bureaucracies, should prepare the “philosophical side” of the summit, such as the two countries’ relative power positions in the international system and their visions of global affairs.
Igor Zevelev is Director, Moscow Office, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. All views expressed are his own and may not necessarily reflect those of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
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 in partnership with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
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.
Although Russia has managed to consolidate control of Crimea without provoking a full-blown war with Ukraine, the crisis is by no means over, above all because the annexing of Crimea does not solve the Kremlin’s redline issue — Ukraine’s external orientation and possible NATO accession. If anything, it has made it worse.
The annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s heavy-handed pressure on Ukraine mean that there is now no chance that Kiev will integrate into any Russian-led political, economic, or security system. Instead, it will move as close as possible to Europe and the United States politically and economically, and already it is seeking Western military assistance. The fact that the current Ukrainian Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, indicated in a speech last week that his government has tabled the question of NATO accession for Ukraine does not prevent his government or any future Ukrainian government from changing its mind later. Meanwhile, NATO is taking measures to fortify its eastern defenses.
The upshot is that Moscow has solved one non-urgent strategic problem — securing Sevastopol as the home port of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet — but it now confronts a much more serious security challenge to its west. It is also saddled with the burden of keeping Crimea from collapsing economically even as the Russian economy enters a period of stagnation or perhaps decline.
Before taking comfort in Moscow’s predicament, however, it is important to ask whether an angry, nationalistic, aggressive, and cornered Russia is in the interest of Ukraine or the West. The stark fact is that Russia has the capacity to make life miserable for its neighbors, including Ukraine, and it will be much easier, and less costly, for Russia to undermine Ukraine’s economy and destabilize it politically than it will be for the West to turn the economy around and consolidate Ukrainian democracy. More importantly, Russia has a great preponderance of force along its borders. If Putin is backed into a corner politically, or if he feels Russia’s national security interests are sufficiently threatened, he may well decide to invade eastern Ukraine. If that happens, Latvia and Estonia will be at great risk — both of these very small NATO countries share a border with Russia, have significant Russian-speaking populations, have tense relations with Moscow, and are virtually defenseless against a Russian ground invasion.
Were NATO to respond to a Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine by providing Estonia and Latvia with more credible defenses or by supplying Ukraine with lethal equipment, Russia might well decide to preempt and invade those countries as well. And of course a hostile and lawless Russia can do great harm to Western interests globally, whether in Iran and Syria today or some other crisis in the future.
In short, a permanently hostile and threatening Russia is not in anyone’s interest, least of all Ukraine’s.
The immediate task for Western policymakers is to deescalate the crisis and apply sanctions that deter further acts of aggression by Moscow. Washington, its European allies, and IMF should also provide the financial assistance that Ukraine needs to begin to address its dire economic problems as rapidly as possible. In the longer run, however, the West will need to come up with a strategic response that makes war less likely and Russia less able, or perhaps less willing, to destabilize its neighbors.
One option is to assume that Russia can only be deterred by sticks — economic sanctions, military assistance to Kiev, strengthening NATO’s eastern defenses, deepening Ukrainian, Georgian, Moldovan, and perhaps eventually even Belarusian integration into Europe, and leaving the door open to eventual NATO membership for Russia’s western neighbors. The rub, however, is that these measures virtually guarantee a hostile Russia that continues to resist Western encroachment tooth and nail, with all the attendant risks of conflict and economic and political costs.
The alternative is a strategic response that includes both sticks and carrots. Rather than proceeding as if Russia’s security concerns were entirely unreasonable and illegitimate, Washington could signal that it is willing to discuss Russia’s “legitimate interests” not only in Ukraine (as both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have stated) but elsewhere as well. The goal would be to negotiate an overarching security arrangement for a post-Cold War Europe that all parties can live with, including Russia.
To that end, the Obama administration could quietly suggest preliminary discussions with Moscow over the institutionalization of military neutrality for Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus. The arrangement would preclude those three countries from joining any military alliance (which would mean that Belarus would have to withdraw from the Collective Security Organization) or from allowing foreign troops to be stationed on their soil (which would mean that Russia would have to remove the forces is currently has in Belarus). Each neutral country would be free to develop its own defenses as it saw fit, and each could choose its own political and economic alliances. Ukraine, for example, could join the European Union, while Belarus could join a future Eurasian Union. NATO would agree not to forward deploy forces in Latvia or Estonia, and there could be a new treaty on conventional force deployments that placed limits on NATO forces in Poland and Lithuania and Russian forces in Russia’s western and southern military districts. NATO would also agree not to add any new members that share a border with Russia.
The result would be a buffer zone between NATO and Russia that would reduce the risk of war and the need for NATO to reinforce its eastern defenses at great cost to its member states. It would also mean that Russia would not have to worry about NATO incorporating additional countries on its borders, which would relieve it of the need to increase military spending further in the face of a slowing economy. At the same time, Ukraine and Georgia could enhance their capacities to defend themselves with Western assistance, while Estonia and Latvia would remain part of NATO with less reason to fear a revanchist Russia.
With respect to Crimea, there is unfortunately no chance at this point that the Kremlin will return control of the region to Kiev. The only political solution that might help institutionalize a more stable international environment for Ukraine, albeit one that would be very hard for Kiev to swallow, would be financial compensation by Moscow in the form of a long-term natural gas contract at below market prices. A political settlement might also entail visa free travel to Crimea for Ukrainian citizens, even if Russia and Ukraine have visa regimes on the rest of their border. Doubtless even suggesting such a possibility at this point will enrage many Ukrainians, but a long period of negotiations with Kiev’s participation might convince a majority of Ukrainian voters that compensated recognition of a fait accompli is better than the alternative, particularly in view of the financial costs associated with supporting the Crimean economy.
It is worth noting that hard-nosed, geopolitical bargaining over an arrangement like this is something that Putin and the Russian foreign policy elite have been advocating for years, and as a result they may well respond to it positively despite the extreme anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric in the Russian media today.
None of this, of course, could be agreed upon quickly or easily, and any agreement would have to be approved by all affected parties. One reason why the occupation and annexation of Crimea was such a strategic mistake for Russia is that it makes negotiating a security arrangement that Russia can live with so much more difficult politically for Ukraine and the West. Any effort to negotiate with Moscow will be seen as appeasement in the face of naked military aggression. But critics should remember that the Nixon administration initiated an earlier détente with Moscow for very practical reasons, and it did so despite Moscow’s imperial control of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.
By Edward W. Walker, Associate Adjunct Professor of Political Science and Executive Director of the Berkeley Program in Eurasian and East European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley
U.S.-RUSSIAN RELATIONS: IMPROVING THEM IS IMPOSSIBLE, BUT IT IS NECESSARY TO CONTINUE WORKING ON THEM
To be intellectually honest, we must admit: the relations between Russia and the United States do not have much chance to be radically improved. Unless of course, you do not take into account the possibility of dramatic changes of the international situation that cannot be predicted, such as a sudden attack from Mars or a threat from an approaching asteroid. Vladimir Putin considers the relationship with other countries in the spirit of the 19th century realpolitik. He sees them as ruthless—not a game—but a zero-sum fight. “First, we will eat what is yours, and then each will eat their own,” as Putin recently described the policy of Russia’s partners in the European Union. Moscow is sure the ultimate goal of the United States is to “weaken” Russia as much as possible. The Kremlin believed (alas, quite sincerely) that the protests of citizens and their struggle for political rights are the result of an American conspiracy. This attitude virtually eliminates long-term trust between Russia and the United States.
On the other hand, the growing burden of unresolved domestic and international problems (opposition from Republicans on health care reform, conflicts with closest allies, the uncertain future of Afghanistan) removes Russian-American relations from the sphere of foreign policy priorities of the United States. Washington simply does not have the time and resources to deal with them. To complete this gloomy picture one should add that our two countries do not have any serious economic interdependence, such as the United States has with China. Moreover, it is possible that in the future the United States will begin to export natural gas to Europe and will become a direct competitor to Russia in this most important area of its economy.
However, the unfortunate and obvious fact that the relationship is unlikely to improve does not mean it should be ignored. But the goal (if not to lie to ourselves) should be formulated differently: how to prevent further deterioration and degradation of mutual relations when there are clear contradictions in basic values and interests. Unfortunately, if you stay on the ground of reality, the recommendations can only be given to the American side. Being a victim of its own stereotypes, the Kremlin does not think it needs any advice “from the outside.” Moreover, such recommendations will be perceived by it as interference in its inner sanctum—its foreign policy kitchen.
As to the U.S. side, it is obviously necessary for it to revise its policy regarding Russia. It is hardly necessary to question the highest principle of this policy, existing almost from the time of the Clinton administration: we must work together where our interests coincide, and argue where they are not the same. The question is how the United States determines Russian interests. It seems that the attempts to estimate these interests based on rational assumptions seriously mislead the American side. Here is just one example. In September 2013, speaking in Berlin, President Obama offered to continue a joint reduction of nuclear arsenals, to 1,000 warheads. This would seem to be a remarkably generous offer. Russia cannot reach the ceilings of the new START treaty, so real reductions in both warheads and delivery vehicles would have to be carried out only by the United States. All Russia would have had to do would be to give up its extremely expensive nuclear buildup program. However, Moscow resolutely rejected the U.S. proposal, simultaneously accusing Washington of its intention to achieve total military superiority over Russia by the implementation of the concept of Prompt Global Strike.
I think it was a mistake to try to consider Russian interests from a purely pragmatic point of view: that Moscow was granted the opportunity to keep nuclear parity with the United States at a lower level, while saving several dozen billion dollars. The Kremlin sees its interest in an entirely different sphere—in self-affirmation in the international arena as a country equal to the most powerful country in the world, the United States. From this point of view, the public announcement of U.S. proposals without prior approval from Moscow was initially doomed to failure. From the Kremlin’s point of view, if Russia agreed it would have looked to be obediently following the recommendations of Washington. It could have been different if possible reductions had been discussed in the course of secret negotiations (Putin genuinely respects only something secret) in order to carry out not a unilateral, but a joint initiative of Russia and the United States. Yes, this approach could deprive President Obama of laurels for being the single person striving for nuclear disarmament. Yes, maybe applause in Berlin would go in this case not only to him but also to Putin. But now, in the midst of a scandal (that U.S. intelligence bugged the Federal chancellor’s phone), who remembers the standing ovation at the Brandenburg Gate? And this important agreement, if it had been achieved, would be in force today.
In this sense, the Russian-American road map for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons looks like an almost perfect model, since it came in the form of a joint initiative that was based on Senator Richard Lugar’s proposal previously rejected by Moscow.
I suspect someone will accuse me of cynicism. He or she can say that in order to achieve positive results, I urge indulging the Kremlin’s ambitions. It is not true. I am just calling for a correct assessment of Moscow’s motives. In this sense, Washington’s tough decision to “take a break” in relations with Russia has been extremely positive. In this situation it seemed Moscow was likely to take a tough stance. But none of this happened. The decision by the White House to take a break caught Kremlin strategists off guard. Moscow has no ideas of its own in the field of foreign policy. All that Russian diplomats are able to do is to immediately declare any American initiative hypocrisy and perfidy. Washington proposes to reduce nuclear arsenals—then it wishes to obtain superiority through conventional weapons. The White House abandoned the fourth phase of European missile defense deployment—this masks the intention to get a strategic advantage. However, all of these arguments make sense if the dialogue with Washington is continued. And with no dialogue, these complaints are losing value. Russian foreign policy, which has been and remains “America-centric,” turns into a dull recitation of certain phrases in the void. China will be completely indifferent to Russian complaints about American missile defense.
Thus, the improvement of relations with Moscow is possible if Washington manages to assure Moscow that this would strengthen the idea of Russia as a great power, equal in caliber to the United States. The main problem is to reach something real positive from this improvement.
Alexander Golts is the editor-in-chief of the Internet publication Yezhednevny Journaland is one of Russia’s leading journalists specializing in military issues. He has authored several books, including “The Russian Army: Eleven Lost Years,” also published in English by MIT Press.
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 in partnership with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
As they deal with the most serious international problems facing the world today, Russia and the United States need to cooperate with each other and with other countries. Russian and American interests are congruent as regards the most serious international problems in the world today—terrorism, organized crime, the spread of disease, and threats arising out of poverty and failed states, to name just a few. No one country, not even the most powerful, can alone cope with the challenges these problems present. Both Russia and the United States must find a way not only to cooperate, but to attract as many other countries as possible to take part in their efforts. In short, for the United States, Russia will be either a part of the solution or a part of the problem. For Russia, the United States will either be part of the solution or part of the problem. Both countries are too large and too powerful to be successful free riders; the problems will only get worse if there is no cooperation.
There is no simple “fix,” but one should recognize that the underlying U.S.–Russia relationship, though needing repair, is not as bad as recent disagreements and unwise legislative action in both countries might suggest. We are not in the midst of a new Cold War, though both countries exhibit destructive hangovers of outmoded attitudes. Planned meetings by presidents should not be canceled or postponed even if it appears that no concrete agreements can be reached. When U.S.–Soviet relations were at a nadir in the mid-1980s, President Reagan and Secretary of State Shultz steered away from the endless arguments over specific issues but concentrated on areas of common interest, stressing that both countries were injuring themselves by spending too much on arms, and solicited suggestions from the Soviet leaders as to how to deal with common problems. This led, gradually, to creating a degree of trust that enabled us to end the arms race.
Instead of talking exclusively or largely about Snowden, Syria, and missile defense, Presidents Obama and Putin could usefully step back from current arguments and compare their assessments of the most important problems in the world and discuss how each thinks these problems should be addressed. The result could be that both might find that there are areas where each could adjust his government’s negotiating positions to make closer cooperation possible.
Jack Matlock is a former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union.
In short, the West’s idea of partnership was Russia’s absolute acquiescence with all Western policies anywhere in the world, irrespective of the consequences for Russia, along with the total reshaping of Russian society according to a Western model, without any consideration for Russia’s peculiarities, history, and culture…
NATO | Putin | U.S. Foreign Policy | Ukraine
The main assumption underlying Putin’s vision is that the United States, by various ways and means, is set on deceiving Russia. Foremost in that assumption is that the United States destroyed the USSR and constantly seeks to diminish Russia’s global and regional role, all the while attempting to gain access to Russian oil and gas…